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Do Somethingism and the Bias for Action

Paul Pillar comments on the distorting effects of the bias for action in our foreign policy:

Even without the influence of business gurus such as Peters and Waterman, a bias for action is nonetheless at least as apparent in U.S. foreign policy as in commerce. One reason is the political pressure on leaders to be seen to be “doing something” about overseas problems. The partisan incentive to criticize opponents for doing nothing intensifies this pressure. In the United States the tendency is further exacerbated by a broader inclination to believe the United States ought to be able to solve any problem overseas.

We need to remember that a bias for action is exactly that: a bias. That means it is antithetical to an objective, unbiased assessment of what would be best for the United States to do or not to do. And that is not good. A bias for action has some of the qualities of the “ready, fire, aim” method of approaching a problem.

It is probably fair to say that there is a bias for action in all areas of policymaking, but it is more significant and more dangerous in foreign policy because there are fewer effective obstacles to taking action, including military action, than there are when it comes to taking action on domestic policy issues. As the U.S. role in the world has grown, so have the demands for action, and the executive has greatly increased its power along with both. Because there are fewer obstacles to taking action in foreign policy, this encourages overly hasty and ill-considered action, and in practice it permits the executive to bypass the political opposition that it would normally encounter on most other issues. Especially when action can be justified by invoking national security, effective opposition usually disappears regardless of which party controls the executive. Because we have grown so accustomed to letting the executive have its way even on matters of war and peace, we have a system that can counter the impulse to “do something” only when a large majority of the public is motivated enough to object, and perhaps not even then.

The bias for action is encouraged by hard-liners and hawks whose definition of acceptable foreign policy amounts to hyperactive meddling, and it is fueled by media outlets willing to hype the danger from a foreign crisis in order to increase the size of their audience. These media outlets naturally want Americans to take an interest in their stories, and hard-liners are more than happy to provide the misleading and false arguments for why they should be interested. Our cultish attitude towards the presidency only makes things worse, since we tend to make a fetish out of presidential “leadership” (which is demonstrated by doing things, even if they’re irresponsible) and decry presidential “dithering” (a.k.a., deliberation and thought). Demands for “leadership” are just demands to do what a particular group of critics happens to want, but presidents risk political damage from being branded as “indecisive” and “weak” if they don’t react (or overreact) to each new crisis that crops up somewhere in the world. Absurdly, presidents that cave in to demands to “do something” are rewarded with praise for their “leadership” while those that resist the incessant agitation for “action” are ridiculed. The bias for action in foreign policy absolutely needs to be countered, but it will require breaking a large number of bad habits that have been engrained in our political culture for a long time.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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