Posts Tagged ‘neoliberalism’

Ideology Over Pragmatism: Why Doing What Works Is A Bad Idea, Apparently

Friday, January 30th, 2009

by Tommy Brown

Here’s an excerpt from a mind-boggling article on Obama by Newsweek International’s Jacob Weisberg:

In 2009, looking out over the largest crowd ever assembled in Washington, D.C., Barack Obama framed the issue in terms of simple efficacy. “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works—whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified,” he said. “Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.”

This view is in keeping with Obama’s non-ideological approach to politics. To most of those listening, it came across as an expression of our new president’s unsentimental good sense. Yet on rereading the speech in the less euphoric light of the next day, that passage seemed insufficient as a governing philosophy. “Whatever works” is less a vision of the public sector’s proper role than a placeholder for someone who has yet to figure out what he thinks that role should be.

This is the kind of thing that makes that vein in my right temple throb to the point that I worry about stroking out. After eight years of the chattering class bitching about a completely pragmatism-free ideological administration, where the modus operandi was to reach the conclusion first and then work back to make it happen (or make it seem to happen), this character is worried that Obama is not ideological enough. Just unbelievable.

Politics is the art of the possible; compromise is the only way a two-party system works. You accomplish what you can through negotiation and hopefully implement incremental change that moves towards what you’re trying to accomplish. The President is still a liberal after all. After just having an attempt made to radically re-align American policies and values and turn a socialist Middle Eastern country into a free-market paradise, with disastrous results, how can it be wrong to try to figure out a pragmatic, non-ideological way to get things working again? Isn’t solving this crisis more important that some Grand Vision of how America ought to be remade?

Obama’s pragmatic liberalism risks blurring execution with intention, means with ends. To take his illustrations, it is either up to the commonweal to provide a minimum income to retired people, to offer health insurance to everybody and to increase income equality—or it isn’t. Most liberals would say these are legitimate responsibilities of government. Most conservatives would argue they aren’t. On income security for the elderly, we’ve had a social consensus since the New Deal. On health care, a consensus may be emerging after decades of national ambivalence. When it comes to growing income inequality, a newer problem, there is no consensus. But Obama must decide what government’s goals are before considering the subordinate questions of what works and how much we can afford.

Now let me understand this: Wanting to identify problems and fix them “confuses. . . .means with ends?”  Political parties not agreeing on everything means you have to run your government like our former president? Sounds to Yours Truly that the end is to get the economy back and foreign policy back on a more productive track after almost a decade of unmitigated calamity; a defined, short term political goal that has a decent chance of being accomplished. But it seems like people would rather Obama had taken the podium on Inauguration Day and proposed the second coming of the Great Society, while the country crumbles around us.

This is part of a much larger sickness that has infected American politics since Jimmy Carter, where a politician’s “character” and “what he believes in” (read: ideological purity) are more important than doing crazy things, like trying to solve problems without marginalizing the opposition and provide constituent services to your people. What the hell ever happened to politicians getting elected on a platform of enacting what their constituents (all of them) want and leaving the grand political theories at home? You know, real governance?

What people don’t realize is that Obama’s years as a community organizer affect his management style. This is not the Republican corporate model, where the President gives orders and his minions carry them out at all costs. Organizers build consensus among disparate groups, so even when the other parties don’t get what they want, they feel included in the process. In other words, actual leadership instead of the fifty percent plus one nonsense of the last three decades. Plus, as ruthless as Obama is, it is Machiavelli 101 that former enemies make better allies than friends, because they have something to prove and are grateful for the chance.

And for this, the howling wolves of the Right and Left want to tear him apart?

Post-Feminist Foreign Policy: Liberal Internationalism In Action

Monday, January 26th, 2009

by Tommy Brown

From a really bizarre article in the online version of Newsweek by Anna Quindlen, titled “The End of Swagger:”

As Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton begin to use their uncommon authority and intelligence to implement a new American international agenda, it might behoove them to read a speech given some years ago in Beijing. It read in part: “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights for one and for all. Let us not forget that among those rights are the right to speak freely—and the right to be heard. Women must enjoy the rights to participate fully in the social and political lives of their countries if we want freedom and democracy to thrive and endure.”

Secretary Clinton was first lady when she spoke those words at a United Nations conference on women in 1995. Some of the participants wept to hear an influential American commit to a view of the world so many of them shared: that the way for nations to prosper was to pay attention to women’s rights, women’s welfare and women’s concerns.

A noble cause, to be sure, but one that immediately runs up against the brick wall of reality, in that the only belief in women’s rights that most countries where the Western Enlightenment never penetrated have is that a woman has a right to bear children and serve her husband. While of course it is a noble cause to push for women’s rights worldwide, Your Humble Author seems to recall that this particular message was a key one in both the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns, and in the end, turned out to be so much horse manure. And this is in a situation where we invaded, broke down their old society, and re-wrote their laws. Accomplishing it through less direct means like diplomacy may be a tad more difficult.

Now, I’m sure this will offend some (if not most) people, but foreign policy is not missionary work, and our relationships with unpleasant regimes shouldn’t hinge on whether women have to wear the burqa or not. I’m all for soft diplomatic power to encourage women’s rights, and using the UN to push for it, in the same manner that we led the fight against human rights violations (until recently). But in matters where important national security interests are at stake, this is the definition of a non-issue.

A story most don’t know is that the main roadblock towards America extending diplomatic recognition to the Taliban government, and thus being able to negotiate with them in the years before 9/11, was that a group led by Mavis Leno (wife of Tonight Show host Jay) lobbied and convinced then-President Clinton that recognition should be denied until the Taliban gave their women Western-style civil rights. The fact that everyone in Afghanistan lacked any sort of Enlightenment-style human rights seems to have escaped everyone involved.

But here’s where the article gets a bit bizarre:

Those are the kinds of conclusions that put people’s backs up, particularly if those people happen to be male. Isn’t it just another form of sexism, they argue, to suggest that women are better, or different? Hasn’t Secretary Clinton shown herself to possess a killer instinct as finally honed as that of any male counterpart? Yes, she has, and perhaps now that everyone knows she can be the toughest person in the room, she is uniquely positioned to go the other way. “Soft diplomacy could be her greatest strength,” says Kavita Ramdas, president of the Global Fund for Women. “This is the time to get rid of militarism as a dominant theme, not only because it’s wrong, but because it doesn’t work.”

It truly makes one wonder about the premise for this entire article, considering that the former Secretary of State passing the torch to Hillary Clinton is also a woman (though perhaps because she is a Republican it does not count).  So what does Madam Clinton being a woman have to do with getting ridding of “militarism as a dominant theme” and moving towards soft diplomacy? Obviously a woman can be just as hawkish as a man, in the case of both Condi and Hillary, and the author points that out the latter before making a totally contradictory point.

In the end, this is a difference of ideology, not yet another skirmish in the Battle of the Sexes. The Bush administration was composed of neoconservative hawks; the Obama administration is composed mostly of neoliberal hawks with the occasional internationalist thrown in.  This makes it pretty likely that negotiation is going to take a dominant position over militarism and saber-rattling, but I am at a loss as to why the SecState being a woman has anything to do with it.