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Foreign Policy Ignorance and Instincts

Dan Drezner picks up [1] on a remarkable claim in the most recent Noonan column [2]. 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 [3] 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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18 Comments To "Foreign Policy Ignorance and Instincts"

#1 Comment By John On January 19, 2015 @ 11:58 am

If by “going with one’s gut” he means that foreign policy is often formed in accordance with strong ideological priors, and that the resulting policy is often impervious to change no matter how many instances of failure occur, he’d be right. Otherwise, how else do we explain our foreign policy?

#2 Comment By SDS On January 19, 2015 @ 12:54 pm

“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.”

….SO we’ll risk ANOTHER Bush that governs this way? It’s bad enough that the base won’t admit W’s failures, but the Republican Party actually WANTS another idiot in the top slot??

….WHAT THE HELL is the matter with US?

#3 Comment By Charlieford On January 19, 2015 @ 1:00 pm

I appreciate Drezner’s larger points, and like him I fear the govern-by-my-gut boys.

But this needs qualification: “. . . only Reagan seemed to make the transition to the national stage without much in the way of first-term stumbles.”

241 qualifications, in fact.

#4 Comment By SDS On January 19, 2015 @ 1:08 pm

Here and I just ASSUMED it was the next BUSH who said this….my mistake!

#5 Comment By collin On January 19, 2015 @ 1:23 pm

Unfortunately, Noonan’s article is behind paywall but I don’t see how a Senator position makes somebody that much more experienced in Foreign Policy anyway. What does Rubio or Graham have in foreign policy over Huckabee or Jeb or Romney? I guess you can point all their hawkish votes.

Anyway, look at Reagan and Obama as both did have first term screwup with Beruit and Benghazi. It is probably impossible not to have one blunder in your first term. That said, the question I have never felt fully understood is why the President becomes more hawkish (Clinton, Jr. & Obama) once they are President. I suspect it is because everyday somebody somewhere is telling you a crisis is happening and acting NOW will solve it.

#6 Comment By JohnG On January 19, 2015 @ 2:08 pm

Because foreign policy still comes down, always, to your gut, your instincts

No! While experience HELPS, pretty much everything, including foreign policy, comes down to the BRAINS & INTEGRITY. The first to be able to understand what’s going on and learn and the second to have the guts (speaking of guts!) to do the right thing.

As far as experience, just look at John McCain or HRC, would you like to give the keys to our foreign policy to either of the two? As far as gut or faith-based decision making, just look at GW. No thanks, the whole dilemma is faux and leads us astray. Let’s just get in there a smart person with integrity, a Chuck Hagel type, Rand Paul, Gary Johnson… and what Noonan, WSJ, and/or NYT think is, thank God, less and less important as we go.

#7 Comment By HyperIon On January 19, 2015 @ 2:19 pm

I guess my response to this sort of depends on whose gut we are discussing.

#8 Comment By Ken Hoop On January 19, 2015 @ 2:41 pm

In reference to the Putin-Bush pic accompanying
Drezner, there is a question whether autocracy
actually helped Putin properly mistrust
Bush….Obama…any American president’s promises, assurances and intents, and that the Ukraine subversion didn’t catch him off guard, as some claim.

#9 Comment By Gutted On January 19, 2015 @ 3:45 pm

The Governor vs. Senator question can be crudely related to William James’ distinction between associative processes and reasoning, or in Kahnemann-Tversky shorthand, System 1 and System 2 thinking, our “fast” systems of instinct, intuition, “native intelligence”, and slow, rule-based systems of analysis, deduction and judgment.

It’s obviously pointless to ask which is more important in a president.

Still, for over twenty years we have suffered serious damage from the ill-effects of presidential System 1 behavior. Bill Clinton’s lack of self-control and generally low character, Bush II with his “I am the Decider” crap, “decision” being for him a System 1 “gut” process, and even the more deliberative or “senatorial” Obama raging against the rules (i.e. the Constitution) with his “Screw you, I’ll do it by executive findings and orders.”

In short, we don’t lack for people supremely confident in their “gut” and willing to be “the Decider”. On balance, because recent presidents have shown such poor judgment and basic ignorance, because they have gone largely unchecked by the Congress or courts, and because they have failed, it’s hard not conclude that we need more of the presumptive qualities of a senator and judge in our Executive. Too bad we don’t have more senators and judges with those qualities.

#10 Comment By Charlieford On January 19, 2015 @ 4:33 pm

Most presidents do indeed have foreign-policy screw-ups in their first term, but Obama’s wasn’t Benghazi. (We have enemies, they attack us on occasion, and sometimes people die–in some years, more people die in the diplomatic than officer corps.)

Obama’s first-term screw-up was Afghanistan.

#11 Comment By Noah172 On January 19, 2015 @ 5:30 pm

Noonan’s word choice was wrong, but I don’t think her point is necessarily without merit.

As one commenter has already noted, if “gut” and “instincts” mean rigid ideology, or refusal to admit error or evaluate new evidence, then of course “gut” makes for disastrous foreign policy.

If, by contrast, “gut” or “instincts” mean listening to a variety of voices, evaluating evidence from a variety of sources, deliberation over rashness, and remaining firm in general principles (e.g. war as a last resort, not a first choice) while flexible in means, then “gut” can be gut, as a German might say.

Perhaps the right word is “temperament” or “judgement”.

Abraham Lincoln had no foreign expertise prior to his presidency, but he handled foreign affairs well because he had a prudential temperament. He understood — in his gut, we might say — America’s broad interests (avoid entanglement in Europe’s conflicts, and keep Europe out of America’s internal conflict) but was humble and flexible in the means employed to further these principles.

#12 Comment By Flavius On January 19, 2015 @ 9:15 pm

Let’s see – gut calls to intervene that seemed to the guts making the calls great ideas at the time: Cuba; Viet Nam; Iran I; Afghanistan I; Lebanon; Balkan Wars; Afghanistan II; Iraq II; Afghanistan III; Libya; Ukraine. Probably could toss in WW I into the mix as well. Who will be the next in line? Such good intentions, so many reefs, such short memories.

#13 Comment By Bob K. On January 19, 2015 @ 9:30 pm

Gut and instincts.

John Lukacs said about FDR that he “understood more than he knew.” After that it is about getting the knowledge needed from the people who are hired for that purpose. And many of them will be picked by gut and instincts.

#14 Comment By Noah172 On January 19, 2015 @ 9:54 pm

Most presidents do indeed have foreign-policy screw-ups in their first term, but Obama’s wasn’t Benghazi

Not the attack itself, but his intervention in Libya was a blunder in its repercussions for the region and in the message it sent to the world (try to make nice with America, dismantle your WMD program — and get smashed).

#15 Comment By Uncle Billy On January 20, 2015 @ 8:58 am

In the early days of our nation, the Secretary of State would move up to the Presidency. That made some sense, but then we drifted to Senators and Governors and even Generals. Perhaps we should return to the old days?

#16 Comment By cfountain72 On January 20, 2015 @ 1:31 pm

“In the early days of our nation, the Secretary of State would move up to the Presidency. That made some sense, but then we drifted to Senators and Governors and even Generals. Perhaps we should return to the old days?”

Rice? Kerry? Hillary? No thanks.

Peace be with you.

#17 Comment By cfountain72 On January 20, 2015 @ 1:35 pm

“Because foreign policy still comes down, always, to your gut, your instincts”

Can you imagine the reaction if a candidate said the same thing about tax or immigration policy, or any other domestic issue? But this is different: this is life or death! And he/she wants me to trust their ‘gut’?! Never mind those pesky intelligence reports, history, diplomacy, or George Washington’s admonition. I’m going with my gut!

Wow…just wow.

Peace be with you.

#18 Comment By BD On January 20, 2015 @ 2:24 pm

Maybe “instincts” and “gut” aren’t the right words, but certainly the most important thing in a president when it comes to decisions (particularly in foreign policy where they have more leeway) is judgment. You can take office promising not to enter WWII, or promising to meet any burden to fight communism, or promising a more humble foreign policy, but the president is always going to be reacting to unexpected events (German U-boat wars, Russians putting missiles in Cuba, 9/11) and that’s where the personality, judgment, and wisdom of the president is put to the test. A promised “foreign policy” from the campaign isn’t going to mean much if the later circumstances don’t fit within it.