Ideology vs. pragmatism: Is one more important than the other?

The eagerness to eliminate "ideology" and venerate "pragmatism" in politics is understandable, but it's neither possible nor desirable.


Glenn Greenwald
November 24, 2008 8:55PM (UTC)

(updated below - Update II)

At Democracy Arsenal, Shadi Hamid makes the reasonable (though, to me, not entirely persuasive) point that foreign policy viewpoints are not conducive to "left-right" labeling because, for many key debates, there is no discernible "left" and "right" position.  Andrew Sullivan agrees with Hamid's point and writes:

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One the worst legacies of the Vietnam boomer syndrome has been turning complex foreign policy decisions -- which should ultimately be pragmatic actions in defense of national self-interest -- into idiotic left-right, patriot-traitor, soldier-hippie dichotomies. Abandoning that is part of Obama's promise.

Andrew is articulating here a common refrain -- one could say the predominant mindset -- among many Obama supporters:  namely, that we have now entered an era where pragmatism and competence trumps all considerations and old "ideological" disputes are thereby rendered obsolete.  That's been the most frequent response to those who have raised concerns that Obama's principal appointees thus far are composed almost exclusively of Washington establishment figures and/or those who supported the Iraq War (Joe Biden, Rahm Emanuel, Tom Daschle, Bill Richardson, possibly Robert Gates, John Brennan and Hillary Clinton):  ideology doesn't matter; it's competence and expertise that count.  Two points about that:  

First, is foreign policy really nothing more than "pragmatic actions in defense of national self-interest?"  If, on a pragmatic level, the consequences of attacking Iraq had been different than what they were -- if we had been able to invade and occupy relatively quickly and derive substantial material gain from doing so, including somehow making ourselves marginally "safer" -- would that have made the Iraq War a just and desirable action?  Isn't more than pragmatic calculation necessary to inform foreign policy decisions?

Presumably, there are instances where a proposed war might be very pragmatically beneficial in promoting our national self-interest, but is still something that we ought not to do.  Why?  Because as a matter of principle -- of ideology -- we believe that it is not just to do it, no matter how many benefits we might reap, no matter how much it might advance our "national self-interest" (just as we don't break into our neighbor's home and steal from them even if they have really valuable things to take and we're pretty sure we won't get caught).

If one discards the need for ideology in favor of "pragmatism" and "competence" -- as so many people seem so eager to do -- then it's difficult to see how one could form any opinions about questions of this sort beyond a crude risk-benefit analysis (i.e., "pragmatism").  Are there military and economic benefits to be derived for the U.S. from invading Pakistan?  Bombing Iran?  Lending unquestioning support to Israel?  Escalating our occupation of Afghanistan?  Remaining indefinitely in Iraq and exploiting their resources?  Propping up dictators of all types?  Deposing Hugo Chavez?  Torturing suspected terrorists for information, or detaining them without process?  If so, then those who are heralding "pragmatism" as the supreme value -- or at least something that should trump "ideology" -- would have no real basis to oppose those actions.  It is only ideological beliefs that permit opposition to those polices even if they are "beneficial" to our "national self-interest."

[And, to Hamid's point about the uselessness of "left" and "right" labels in foreign policy debates, one's ideological view on these questions -- such as:  when does a country have the right to use military force against another country, regardless of pragmatic benefits? -- seems to go a long way towards defining "right" and "left" in the foreign policy context].

Secondly, and relatedly, how would it be possible -- even if it were desirable -- to extricate ideology from competence and pragmitism?  As Obama's appointments have been revealed, I keep hearing and reading -- in the media and from some Obama supporters -- that the emphasis is on competence and expertise, not ideology.  "Expertise Trumps Ideology in Obama's Early Picks," declares CQ this morning, echoing Beltway conventional wisdom.

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But isn't competence determined, at least in part, by ideology?  For instance, isn't someone's support for the Iraq War -- the most consequential political issue of the last decade, at least -- a negative reflection on that person's judgment, competence and expertise, just as someone's opposition to that war is a positive reflection on those attributes?   How can selecting only pro-war Cabinet members and advisers be justified on the grounds of "competence" -- as though one's support for the War has nothing to do with competence?

At least as I understand it, this has been a central blogosphere critique of the Washington media and political establishment for many years:  that those who were completely wrong about the War (by supporting it)  are still deemed to be the Serious, Competent Experts, and their spectacular wrongness has not cost them anything in terms of influence, prestige and credibility.  That Establishment dynamic is grounded in the premise that one's "expertise" and "competence" has nothing to do with the ideological views one has expressed -- the same argument one hears now in defense of these appointments.

"Ideology" is not a bad word.  It refers to nothing more than one's set of political principles and core doctrinal beliefs that exist independent of considerations of utility.  It's nonsensical to try to assess political leaders or policies based solely on "competence" and without regard to "ideology."  

"Competence" is about how technocratically effective of a war plan can be designed, or how accurate one's predictions are about the effects of economic and tax policies, or how efficiently one can marshall intelligence resources.  But "ideology" is what determines whether a war is just and warranted, or what economic outcomes are fair and desirable, or whether the Government is justified in spying on its own citizens without warrants or detaining them without due process. 

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It's possible to become too rigid and unyielding in one's ideological beliefs -- to adhere excessively to principles without regard to consequences -- but it's at least just as possible to become so pragmatic that one operates without any core principles.  There's a perception (a dubious one) that the problem of the last eight years has been that our political leaders have been too rigidly ideological (I'd say the Bush administration was quite concerned with outcomes and not particularly concerned with principles).  But this perception -- accurate or not -- has engendered an overcompensating desire to rid ourselves of ideology in the name of pragmatism. 

But that can't be done even if it were desirable.  Ideology matters.  People hold irreconcilable, passionate views about key political disputes that have little to do with pragmatism.  Those disputes can't be magically waved away; that's what makes them irreconcilable.  And a political official's positions on those issues are at least as important as -- and are, in any event, inseparable from -- their "competence" and "expertise."  Foreign policy is about a lot more than mere "competence," and so are political questions generally.

 

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UPDATE:  The discussion in the comment section is particularly good, with many excellent points being made, but I just want to add one further thought:   It's very hard to dispute the fact that the Democratic Party over the last eight years has been overwhelmingly driven by pragmatism, and has been quite hostile to ideology (as well as to "partisanship," the evil cousin of "ideology").  Indeed, virtually everything the Democratic Party leadership has done this decade has been driven by a fear of drawing clear differences between it and the Republican Party based on the pragmatic concern that they would suffer politically if they appeared too ideological or too partisan, if they didn't compromise enough.  This is the fruit of that thinking.

Thus, whatever else one might want to say about this current fixation on pragmatism, trans-partisanship, non-ideological compromise and the like -- the one thing it isn't is new.  It's what the national Democratic Party has been about, at its core, during most of the Bush era.

 

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UPDATE II:  Those who believe that ideology is irrelevant and that only competence and expertise matter should find this report to be a cause for celebration.  Those who believe that ideology matters would likely find it to be quite bothersome (h/t Bystander).


Glenn Greenwald

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