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Foreign Policy Ignorance and Instincts

A governor's foreign policy ignorance and mistakes are usually judged less harshly than a senator's.

Dan Drezner picks up on a remarkable claim in the most recent Noonan column. Noonan writes:

[T]o the governor I said, in a world in which foreign affairs continue to be more important than ever, in a dangerous world with which we have ever more dealings, shouldn’t we be thinking about senators for the presidency, and not governors?

He listened closely, nodded, then shook his head. No, he said, governors still have the advantage. Why? Because foreign policy still comes down, always, to your gut, your instincts [bold mine-DL].

Drezner explains why this is wrong and potentially dangerous. As he says, some things that seem intuitive can be very misleading and harmful when making policy, and some counter-intuitive concepts are important for the successful conduct of foreign policy. Candidates that don’t know very much will often claim that instincts are what matter most because that is really all they have to go on. Others will use this line to flatter a politician into making him think he is qualified to be president when even he knows that he isn’t prepared. Saying that foreign policy “comes down…to your gut” is what a politician has to say when he knows little or nothing about the subject. The goal in saying this is to justify ignorance about the issues (because instincts are what really matter in the end), but it is also intended to trivialize substantive policy debate and make a politician’s lack of preparedness and understanding less of a liability. Governors have an “advantage” of sorts, but it isn’t the one that the anonymous governor has in mind. The “advantage” is that they are encouraged to run for president without knowing much of anything about one of the major responsibilities of the presidency. Their experience as governor doesn’t give them an advantage in conducting foreign policy, but it does give them a political edge in the nomination fight because their foreign policy ignorance and mistakes are usually judged less harshly than a senator’s.

If a president actually tries to govern this way, he is more often than not going to take his administration and the country into a ditch. Such a president would be at the greatest risk of being misinformed and/or misled by ideologues. Worse, because he has no frame of reference or a base of knowledge that he can use to judge the quality of the different policy options put before him, he may have a much harder time avoiding major errors and he will also have great difficulty correcting course once things start to go awry. The appeal to instinct is also a way to avoid responsibility for policy failure. The president can pursue a disastrous policy because it “feels” like the right thing to do, and as long as he remains convinced that he has good instincts he isn’t going to take responsibility for the results and he won’t be argued into making necessary changes.

If a politician said this about any other kind of policy, he would be laughed out of the room. “Fiscal policy still comes down, always, to your gut, your instincts” is what a politician would say if his spending proposals didn’t add up. If someone said that “entitlement reform still comes down, always, to your gut, your instincts,” we would immediately assume that this person was incompetent or trying to con us. The difference is that a surprisingly large number of people involved in foreign policy debates tolerate this sort of nonsense, and in some cases they may actively encourage it when it serves the purposes of their party. Instead of recoiling in horror from a politician that practically boasts of his lack of knowledge about the issues at hand, pundits and professionals cut him an extraordinary amount of slack because they hope that he can be persuaded to listen to their recommendations.



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