Farley’s rant last week on progressive defense analysts — or the lack thereof — prompted, I think, an interesting and useful debate. Follow the links below for a recap of some of the major contributions:
Farley: The LCS, Apple Pie, and What Not
Yglesias: Selection Bias At Work
Farley’s last post contains this provocative nugget:
There’s no way around the fact that security policy is political, even if the debates don’t always manifest along clear party lines.
What does this mean in terms of progressive defense policy? Both the ends and the means are up for contestation, and progressives should think about both in terms of progressive political goals. Obviously, progressive grand strategies differ from conservative formulations. Even a progressive “isolationism” is likely to differ in important ways from conservative understandings of the term. Similarly, ideological and demographic differences will color the means through which defense policy is undertaken. Many progressives believe that nuclear weapons are simply immoral, and that steps ought to be taken to reduce US arsenals, while conservatives disagree. Progressives and conservatives also disagree about conscription, among other personnel policies. Distributive questions are also legitimate targets for political contestation. Arguing that defense dollars should be spent in a manner that is most economically beneficial to the greatest number is entirely legitimate, even if the stance is in some tension with efficiency or capability concerns.
I am not sure I accept this formulation. Which I guess gets us into the guts of the problem. Let me explain why.
I do think there is a progressive conception to foreign policy, and that is has deep roots. It has, I think, two key elements:
1) A skepticism of the utility of military force.
2) A deep respect for the concept of self-determination which often manifests itself through adherence to anti-imperialist principles.
Now, I think progressives can there for different reasons. Skepticism of the military can be rooted in political opposition to militarism, which, traditionally was often allied to reactionary political forces. Indeed, much of late-19th century and early-20th century European debates on defense policy were drive by these sorts of cleavages, notably in France and Germany, less so in Britain or Italy. In Germany, the “liberal” classes embraced imperialism precisely because it was linked to the industrial-bourgeois-dominated Navy which was politically opposed to the conservative-Junker-Prussian-dominated army. Using Farley’s definition, the progressive defense analyst in Wilhelmine Germany would be an avid imperialist. So, not sure that makes sense. But skepticism about the utility of military force can also, I think come from a realist appraisal of the empirical record. Personally, I’m am more firmly in the latter school, even if the military’s reflexive support for conservative politicians riles me sometimes. But my point is that how people becomes “progressives” at any give time may vary, but a progressive foreign/defense policy ought to remain a consistent concept.
Similarly, you can support self-determination on moral grounds, but I would argue it can also be supported simply in terms of a cost-benefit calculus. It is simply almost never worthwhile to try to change other societies from outside. But respecting self-determination does not mean simply accepting passively the existence of oppressive regimes. It just means that efforts to engage in direct control and transformation of those societies is to be avoided, usually, with exceptions for genocide and equivalent behaviors.
I find this a more useful way to define the issue than either that presented by Sigger or Farley. It has the advantage of being both historically grounded and substantively defined. It suggests a consistent worldview, one which I would argue is less likely to emerge from either the Sigger or Farley definitions — Sigger’s grounded largely in tone and Farley’s in domestic political incentives. I think there is a genuine progressive defense policy worldview.
And I happen to I am in the category, although I am well aware that as someone who works for the Department of Defense and is far from pacifist, I would likely be counted out of the movement by most self-described progressives. Indeed, when I used to post on DailyKos and HuffPo, I’d often get comment from people who simply dismissed my arguments out of hand because I am a tool of the military-industrial complex. But that is really neither here nor there. I think that there is a consistent there there, even if many movement progressives don’t recognize it.
UPDATED: To include link to Gulliver’s post, which is indeed significant and which was excluded initially as a pure oversight.