Monday, March 27, 2006

Tired of the adjectives

I remarked a few weeks ago at the Cato Institute that I always become worried and cynical when I see people appending adjectives to the description of their policy orientations. In the last few months, there have been a flurry--people want to be idealistic realists, or realistic Wilsonians, or pragmatic humanitarians.

[Over at The Washington NoteSteve Clemons discussed former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's views on Iran, and whether she is becoming a realistic idealist. Having been on panels with the former Secretary of State, I find she has a strong pragmatic streak--but whether she is moving in a realist direction, I don't know.]

I freely concede that adjectival descriptions are useful in helping to break down a large school of thought into discrete camps. Hence, constitutional monarchists (because you can have monarchists who don't advocate constitutional limits on a monarch's power), or democratic socialists (because you can advocate imposition of socialism by forceful means). Even adjectival descriptions such as liberal interventionist or ethical realist I think are useful.

But in Washington policy-speak, when the adjectives come out to try and square the circles, it is little more, in my opinion, than public-relations exercises in CYA, hair-splitting or for justifying action or inaction. E.G. I am a realistic interventionist can mean I want to get off the hook about intervening in Darfur or Congo. Sometimes it reminds me of some of the absurd political movements that developed among Russian emigres during the 1920s--those who advocated "the Tsar and the Soviets"--trying to endorse a "mixed" political system that would put the tsar back on the throne to preside over the creation of a socialist society!

Sometimes, these mishmash labels are created so someone can move closer to agreement with the positions of people they previously denounced--without having to admit they were wrong or have changed their minds. Readers of TWR know that I have been following the fate of Gen. Scowcroft and how many who denounced him now have accepted his analysis--but don't want to rehabilitate one of the leaders of the "realist" camp.

The value of labels--such as realist, neoconservative, etc.--is not to group people into monolithic blocs but to give us a sense of what first principles animate their thinking and their overall vision of the world. Realists may disagree profoundly among themselves over policies such as democracy promotion, the war in Iraq, etc. but they do so from different interpretations of shared principles. The same with neoconservatives, liberal interventionists, etc.

We have real challenges facing the United States and whether we will maintain our position in the international system. Playing word games is about as useful as re-arranging chairs on the Titanic.

I think playing word games has more relevance in the electoral world, where successfully attaching "liberal", or "conservative", or such other label to a politican can make or break his or her chances in an election.
Labels have an important use. My moniker, "conservative realist", is meant to convey my political orientation and set of assumptions about the world. I think it is pretty clear.

But I agree about muddled labels and labels designed intentionally to confuse. "Centrist" and "moderate" are also shaping up to be useless terms.
By the way, great riposte from Krauthammer back to Fukuyama in his column today in the Post: "After public opinion had turned against the war, Fukuyama then courageously came out against it. He has very right to change his mind at his convenience. He has no right to change what I said."
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