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Let’s start with one observation and one question:
The Observation: To the extent democracy works, it works best at the local level. It’s reasonable to expect that people will see, know, and care what their government does in the cities they live in. It’s reasonable to hope that people will exercise some oversight and discipline — by means of the vote — over these governments when they are manifestly failing to serve them.
But it is not reasonable to expect an average American citizen to have a specialist understanding of US foreign policy in every region of the globe; that’s utterly unreasonable and inconsistent with all common sense and experience. No normal person could really grasp whether — day-to-day — our policies toward Russia, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East make perfect sense, separately or together, particularly given the languages one would have to master to do so, and particularly given that so much of our policy is not transparent, by design.
The Question: Given this, are there any shortcuts by which an ordinary citizen might accurately judge — on the basis of the limited information available to him or her — that the policies we’re pursuing, and the institutions we’re relying upon, are obviously incompetent?
A good shortcut, in my view, would be one that allows ordinary people to put the brakes on an incompetent policy before there’s a hole in the ground where a city used to be.
I’m focusing on the word competence — rather than ethical, sane, dignified, wise, or even the phrase in good faith — for a reason. It’s a more limited category. Sometimes it’s useful to make a question smaller and more precise. I think I’ve identified a few shortcuts. They might be of use.
But first, a question for you: what definition of competence would satisfy you? And here, the answer, “governments are never that competent” isn’t good enough. When it comes to foreign policy, there’s no alternative: only governments can conduct it.
So the first thing to think about is this: what does competence look like, generally? Not just in foreign policy: in any endeavor. And let me suggest, for purposes of comparison, a field of human activity that’s marked, generally, by competence. It’s not perfect — far from it — but basically, even without a lot of specialist knowledge, most of us think it’s conducted to a very high level of competence:
Commercial air travel.
Most of us don’t enjoy air travel, but we generally think pilots and air traffic controllers know what they’re doing. Few of us could really explain how all those planes are staying in the air, but we all know that they are, and that catastrophic failures are so rare as to be almost statistically insignificant.
That’s competent. Not perfect, not a miracle, but competent.
What else in our ordinary experience is like that? Let’s make a list.