The Search for Ideological Perfection

The Washington Post has a story about conservative intellectuals who are becoming infuriated with what they see as inaction in recent foreign policy decisions by the Bush administration. In the article, Bush faces backlash on the right, they quote a number of people in this category, but this one summarizes it:

“It is Topic A of every single conversation,” said Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank that has had strong influence in staffing the administration and shaping its ideas. “I don’t have a friend in the administration, on Capitol Hill or any part of the conservative foreign policy establishment who is not beside themselves with fury at the administration.”

These conservatives–and the article points out carefully that this is not a consensus of all conservatives–are angry that Bush is seeking diplomatic, multilateral solutions on North Korea and Iran, and now on the clash between Israel and Hezbollah as well.

What these people are seeking is ideological perfection. Within their ideology, the perfect foreign policy action is one in which the result comes both quickly and with finality and in which the United States achieves all of its goals. The time taken to talk and build consensus is wasted or worse. After all, why should we spend time talking to people who are so obviously wrong?

Now let me be clear that I don’t believe that diplomacy alone will solve problems. There are those whose solution to every problem is to talk about it, and if talking fails, we should talk some more. But then there are those who think ordinary human relations are really unnecessary, and who think that violence is the one best answer to everything. Diplomacy, backed by sufficient force to deal with those who refuse to behave as part of the world community is the formula for succes in international relations. Of course there is a great deal of room for disagreement on the precise balance.

But it’s not merely the foreign policy issue that I want to comment on here. These particular conservative intellectuals, and their counterparts on the left, pursue ideological perfection. They want a candidate who agrees with them on all issues and will keep all of their issues as a priority. There is no room for timing, no room for strategy, no room for compromise. It doesn’t matter that the vast majority of the American people are somewhere between these extremes, many of them very close to the center. They’re going to dump on, and in extreme cases abandon, office-holders and candidates who don’t fulfill all of their goals.

In an election, that means that a center-right or center-left candidate has great difficulty succeeding because the so-called “base” refuses to stick with them. The simple fact is that those of us with strong convictions–and I count myself as one, even though my strong convictions are moderate–need to realize that in order to live in society we will not get everything we want, and that this is simply a part of living in society.

I think we would be much better off if we could just acknowledge the necessity of compromise. What actually seems to happen is that people try to claim that they are carrying out their own convictions. We think there is something wrong with a politician admitting that he wanted one thing, but by the time negotiations were over, he got something else, and he thinks that’s the best he can do. The ideologues, of course, would jump all over such a statement and demand greater commitment, but commitment and determination are not always the greatest values.

Which leads me back to the starting point. This all goes back to priorities and strategy. Would it be possible for us to carry out a military strategy in response simultaneously to Iran, North Korea, and Hezbollah in Lebanon? I’m not saying that none of these situations justifies a military solution, though the question of what practical military solution might be available for each, but to solve all of them simultaneously, working unilaterally? That’s an idea that could only find root in the head of a someone who only has to comment on, never to solve, problems. And yet at the same time they are complaining that we have placed insufficient troops in Iraq to accomplish our goals–on which point they are probably right. (Perhaps that suggests more that we should examine our goals than add more troops.)

To live in community requires give and take, both in foreign policy and in our political life. Politics, conducted openly is not a bad thing. It’s a necessary thing.

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