From Disraeli to ‘the Bang-Bang’

I want to step back from the controversy over Libya and take a look at one definition of what foreign policy is, or rather what its broader purposes might be. Then I want to make a small point.

The other day I came across an extract from a debate that took place in the British House of Commons in July 1864. Benjamin Disraeli, the future prime minister, was arguing that the government’s policy in Germany and Denmark was a failure and deserved Parliament’s formal censure. In damning Westminster’s mismanagement, he drew a pretty good, broad-strokes picture of what a great nation’s foreign policy might look like.

First the damning. “Do you see,” Disraeli asks, “the kind of capacity that is adequate to the occasion? Do you find . . . that sagacity, that prudence, that dexterity, that quickness of perception” and that mood of “conciliation” are necessary in the transaction of foreign affairs? No, he suggests, you do not. All these characteristics have been “wanting,” and because they are wanting, three results have accrued: The policy of Her Majesty’s government has failed, England’s “influence in the councils of Europe has been lowered,” and that waning of influence has left the prospects for peace diminished.

He stops to define terms: Regarding influence, “I mean an influence that results from the conviction of foreign Powers that our resources are great and that our policy is moderate and steadfast.” He seeks the return of a conservative approach. “I do not mean by a Conservative foreign policy a foreign policy that would disapprove, still less oppose, the natural development of nations. I mean a foreign policy interested in the tranquility and prosperity of the world,” one condition of which is peace. England should be “a moderating and mediatorial Power.” Its interest, when changes in the world are inevitable and necessary, is to assist so that the changes “if possible, may be accomplished without war; or, if war occurs, that its duration and asperity be lessened.”

Disraeli’s censure motion would narrowly fail and in the end not matter much. But there’s something satisfying and refreshing in his clear assertion of basic principles, of beginning points for thinking about foreign policy. A nation, to have influence, must be understood by all to be both very strong and very sober. Prosperity and tranquility are legitimate goals, peace a necessary condition. And there’s a paradox as great nations move forward in the world: In order to have a dramatically good influence, you must have a known bias toward the nondramatic, toward the merely prudent and wise. A known bias, that is, toward peaceableness. And here is my small point.

All this speaks to something I think we have lost the past 10 years—the generally understood sense in the world that the U.S. has a known bias toward the moderate and peaceable. I don’t here argue or debate the many reasons, the history, or the series of actions that have brought this about, only to note: It was a lot to lose! I think we want to get it back, or try to re-establish a good portion of it. Because there is great benefit in seeming to be a big strong nation that is unroiled, unruffled and unbattered by the constant high seas of the world. Passivity isn’t an option, and what’s called isolationism is an impossibility—we live in the world—but we are too much taken by the idea of dramatic action. We’ve become almost addicted to it, or that our presidents have.

*   *   *

There are always many facts and dynamics that prompt modern leaders toward dramatic and immediate action as opposed to reflection, serious debate, and the long slog of diplomatic effort. But are we fully appreciating that our media, now, seem to force the hand of every leader and require them to decide, move and push forward?

The bias of the media is for action, passion and pictures. It is television producers and website runners who are the greatest lovers of “kinetic” events. They need to fill time. They need conflict and drama. At CBS News years ago there was a producer who called the film, as it then was, of a military or street battle “the bang-bang.” The bang-bang was good for a piece. In a good minute-30 report there would be the stand-up opening by the correspondent, the statement of the besieged ruler or the aggrieved rebel, the map with arrows, the bang-bang, and then the closing summation. It was good TV! It is still good TV, and there is more TV than ever.

Every president has to know now that if there is fighting somewhere in the world, if there is suffering somewhere in the world, and the U.S. does not become involved, the scandal of that lack of involvement will become an endless segment on an endless television show full of endless questions. Why the inaction? Why are we doing nothing?

It should be noted that we are fighting now in Libya not because of mass slaughter but because of the threat of mass slaughter. Let’s say what the president’s supporters can’t say and his opponents won’t say: If the slaughter had happened, those pictures would have been very bad politically for the president.

Our foreign policy is increasingly driven by the needs of television programmers. I think I’ll repeat that: Our foreign policy is more and more being dictated by the people who do the rundowns for TV news shows.

A president who “does nothing” in the face of trouble, who does not respond to the constant agitation of dramatic videotape on television and the Internet, is called weak. He is called cowardly, dithering, unworthy. He is called Jimmy Carter.

So he and his administration feel forced to share the media’s bias toward action. No longer are leaders allowed to think what previous generations of political leaders knew, or learned: that when 10 problems are walking toward you on the street, you don’t have to rush forward to confront them. It’s wiser to wait because, life being messy and unpredictable, half the problems will fall in a ditch or lose their strength before they get to you. The trick is to handle with dispatch ones that do reach you. The talent is in guessing which ones they might be.

I know that this particular challenge to foreign policy sobriety is not new and is in fact at least 30 years old. But with the proliferation of media and technology, it is getting more intense. It will never lessen now. It will only build.

There ought to be a word for something we know that is so much a part of our lives that we forget to know it, we forget to see it, and yet it has a profound impact on the world we live in. We forget to fully factor it in, or we do factor it in but don’t notice it is a primary factor.

Every leader now must know the dynamic and be an active bulwark against it. He will have to discuss why we cannot allow our nervous, agitating media to demand our involvement in every fight.

A president has to provide all the pushback. Republicans should keep that in mind, too. They’ll have the White House soon enough. Some of their decisions will be at the mercy of television programmers too.