The Vicious Cycle

| Wed Aug. 27, 2008 5:28 PM EDT

THE VICIOUS CYCLE....Matt Yglesias on how we deal with the rest of the world:

Part of the perverse logic of conservative foreign policy founded on a bizarre combination of hysteria and hubris is that there's this kind of quicksand phenomenon where the worse things get, the more you need to keep flailing.

Boy howdy, ain't that the truth. Over and over, we see years of bad foreign policy meander along fitfully and then, suddenly, explode into a crisis of some kind that was probably avoidable. But by then, it's too late. Once the crisis erupts, national honor is at stake and it's too late to do the right thing because nobody (including me!) likes to back down under pressure. So the only acceptable option is to stand tough and ratchet up the tension.

The Bush administration is certainly the acknowledged master of this vicious cycle: we've seen it with North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Pakistan, and now Russia. We could have engaged earlier with North Korea; we could have avoided war with Iraq; we could have accepted Iranian overtures to talk in 2003; we could have kept up diplomatic relations with Syria; we could have accepted democratic reforms in Pakistan; and we could have treated Russia as a serious negotiating partner. This would hardly have avoided all the problems in the world, but it would have helped avoid some of them.

This isn't meant to justify bad behavior from other countries, no matter how hard conservatives try to paint it that way. It's just to point out that smart leaders, regardless of ideology, can't be naive; they need to understand the real world and conduct their foreign policy without closing their eyes to the likely consequences of their actions. But the American public, like a lot of other publics, never sees this. All they see is the eventual crisis, and when the crisis hits they want a leader who doesn't back down. One who's tough. "Toughness" may have been part of the very attitude that helped create the crisis in the first place, but few people make the connection. They just want a response.

John McCain, of course, shows every sign of wanting to take over exactly where the Bush administration leaves off: mishandling foreign affairs until crisis after crisis hits, and then insisting that national honor demands that we respond to each crisis as bellicosely as possible. And that sells. It sells for John McCain the same way that it sells for Vladimir Putin.

Is Barack Obama a guy who can sell the American public on a different vision of how to handle foreign affairs? I sure hope so. But I'm not holding my breath yet.