Friday, April 1, 2011

Political biases are hard to spot

The last few months have revealed a positive aspect to Barack Obama's presidency that I hadn't considered:

Namely, I think it has been extremely useful to have a war against a nasty dictator being carried out by a Democratic president.

I think this is doubly true given that only a relatively small amount geopolitically seems to ride on the outcome of it.

The reason for this is that I think the average political-minded person will end up with a much more nuanced version of American military action. I think when all is said and done, you will end up with more of a consensus opinion on military action that is far less driven by partisan differences, and that's really important for national security issues.

Tribalism being what it is, people's view of any policy is coloured by their sense of who is carrying it out. Liberals screamed bloody murder when Bush invaded Iraq, while conservatives were largely supportive (with neoconservatism being ascendant as a school of thought).

On the other hand, I think the last few months have really added evidence in favour of the following - had the Iraq invasion been launched by Clinton instead, far more Democrat voters would have supported it. Not all of them, but a good chunk. Additionally, more Republicans would have probably opposed it.

Now, part of this might be explicitly partisan - you just want to see your side win. But I don't think that's the interesting bit. I think that the positive sides of the action actually seem more apparent when your guy does it.

The funny thing is that it's not until you see the same thing being done by the other guy that the bias actually reverses itself, because you're now minded to see the other side of the argument. Which is why a number of Democrats are on board with bombing Libya, while a number of conservatives are opposed.

People respond to this shift  in one of three ways.

The least introspective simply ignore the contradiction (Libya good, Iraq bad, so what!   /   Iraq good, Libya bad, so what!)

The somewhat introspective but hubristic will rationalise the distinction (the uprising in Libya was organic and that's important, the Iraq one wasn't - never mind that the brutality against civilians was the same in both cases  / in Iraq we had a clear goal of regime change, in Libya we're bombing stuff without knowing what we're doing - never mind that the goal of Iraq shifted after the invasion ).

The introspective and honest will be forced to admit that maybe they hadn't properly considered before (maybe it's okay to bomb truly awful dictators even if the country does have oil / maybe thankless nation-building projects are a horrible sinkhole of lives and money )

For my part, I've become increasingly skeptical of the extent to which fostering democracy in third world is likely to produce better outcomes for the west. In particular, I now tend to think that democracy is the symptom of a society that works, not the cause. What causes society to work is more likely a set of values devoted to pluralism, peaceful resolution of disputes, and a view of fellow countrymen based on shared ideas rather than tribalism. In other words, if there's already some form of civil society you end up with democracy. If there's not, you end up with stories like the following, where a mob of Afghans decide that the appropriate response to some nobody Pastor in the US burning a Koran is to murder a bunch of UN workers. If that's how the average person in the society thinks, what outcome exactly do you expect from taking a vote?  If that's what we've got for 10 years of effort, what the hell are we doing there?

And I think that consensus opinion will shift towards a kind of synthesis along the following lines - bomb nasty regimes and places that screw over the US, but don't send in ground troops with the aim of turning the place into Switzerland.

And I think there's a good argument that this ought to have been the policy all along.

But there were very few people arguing for this course of action in 2003. And had McCain won in 2008, we wouldn't be anywhere near this view now.

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