Dan Drezner wonders what foreign policy arguments would be like if they were more like prescription drug ads:
Always spoken in a sotto voce, business-like voice listing the various risks to life, limb and pregnant women if they take the advertised drug. And no matter how much the risks are downplayed, they do tend to vitiate the selling power of the ad.
I’m bringing all of this up because, as both the Obama administration and elements of the Republican Party scramble to articulate some kind of foreign policy doctrine that will appeal to the American public, they only accentuate the positives of their preferred approach. Advocates of a shift in American foreign policy never mention the possible risks associated with their preferred doctrine.
This is a fair point, and one that applies to some degree to all sides in many different kinds of policy debates. It’s true that advocates of any policy change are going to put their preferred course of action in the best possible light, and they are less likely to perceive, much less advertise, the possible drawbacks of doing things their way. If they believed these drawbacks to be very important and likely to happen, they probably wouldn’t be advocates for their policy in the first place. There are also some immediate short-term political advantages for anyone that is willing to sell their preferred policies as cheap, low-risk, and largely free of negative consequences. Cheap, easy, and ready-made “solutions” are initially always superficially appealing, and they can be even more attractive in the face of knotty, complicated conflicts. The built-in bias in favor of action in foreign policy makes this seem even more appealing for supporters of more activist and aggressive policies. That leaves it to their opponents and, in theory, to journalists to point out the flaws that they would prefer to go unnoticed.
That said, some foreign policy advocates whitewash the possible negative consequences of their preferred policies more than others because there is more for them to whitewash, and some are more likely to make unrealistic promises about what the U.S. can achieve overseas and to misrepresent what it will cost Americans. After all, there is a huge difference between the producers of a generally beneficial medicine that can have some unpleasant side-effects and outright frauds that try to sell people snake oil as if it were the elixir of life. One of the persistent problems with our foreign policy debates is that the people selling the snake oil continue to be sought after as “experts” even when the “elixir” they have been offering has killed and injured hundreds of thousands of people. There are some foreign policy doctrines that would not survive if the “side-effects” of their product were honestly acknowledged, and so they have much more to lose from acknowledging the costs and risks of their approach. Insofar as there are institutions responsible for “regulating” our foreign policy debates, one could say that they are prone to being captured (or at least unduly influenced) by adherents of foreign policy doctrines that should have been discredited by events long ago.