Have I Stopped Beating My Wife?

Neoconservatives and noninterventionists look at the world from radically opposite perspectives, and unlike the realists in the middle, we have a tendency to view the world through a moralized lens.

One very unfortunate tendency of this is that each side has a tendency to impugn the other’s motives, rather than his view of reality. Neoconservatives just want Iraq’s oil, or they are just White Man’s Burden 2.0. Noninterventionists think the US should cut Israel loose because seeing Jews massacred would tickle their jollies. I think noninterventionists are somewhere in the vicinity of insane (that means not insane), but I don’t doubt that people like Daniel Larison wish as ardently as I do for a free and prosperous world—we just disagree on how to get there. I can’t say that I follow my own dictate with perfect precision, but I self-consciously try not to impugn the motives of those who disagree with me on policy, especially in this particular area.

Another very annoying feature of public debate in general is psychologization: “You support X because you really feel Y.” Which of course is both unknowable and irrelevant.

We don’t have to play this game.

Which brings me to TAS Alum (and friend!) Noah Millman, who has responded to my column envisaging a US-led invasion of North Korea.

Millman takes seriously my humanitarian concern over North Korea, and self-consciously tries to look at it from the same perspective as I do. He feels that the most practical, envisageable outcome would be a “Finlandization” of the Korean Peninsula, denuclearized, neutralized and without nuclear weapons, in order to obtain Chinese collaboration in removing the North Korean regime.

The reason I don’t envisage this outcome, Noah writes, is essentially because I am deluded and corrupt. My solution is “unconscionable”. What’s more, I don’t want to envisage a denuclearized and neutralized Peninsula, because of a psychological motive: that way, the US wouldn’t get to play the savior and “Maybe […] the actual humanitarian outcome is less important than playing the part of the savior.” So in other words I advance under false pretenses. My ostensible humanitarian motive is really straw, and is the mask for American imperialism and onanistic delusions of grandeur.

What is the problem with Noah’s thesis?

Well, there are many, but I know just the place to start. How about the fact that the outcome he envisages, that he claims my not envisaging so reveals my moral corruption, is the one I explicitly endorse in the column?

I mean, it’s right there:

If the U.S. offers the demilitarization and neutralization of the Korean Peninsula to China in exchange for helping rebuild North Korea, China would actually come out ahead by removing U.S. troops from the Peninsula.

I think that China wouldn’t come to see things this way unless it was presented with a fait accompli of a North Korean regime collapse, because status quo bias is so powerful in international affairs. Maybe I’m wrong. But my endgame is a neutral and demilitarized Korean Peninsula.

Michael Brendan Dougherty responded to my column by saying that my heart was in the right place but my plan is impossible. That’s fine. I acknowledge that it is far-fetched. Paradoxically, I think noninterventionists should have more sympathy for my wishful thinking, since the number of people who think the world would be improved by an American retreat from its historic role as global security guarantor is about the same as the number of people who think my plan is practical. Both sides see the Washington consensus as hopelessly deluded, and see things as plausible that the consensus most definitely doesn’t. If I had a tendency for psychologizing, I might say that perhaps we so detest each other because we are so alike in this way. But whatever.

(P.S. Another very annoying feature of public debate is when people pretend not to be aware of the constraints of the column format when it suits them. I can’t tell you how many times I was described as “blithe” or some such for brushing off objections to my plan. But in any column you need to gloss over complex side-issues of your main point. Of course, everyone knows this. But making an effort to presume that I am of good faith and not a complete idiot and consider that I might have considered obvious objections but might not have given them a full treatment because of length constraints would involve engaging oneself in a disinterested effort to look for truth, which starts with looking for the best arguments on the other side, rather than in a Kulturkampf where all one does is look for weaknesses on the other side to be exploited. I hope I wasn’t psychologizing just then.)