Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Libyan conundrum, and the blogger's

Those who knew little or nothing about Libya before the current crisis, yet feel the temptation or responsibility to "take a stand, might envy  Nicholas Kristof's understandable pride in the basis of his own judgment:
I opposed the 2003 Iraq invasion because my reporting convinced me that most Iraqis hated Saddam Hussein but didn’t want American forces intruding on their soil. This time my reporting persuades me that most Libyans welcome outside intervention.
For those of us lacking that basis, the demurral of James Downie is refreshing:

No, bloggers do not have to take positions. There is no law or principle that requires writers to say, no matter how much or how little expertise they have, "This is what should be done. This is the right thing to do."  One could argue, perhaps, that taking no position is a position in itself, but then "no position," "I don't know what to do," and "I am not too sure" are positions all too rarely taken. In the same way that everyone can give advice to friends without telling them what to do, bloggers and pundits (and commenters, for that matter) can observe and opine while leaving the positions and decisions to those actually carrying out the actions. "The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena," as Theodore Roosevelt said, because they are the ones who have to take positions, in order to make choices. The rest of us have the good fortune to avoid that burden. We do not need to force positions on ourselves.
In a democracy, however, all of us are arguably 'in the arena' to at least a limited degree -- in fact, each of us to the degree we choose. If you vote, you undertake to judge elected officials' actions -- though not every action individually, and not right away. That's the job of the elect(ed), as Downie points out.  Moreover, our judgment on any given issue is -- and should be -- informed by our evolving judgment of our our elected leader's judgment.

I do think, too, that a moderately informed citizen's attempt to judge or "decide" a course can be seen as a distant mirror of "the decider's" job. As Jonathan Bernstein is fond of pointing out, a president's view of most events and policy choices is inevitably partial, distracted, largely dependent on aides' framing -- and rushed.  A good president -- or executive generally -- must be good at "shaping the environment" of his or her information inflow.  That means not only deciding whom to trust and to what degree, but also assessing the relative weight of competing arguments (or the interests behind them) when trusted advisers disagree (or other informed sources do -- for example, economists with contradictory prognostications). 

The main business of this blog is to closely parse the language of those I judge worthy of analysis -- and draw whatever conclusions I can derive from such analysis (often a merely descriptive one, such as that Mr. X and Ms. Y share a certain perception or assumption). Like Downie, I'm often reluctant to add my "we should do x" or "we should do y" to the general pile, particularly in the foreign policy arena, in cases where there are powerful arguments on both sides, as with the current action in Libya. With regard to Libya, for what it's worth, I lean on balance in the direction of my first post on the subject: I think the risks of not acting outweigh the risks those of acting.  And I think, with some worries and caveats, that Obama has intelligently hedged the course taken thus far (and acknowledge that I'm disposed to trust his judgment, provisionally).  Perhaps more important than an "exit strategy" (with a hat tip to Tom Ricks deconstructing that cliche) is keeping your options -- i.e., multiple exits -- open. In that regard at least, Obama is a master.

More on the Libyan conundrum:
O Captain! My Captain! Make us all get in the boat together (3/23/11)
The Financial Times hearts dithering  (3/22/11)
Another war, another presidential 'terms sheet' (3/21/11)
Obama's military triangulation (3/20/11)
A spectacle of war and intervention (3/18/11)
No risk-free course in Libya  (3/18/11)

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