Bold Strokes

BOLD STROKES….I was emailing with Matt Yglesias the other day and, among other things, suggested that one reason he didn’t like Hillary Clinton was because she was too hawkish. But “hawkish” is pretty lazy shorthand, and he said his real problem with her (and her foreign policy team) was more specific. Today he explains:

The problem is that I think she’s unlikely to try any of the bold strokes necessary to turn our situation around. I don’t see her trying for a grand bargain with Iran, don’t see her making the tough choices necessary to revitalize the NPT, don’t see her taking political risks on the Arab-Israeli confict, don’t see her acting boldly and decisively on Iraq, and don’t see her accomplishing anything particularly innovative and interesting in terms of UN Reform.

By contrast, I think an Obama administration (and probably an Edwards administration as well) will include some people at high-levels who are pressing for those things, and will be led by a man who has some inclinations in those directions. I think Clinton and her people are too narrowly political, too complacent about the depth of America’s problems in the world, and, yes, maybe too inclined to believe that if the shit really hits the fan all that’ll happen is that public support for the use of force will revive and that under new, more competent leadership, the armed forces will resolve the situation by waging a new war.

This is unquestionably a better way of framing the issue. Arguing about whether someone is “hawkish” usually just ends up as an argument over semantics and temperament. It’s not completely useless, but it’s not very enlightening either.

By contrast, the “bold strokes” argument at least provides an opening for a more substantive conversation. There’s still some mind reading and tonal analysis required, since the candidates haven’t all spelled out clear positions on the issues Matt mentions, but it’s a step in the right direction.

I’m not going to try to definitively take a side on this question, but I do think that this is a potentially productive way of looking at things. And while Matt’s critique of Hillary is persuasive, here’s the flip side: do you think the world is really likely to be moved by bold strokes? It’s possible that my skepticism on this is due more to our age difference than anything else, but I’d say the odds are slim. The institutional forces at work are huge, and I think they mostly respond to patient pressure, smart and knowledgable diplomacy, well-timed compromise, and a clear sense of how the world really works and where you can successully insert a helpful wedge. People who parachute into gigantic institutions — and this is the biggest institution of them all — thinking that they can cut through all the various Gordian knots with bold initiatives are likely to be disappointed.

But then there’s this: every once in a great while, someone who thinks that way turns out to be right. And they end up being an enormous force for change. The question is, is Obama that guy? And is the world currently a fertile place for a brand new vision of American foreign policy? More on this later.

POSTSCRIPT: Honesty compels me to remind everyone that I have a longstanding belief that although vision and strategy are important, execution is more important. See here, for example. So feel free to dismiss me as a hopeless technocrat if you like.

UPDATE: Also worth noting on this same subject: the almost-never-wrong Mark Schmitt on the “Theory of Change” primary. He makes some sharp points.