Ideology vs. Pragmatism in the War on Terror

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This
year's presidential election provides voters with a choice between
two men with very different approaches to foreign policy decision-making.
Where John Kerry is pragmatic, George W. Bush is an ideologue. While
Bush's approach to the war on terror appeals to many voters because
it seems to be grounded in a comprehensive underlying vision, in
reality ideologues have a difficult time learning from events, making
them both unrealistic and dangerous.

Ideologues
approach policy-making with an abstract, internally consistent vision,
and they analyze events in terms of this overarching vision. By
contrast, pragmatists believe reality is too complex to be explained
by any one theory or model. Accordingly, pragmatists employ multiple
models to understand events, and they judge the utility of any given
framework by its empirical accuracy.

Ideological
visions provide ready-made interpretations for events. For a president
like George W. Bush, who came to office with no foreign policy experience,
an ideological vision provides an appealing substitute for detailed
knowledge.

In
Bush's vision, liberty is God's gift to the world, and the United
States is His instrument for the elimination of evil. We must defeat
not just Al-Qaeda but all terrorism everywhere. Iraq is the frontline
in the war on terror, even though there were no terrorists there
before we invaded, because we must bring democracy – by force if necessary – to
the entire Middle East. Iraq is the demonstration project for this
democratic crusade, merely the first of many countries that will
jump at the chance to embrace our political and economic values.
Never mind that we have little or no previous experience in overthrowing
dictators and creating democracies in places like Iraq that have
no previous history of self-government.

When
their grand schemes go awry, ideologues consistently find ways to
dismiss unwanted facts. They do this because they are so dependent
upon their ideological vision to understand events. Evidence that
runs counter to cherished preconceptions does not merely suggest
that a change in policy is warranted. Rather, it suggests that the
ideologue's whole way of looking at the world is flawed. Without
their ideological vision, they are intellectually empty-handed.
They persist in defending failed policies because they cannot afford
to part with their ideological vision of the world.

This
explains President Bush's response to the failure to find weapons
of mass destruction in Iraq. The first response was to insist that
it was only a matter of time before the weapons would be found.
When the passage of time proved instead that the weapons were nonexistent,
the president produced a new justification for the war rather than
admit his mistake: The world is a safer place with Saddam gone,
and it's our mission from God to extend democracy throughout the
world. We must maintain a steady course. There's nothing wrong with
the underlying vision; victory is just taking longer than we thought.

Ideologues
are dangerous for another reason. They believe unwanted problems
can be solved, finally and completely. Where a pragmatic leader
hopes to mitigate problems that never fully go away, the ideologue
promises to eradicate unwanted problems altogether. Hunting down
the members of Al-Qaeda, killing or capturing them, and making an
example of them in order to deter other terrorist groups from attacking
us might seem a worthy, focused, and manageable goal to a pragmatic
leader. To the ideologues within the Bush administration, however,
that is not enough. Rather we need to "eliminate evil"
through a global war on terror that will go on until the last terrorist
anywhere is eliminated.

The
idea that we can eliminate problems once and for all is both unrealistic
and dangerous. Terrorism is the weapon of the weak against the strong.
In a world in which the technology needed to manufacture explosives
is universally available on the Internet, there will be terrorists
as long as there are malcontents.

John Kerry recognizes this. Kerry was quoted in a recent edition
of the New York Times Magazine as saying that we need to
get back to where we were before the events of 9/11, when terrorism
was a nuisance that did not threaten the fabric of our lives. Predictably,
President Bush attacked Kerry on this point in the third presidential
debate, mocking Kerry for calling terrorism a nuisance and for equating
terrorism with organized crime and prostitution. But Kerry's comment
should not be misinterpreted. What Kerry recognizes, and Bush does
not, is that government action can never completely eradicate problems
like terrorism. All we can realistically hope to achieve is to make
terrorist attacks isolated and rare.

The
president's determination to pursue an open-ended war to eradicate
terror ignores two important realities. The first is the economic
concept of opportunity costs. Resources devoted to the pursuit of
one end (the war in Iraq, for example) are no longer available for
the pursuit of other ends (nation-building in Afghanistan, or the
hiring of more inspectors to check containers coming into our ports).

The
second reality is the economic law of diminishing returns, which
applies to the war on terror just as it does to anything else. While
we may substantially reduce the threat of terrorist attacks, absolute
security is unattainable, and the misguided effort to achieve it
results only in a waste of resources that might better be devoted
to other ends.

When
a president is dependent on an ideological vision for guidance,
he is not free to judge the merits of policies by their empirical
consequences. He cannot admit mistakes and change course where policies
are not working. America needs a president whose understanding of
the world is not threatened by reality.

October
29, 2004

Michael
Hayes [send him mail]
is professor of political science at Colgate University. He is the
author of three books, including (most recently) The
Limits of Policy Change: Incrementalism, Worldview, and the Rule
of Law.

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