You’ll notice by reading the list at the top of the blog that foreign policy isn’t one of the areas I’m very comfortable discussing. My knee-jerk reaction is to be extremely skeptical of the type of military intervention we’ve embarked upon, but here at the (appropriately named) Woodrow Wilson School, there are plenty of interventionists advancing a seemingly unlimited number of rationales and justifications for military involvement. What strikes me, though, is that while proponents of intervention most often couch their support in moral terms about the plight of Libyans, the question of United States involvement is often debated only in practical terms about what we are (and are not) capable of and what this means — again, practically speaking — about our relationship with our allies and international institutions. But where’s the debate about the massive constitutional issues regarding lack of public debate, lack of legislative authorization, and wisdom and morality of preemptive war in a general sense?
Our former Dean Anne-Marie Slaughter in the New York Times, before the Security Council vote, was accusing President Obama of “fiddling while Libya burns.” But notice the issues she addresses: whether the war is “in our interests,” whether it will be “counterproductive,” and ultimately whether it will “work.” But I suppose I view these as second-order questions to my most pressing concern — is it a good idea to have Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton take it upon themselves to preemptively attack another country in the name of the American people without their explicit consent?
I was reminded of Wilson’s classic essay on the study of public administration, where he makes the following claim:
This is the reason why administrative tasks have nowadays to be so studiously and systematically adjusted to carefully tested standards of policy, the reason why we are having now what we never had before, a science of administration. The weightier debates of constitutional principle are even yet by no means concluded; but they are no longer of more immediate practical moment than questions of administration. It is getting to be harder to run a constitution than to frame one.
I think Slaughter and others in the academic/policy world have essentially adopted this view wholesale. There’s simply not enough time to “fiddle” with the “weightier debates of constitutional principle”; rather, we must make sure we are carefully but quickly implementing policy to the best of our ability and focus narrowly on practical concerns. Slaughter even concludes her piece by conceding that “any use of force must be carefully and fully debated,” but she argues that “that debate has now been had. It’s been raging for a week.” To which I would respond, I must have missed that debate, and furthermore, I think the question of whether the U.S. should be engaging in preemptive war against countries which are no threat to us has been with us since our founding, not early March.
It’s important for practitioners and students of public policy to focus on the here-and-now, of course. Princeton does have history and philosophy departments full of people engaging in larger questions. But I worry that we’ve taken this worship of public administration a bit too far, losing sight of the fundamental role of the American state in our quest to maximize its performance.