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Foreign Policy and the ‘Good Instincts’ Trap

Many presidential candidates have little or no foreign policy experience before the campaign begins, and some have even less specific knowledge about the relevant issues. This is an obvious liability for these candidates, and their supporters frequently resort to the same argument to deflect attention from it: “He may not know the issues that well, but he has good instincts.” The “good instincts” defense makes a certain amount of sense at first glance, but it always proves to be woefully inadequate. When supporters can’t argue that the candidate knows what he’s doing or what he’s talking about, they have to use this defense in lieu of being able to make a positive case that the candidate is at least somewhat prepared for the position he’s seeking.

We heard the “good instincts” argument a lot during then-Gov. George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign. Bush didn’t know much about foreign policy, he didn’t seem terribly interested in learning more, and there wasn’t much of an effort to pretend that he did. But we were told that he had the right instincts, and would in any case be surrounded by very knowledgeable people. He mouthed some sensible-sounding phrases during the campaign, but the truth was that his instincts were actually quite bad and the people around Bush encouraged him in his worst hawkish instincts.

The “good instincts” defense usually relies on cherry-picking statements that a candidate has made that supporters like while explaining away all of the others that they don’t. As it turned out, Bush’s preference for unilateralism and his disdain for international agreements were far more reliable indicators of how he would govern than the “humble” approach he professed to favor, and his lack of experience and knowledge proved to be much more important in producing bad policy decisions than most people probably thought possible before he was elected. Another problem with this argument is that it makes the candidate’s superficial public persona more important than his actual record (or lack thereof).

The biggest problem with the “good instincts” argument is that it lets the candidate off the hook for his lack of knowledge, which is treated as a minor weakness that can be easily remedied instead of the serious flaw that it really is. It intentionally lowers the standard by which a candidate is judged, and it gives him a pass for his ignorance that would normally be considered disqualifying in any other field. That not only encourages the candidate in question to try to get by with the bare minimum of preparation, but it also tells aspiring future candidates that they don’t need to bother with learning the issues in any depth. That may well work as a campaign tactic, but it practically guarantees poor policy decisions in the future.

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23 Comments To "Foreign Policy and the ‘Good Instincts’ Trap"

#1 Comment By John On March 31, 2016 @ 9:43 am

During the 2000 campaign, I heard a story about George W. Bush visiting a Marine base somewhere and saying, “No more nation building,” a statement which made me warm at least somewhat to his candidacy. “No more nation building” was a good instinct. And it wasn’t enough to prevent a lot of hugely expensive and hugely ineffective “nation building.”

#2 Comment By Chris Chuba On March 31, 2016 @ 10:36 am

When a candidate has little knowledge but ‘good instincts’ they are highly susceptible to the foreign policy establishment. You mentioned GWB but just look at Ben Carson. After being somewhat shamed for being a lightweight, he put out a position paper on his website and sure enough he sounded like a full throated Neocon (or Hawk interventionist since some can’t stand the word Neocon).
Ben Carson hit all of the standard notes, Russia bad aggressor and must be leashed, Assad bad and must be replaced, American Exceptionalism. The only hint of Carson left was tactical regarding how far he would go but he bought into the basic paradigm.

Now, if this is a veiled reference to Trump who seems to have ‘good instincts’. Unlike the others, he has held up under blistering attacks by the foreign policy establishment and MSM and pretty much held his ground. We all know that this is happening now but this is merely round 3.

Does anyone remember the 2nd Republican debate when Carly Fiorina was the darling of the Neocons (oops said that word again)? Trump was pilloried because he didn’t pass the civics and geography test that the booksmart Fiorina was able to churn out and the Media had a feeding frenzy over it.

I’ll grant you that Trump does appear to be somewhat ungrounded but he also seems to have a genuine independent streak in him. Also, he genuinely seems to have backbone and ‘good instincts’ 🙂

#3 Comment By JR On March 31, 2016 @ 10:43 am

The thing to remember is that the public persona will always be artificial compared to the real person.

George W. Bush was an Ivy League history major who had a foreign policy wonk as a father. How could he possibly be so ignorant? One suspects he chose History because it deals with matters that can be quickly memorized and then forgotten.

Happily, I never voted for the toad once, but his presidency is unforgettable for its sheer god-awfulness.

#4 Comment By balconesfault On March 31, 2016 @ 10:51 am

@John The problem was that you never heard Dick Cheney come out against nation building during the 2000 campaign … and the first 5 or 6 years of the Bush Presidency’s foreign policy was absolutely dominated by Cheney’s “guidance”.

#5 Comment By Ramparts On March 31, 2016 @ 11:20 am

“Good instincts” is the rationale for the “decider” approach. The “decider” approach sort of worked with Reagan and failed miserably with W.

A “decider” depends far too much on the quality and trustworthiness of advisors and other insiders. We would need strong guarantees that the sort of people W brought in with him don’t return with Trump, but we’d never have those guarantees. In fact, they’re almost guaranteed to come creeping back in.

A President Trump – and even more so a President Clinton – must be restrained by a skeptical, even hostile Congress, one with teeth and guts. The kind that refuses to authorize wars or attacks on our liberties. Which is why the senate and congressional primaries are at least as important as the presidential ones.

#6 Comment By jamie On March 31, 2016 @ 11:23 am

I’m pretty sure human beings don’t have instincts, or if they do they pertain to only the most basic demands of survival. The term is a euphemism in this context.

When we speak of “instincts” in the space of something as abstract as foreign policy, what we’re actually talking about are “prejudices.”

#7 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 31, 2016 @ 11:42 am

“A “decider” depends far too much on the quality and trustworthiness of advisors and other insiders.”

Decider simply means the one with the ultimate responsibility of choosing. And that exists whether one is relying on instincts or advisors.

#8 Comment By rayray On March 31, 2016 @ 11:49 am


That is very very well put. Kudos.

#9 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 31, 2016 @ 11:50 am

” One suspects he chose History because it deals with matters that can be quickly memorized and then forgotten.”

Or perhaps he chose history because he enjoyed history and what it provides as to a foundation of how a society got from a to b. Everything, I have read suggests that Pres. Bush ignored his instincts as to engaging in war with Iraq. His comments are very clear regarding the intelligence report, which on its face provided insufficient data to invade.

However, the pressure from insiders as well as the public to make a “good work of it” prevailed. Before he thread winds to its clos, it might be a good idea to discuss what an instinct is and what constitutes it “being good” or “bad”.

#10 Comment By William Dalton On March 31, 2016 @ 12:49 pm

George W. Bush may have been deficient in foreign policy experience but that alone cannot be used as an excuse for this downfall. Barack Obama had little more exposure than the younger Bush when entering the White House and while his first term was filled with mistakes they weren’t as bad as Bush’s.

And, remember, that which reassured the American public about Bush fils, that which got him enough votes to carry him to election, was his foreign policy team. Dick Cheney was as much the candidate on the ballot the American people were selecting as George W. Bush. Donald Rumsfeld was already prominently on board. In electing Bush, Americans knew they were electing these old, much-experienced foreign and military policy hands as well, men who had served in multiple administrations at top levels. The American people had every right to expect that George W. Bush would be able to “hit the ground running” from the day he took the oath of office. America’s downfall in the Bush years was not the inexperience of the President leading him to the disastrous decisions to invade Iraq, or even to make regime change the objective in Afghanistan. Our downfall was due to the fact that we were betrayed by Cheney and Rumsfeld, who certainly knew better and had the duty to guide the President away from these fateful decisions but didn’t.

#11 Comment By Randal On March 31, 2016 @ 1:09 pm

Larison makes a superficially strong argument and draws on an excellent case to support it, in the disastrous Bush II presidency. The intention is clearly to take a swipe at Trump.

However, is there really any reason to think that pre-presidential expertise in foreign policy will necessarily produce good foreign policy? Out of the past six presidents plus the likely next one (Clinton), only two will have come to office with any meaningful foreign policy experience or expertise of their own – Bush I and Hilary Clinton. Carter, Reagan, Bush II, Bill Clinton and Obama all had to learn on the job and rely on the plentiful advisers and institutional supports available to an elected president, with dramatically variable results. The performance of the two experienced presidents seems likely to be very disparate – mixed in the case of Bush I and the worst of the lot in the case of the forthcoming Clinton.

Part of the problem is precisely that the US sphere foreign policy community as a whole is largely dysfunctional, suffering variously from groupthink delusions about either democracy promotion and “R2P” nonsense or US-uber-alles fantasies of global domination, or from either misplaced loyalty or corrupt subordination to various lobby groups. Unless a presidential candidate learns from the very small number of people who don’t fall into those categories (and yes, I’d include Larison in that select grouping), increased “expertise” is merely going to lead them astray as it did Bush II.

As for Trump in particular, the “right instincts” in his case appear to be common sense patriotism, willingness to deal with rivals rather than demonise them as new Hitlers, and healthy scepticism about ideological arguments. That’s a pretty good start, even if it doesn’t guarantee anything at all. And in the end, a mystery is still better than all the available alternatives, who are obviously going to engage in potentially disastrously counterproductive and aggressive policies. As Ron Unz put it:

Earlier this year, an ardent Trump supporter declared that his favored candidate was 95% a clown but 5% a patriot, and therefore stood head-and-shoulders above his Republican rivals, and this sounds about right to me.


#12 Comment By decisions On March 31, 2016 @ 2:38 pm

@DL – “It intentionally lowers the standard by which a candidate is judged, and it gives him a pass for his ignorance that would normally be considered disqualifying in any other field. ”

It also opens the door for bad or untrustworthy advisors to unduly influence his decisions. And that’s what doomed W’s presidency.

@EliteCommInc – “Decider simply means the one with the ultimate responsibility of choosing.”

It’s more complicated than that. There’s a connotation involved because of George W. Bush having famously called himself “the Decider”.

The argument was that W might not know much about a number of key areas for which he would bear responsibility, but he could be trusted to make the right decision given the options – with the implication that those he chose to advise him could be trusted to give him salient facts and good options.

In other words, the “decider” approach grants but minimizes the importance of the decider’s ignorance, and it does so on grounds of “good instincts”.

#13 Comment By Patrick D On March 31, 2016 @ 2:51 pm


George W. Bush was an Ivy League history major who had a foreign policy wonk as a father. How could he possibly be so ignorant?

“Legacy” admission.

#14 Comment By Edogg On March 31, 2016 @ 3:49 pm

A few comments have mentioned Trump, but this judgement versus knowledge and experience debate is happening on the Democratic side. Clinton has about the best foreign policy experience you could expect a non incumbent presidential candidate to have. Sanders talks about foreign relatively rarely, has been slow to acquire foreign policy advisors, and gave unimpressive answers in the debates. But Sanders gave a great speech opposing the 2003 Iraq war and scored well on the TAC foreign policy score card. And I think Larison and others have pointed out plenty of times that Clinton has some bad hawkish instincts.

#15 Comment By cecelia On March 31, 2016 @ 5:32 pm

The recent Obama interview says a lot about this issue. There is surely a steep learning curve and by the time one masters it – through trial and error – their term is over. Obama now sounds like he gets it – both in terms of foreign policy and the foreign policy establishment in DC. But he is leaving so his knowledge is useless.

I found it telling that Obama made it clear he despises the DC foreign policy establishment. Seems to me that given the relative lack of knowledge new Presidents have that the best way to change our tawdry foreign policy is to get rid of the DC foreign policy experts.

#16 Comment By aprognostic On March 31, 2016 @ 6:26 pm

Here it’s the center right that’s most spectacularly in decline. In most other developed countries it’s the center left. In that respect Clintonism is an anomaly, a bizarre hangover, a little as though the ghost of Tony Blair still haunted Britain in the form of his wife, and that his wife were one of the most polarizing figures since Maggie.

Once neoliberalism in its American form, Clintonism, has died off or been exorcised, the Democrats will go through what the Republicans are going through now.

Neither party is of much use to anyone anymore but special interests and lobbies. If you want to use the US military to fight a war for some foreign country you buy some Republicans. If you want to force others to embrace your very special “identity” you buy some Democrats. If you want cheap labor or a bailout for your global megabusiness you buy both of them. Real people don’t belong to either party because the parties have quite sensibly ceased to serve them. There’s no money in it.

So it’s not surprising that the number registered as independent (42 percent as of 2014) has been larger than that of either party (36 percent Dem, 25 percent GOP) for some time. In the not-too-distant future it will be larger than both of them put together. It’s difficult to say what happens then, we can but hope it will be an improvement over the corruption, incompetence, waste, and failure of the past 20 or so years.

#17 Comment By Grumpy Old Man On March 31, 2016 @ 6:35 pm

What if you have one candidate with scant experience and a few good predispositions opposing one with a record and demonstrably bad ones?

#18 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 31, 2016 @ 7:18 pm

“In other words, the “decider” approach grants but minimizes the importance of the decider’s ignorance, and it does so on grounds of “good instincts”.

That is a fairly twisted line if analysis to end up saying, “I am the responsible for the decisions, regardless of who says or does what.”

One of Pres. Bush’s unique qualities is that he is not prone to engage in complex rhetoric. Hence, the very popular reference to the “guy you could sit and have a beer with.”

It’s nuclarly very simple —

Now each is entitled to their own interpretations. I am not sure Pres. Bush is inclined to visit the site or give a press conference on the matter. And it’s not going to change the policies of the past. But my fondness for Pres. is his simplicity, had he chosen to adhere to that principle of seeing issues is uncomplicated scenarios, he would have served himself and the country much better.

For example, while he has bemoaned listening to several key voices, he does not openly engage in blaming others openly for one very simple reason. A quality to be admired and respected. I think we are in agreement by and large.

At the end of the day,

“He is the decider.”

But as I noted. A matter of interpretation until some definitive source settles the matter. The trappings to appear complex are many.

This however is galling nonsense.

” . . . and Hilary Clinton.”

I think the understanding is that experience lends one a certain expertise. Expertise is clearly being accurate as to inputs and predictable outcomes.

Excuse me. But granting expertise in the case of Sec Clinton based on outcomes of foreign policy contends leaves nothing to be admired and even less to applaud.

Unless of course you mean shifting blame to anyone and everyone else.

Sometimes, others are wholly responsible, but on the issues of foreign policy, Sec Clinton, Sen Clinton should not be granted a pass on her flawed, judgments and predictions.

And the wisdom of regime change did not require a Ph.D. in international affairs, nor a master’s and I would suspect given her experience, not any degree at all.


#19 Comment By Mais Non On March 31, 2016 @ 8:10 pm

Yes, Clinton is the worst case: bad instincts + ignorance + bad advisors.

But I doubt many habitues of this site have been tempted to err in that particular direction.

#20 Comment By AZ Joe On April 1, 2016 @ 5:36 am

Aprognostic: Your next to last paragraph says it all. The moment that it became obvious in late 2002 we were going to invade Iraq, a country that had not attacked us and put the interests of investors ahead of the middle and working classes, we entered a Dark Age of politics from which we may never emerge.

#21 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 1, 2016 @ 6:17 am

Cleaning up my notoriously bad writing:

” . . . while privately he has bemoaned listening to several key voices He does not openly engage in blaming others a quality to be admired and respected (and there’s a load of blame to go around) for one very simple reason,

At the end of the day,

“He is the decider.”

I think we are in agreement by and large.

Well No, I am not making any claims that Sec. Clinton is the worst example.

“But I doubt many habitues of this site have been tempted to err in that particular direction.”

Laughing. Not sure what you mean by many, but stick round.

#22 Comment By Mike Schilling On April 3, 2016 @ 11:32 pm


After the US destruction of Iraq’s government, it needed a well-organized occupation desperately. The Bush Administration’s refusal to do any planning for that (as documented by James Fallows at [2]), largely because of its stated opposition to nation building, was one of the chief reasons that Iraq became such a catastrophe.

#23 Comment By rayray On April 4, 2016 @ 3:54 pm

@Mike Schilling
I think that’s what was most galling for a certain segment of Americans. Not just that Iraq was a bad decision, even though this one was a real doozy everyone makes bad decisions. But that the decision was executed at such an extraordinary level of ignorance and incompetency was salt in the wound. Things like being able to speak the language, being able to understand even the most basic cultural issues were non-existent.

So, we have the biggest and most expensive military and intel infrastructure the world has ever seen…but we don’t know the difference between a Sunni and a Shia Muslim, and why that might be important in an occupation of a Muslim country.