Is it better to be a sucker?
Consider three examples where conventional wisdom tells us, in effect, that it is. Tomorrow, negotiations resume in Washington between Israelis and Palestinians. A fool's gambit? Not at all, says U.S. envoy George Mitchell, who likes to say that, in negotiating peace in Northern Ireland, he had "700 days of failure and one day of success."
Next is Iran. The Obama administration is fond of explaining that last year's outreach to the Islamic Republic was a no-lose proposition, since it meant that either diplomacy would succeed in curbing the regime's nuclear bids, or its failure would expose the regime's duplicity and obstructionism, thereby facilitating tougher measures.
And then there is the Ground Zero mosque: Among its virtues, say supporters, is that it will advertise American tolerance and strengthen the hand of moderate Muslims in America and abroad.
To all this, one might say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results; that there's no such thing as a free lunch; and that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
But put the clichés aside: The deeper political idea at work here is that moral inputs are the essential ingredients to—and ultimately more important than—pragmatic outputs. Charitably speaking, this means leading by persuasion and example, always going the last mile for peace, giving others (or, "the other") the benefit of the doubt and so on. The real-world benefits are supposed to flow naturally from there, but if they don't, so what? Doing right is its own reward.
Uncharitably speaking, this is what might be called the Paula Abdul theory of foreign policy, after the famously forgiving former judge on American Idol. Never mind that you can't sing, or that you're letting yourself be played for a sucker: What counts is that you feel good about yourself, presumably because you're doing something good. Another name for this kind of thinking is moral narcissism.
No wonder there's something slightly frantic about all the testimonials—more often asserted than demonstrated—to the "moderation" of Feisal Abdul Rauf, the would-be imam of the Ground Zero mosque. In fact, the imam's record of political and theological pronouncements is mixed, often slippery and sometimes disturbing, as when he urged last year that President Obama endorse the theocratic foundations of Iran's government.
But none of that really matters much to Mr. Rauf's supporters, not because they are his fellow travellers politically, but because supporting the mosque is an opportunity to flaunt their virtue by the simple means of making a political declaration. Question to mosque supporters: Has your check to Mr. Rauf's Cordoba Initiative been mailed already? Or would you rather the Saudi government pick up the tab?
The Obama administration's approach to Iran is another instance of moral narcissism in action. It took a peculiar political conceit to imagine that the Islamic Republic was a misunderstood creature, offended by Bush administration arrogance, that would yield to President Obama's charm offensive.
Then again, President Obama's approach wasn't dictated by a long train of examples of the Islamic Republic rebuffing every diplomatic overture made to it, or by a sober assessment about the drift of its politics in recent years. Nor did the president seem much concerned about the consequences of Iran playing the U.S. for a fool while it again played for time for its nuclear programs.
But, again, none of this really matters, because the real point of the diplomatic outreach wasn't pragmatic; it was about the administration and its supporters demonstrating that they were the good guys vis-a-vis Iran. I doubt even Glenn Beck needed proof of this.
Finally, the Israeli-Palestinian talks, whose chances of success may be safely predicted at nil. Yesterday, I spoke with Aaron David Miller, the former U.S. Middle East negotiator now at the Woodrow Wilson Center, to ask him what was wrong with the view that it is better to try and fail than not to try at all.
"That's what Bill Clinton said to us," he replied. "I was inspired; it's quintessentially American. But it's not a substitute for a serious foreign policy on the part of the world's most consequential power." The risk, he added, "is that when the small power says no to the great one without cost or consequence, whether that's Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Arabs or the Israelis, we lose street cred. Right now, we are neither feared nor respected nor admired to the extent we need to be consistent with our interests in the region."
Mr. Miller is a liberal, but he's also what Irving Kristol would have called a liberal who's been mugged by reality. Part of that reality is that foreign policy is blood sport not beauty contest, and that those who suppose the latter will be defenseless when they discover it's the former. Which is all to say, it sucks to be a sucker.
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