Monday, March 24, 2008

Obama Gets It

Previously, I presented the argument that improving national security and defeating terrorism requires reducing the demand for terrorism and the supply of terrorists. This detailed look at Obama's foreign policy suggests that he understands this fundamental point:

This ability to see the world from different perspectives informs what the Obama team hopes will replace the Iraq War mind-set: something they call dignity promotion. "I don't think anyone in the foreign-policy community has as much an appreciation of the value of dignity as Obama does," says Samantha Power, a former key aide and author of the groundbreaking study of U.S. foreign policy and genocide, A Problem From Hell. "Dignity is a way to unite a lot of different strands [of foreign-policy thinking]," she says. "If you start with that, it explains why it's not enough to spend $3 billion on refugee camps in Darfur, because the way those people are living is not the way they want to live. It's not a human way to live. It's graceless -- an affront to your sense of dignity."

During Bush's second term, a strange disconnect has arisen in liberal foreign-policy circles in response to the president's so-called "freedom agenda." Some liberals, like Matthew Yglesias in his book Heads In The Sand, note the insincerity of the administration's stated goal of exporting democracy. Bush, they observe, only targets for democratization countries that challenge American hegemony. Other liberal foreign-policy types, such as Thomas Carothers and Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, insist the administration is sincere but too focused on elections without supporting the civil-society institutions that sustain democracy. Still others, like Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch, contend that a focus on democracy in the developing world without privileging the protection of civil and political rights is a recipe for a dangerous illiberalism.

What's typically neglected in these arguments is the simple insight that democracy does not fill stomachs, alleviate malaria, or protect neighborhoods from marauding bands of militiamen. Democracy, in other words, is valuable to people insofar as it allows them first to meet their basic needs. It is much harder to provide that sense of dignity than to hold an election in Baghdad or Gaza and declare oneself shocked when illiberal forces triumph. "Look at why the baddies win these elections," Power says. "It's because [populations are] living in climates of fear." U.S. policy, she continues, should be "about meeting people where they're at. Their fears of going hungry, or of the thug on the street. That's the swamp that needs draining. If we're to compete with extremism, we have to be able to provide these things that we're not [providing]."

This is why, Obama's advisers argue, national security depends in large part on dignity promotion. Without it, the U.S. will never be able to destroy al-Qaeda. Extremists will forever be able to demagogue conditions of misery, making continued U.S. involvement in asymmetric warfare an increasingly counterproductive exercise -- because killing one terrorist creates five more in his place. "It's about attacking pools of potential terrorism around the globe," Gration says. "Look at Africa, with 900 million people, half of whom are under 18. I'm concerned that unless you start creating jobs and livelihoods we will have real big problems on our hands in ten to fifteen years."

Obama sees this as more than a global charity program; it is the anvil against which he can bring down the hammer on al-Qaeda. "He took many of the [counterinsurgency] principles -- the paradoxes, like how sometimes you're less secure the more force is used -- and looked at it from a more strategic perspective," Sewall says. "His policies deal with root causes but do not misconstrue root causes as a simple fix. He recognizes that you need to pursue a parallel anti-terrorism [course] in its traditional form along with this transformed approach to foreign policy." Not for nothing has Obama received private advice or public support from experts like former Clinton and Bush counterterrorism advisers Richard Clarke and Rand Beers, and John Brennan, the first chief of the National Counterterrorism Center.

The Obama foreign-affairs brain trust balks at the suggestion that what it's proposing is radical. "He said we'd take out al-Qaeda's senior leadership in the Pakistani tribal areas if Pakistan will not. That's not, to me, a revolutionary policy," Rhodes says. "Watching him get attacked on the right is absurd. You've got guys who argued for a massive invasion and occupation of a country that had nothing to do with 9-11 criticizing him for advocating the use of highly targeted force to kill Osama bin Laden!"

Rhodes is referring, of course, to John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, who recently asked of Obama, "Will we risk the confused leadership of an inexperienced candidate who once suggested invading our ally, Pakistan?"

this post is interesting in how it mixes psych theory with econ language. Obama's "dignity" focus relies on Maslow's Hierarchy. The basic idea is that people need to fulfill basic human needs like eating, shelter, and safety, before they get to higher order needs, like Democracy. Duh! It is amazing how long it has taken us to realize that we can't export democracy with strategic warfare, and instead need to actually create institutions that are democratic. Clean water! Santitation! Infrastructure! Fucking Amazing Concepts!
Maslow's hierarchy is also highly relevant when it comes to environmental problems. Shellenberger and Nordhaus, authors of Breakthrough, discuss how people can't dedicate energy to solving environmental problems if they don't first have their own needs met (e.g., tribes in the Amazon don't want to protect the rainforest at the risk of having their family starve). The book proposes that a new environmentalism is crucial: one that recognizes that material needs must be met before environmental problems can be fully addressed. This type of environmentalism is interesting in part for its inclusivity. It breaks down the human/nature dualism that some environmentalists hold that idealizes nature over man, and believes nature should be protected at any human cost. Shellenberger and Nordhaus see both areas (human needs and environmental needs) as inextricably linked.
I agree. The problem with Democracy is that it doesn't provide basic needs for people, it provides a structure in which people have a process through wich they can demand what they need. I often question whether democracy is even the right choice for places like Iraq. Is it really fair for us to assume that our way of doing things will fix their problems? Wouldn't it be better for them to have a dictator that maximized every citizen's access to food clean water and solid infrastructure, instead of a democratic leader that aloowed them to ask for these things?
I think the biggest problem with exporting democracy is the idea that democracy is the tightest solution for everyone, in all cultures, in all countries. It just might be that case that the system of government initially designed by Romans 2,000 years ago is not meant to be exported all over the world for everybody--sounds like colonialism, doesn't it?

It's also pretty busted for us to be all about sending democracy to Iraq when we're also responsible for exporting dictators to countries in South and Central America.
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