The Electric Commentary

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Drezner v. Benedict

I attended the foreign policy debate between Kennette Benedict, the director of the International Peace and Security Area of the Program on Global Security and Sustainability at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and Daniel Drezner, Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, and excellent blogger. The topic: Democracy Defined: Wield or Yield.

A friend and I took in the hour and a half-long debate, which was standing room only by time we arrived. (Note: everything here is from memory, so the "quotes" that I list are paraphrases. There was no room to hold a notebook, so I could not take notes. Sorry.) There was an impressive turnout considering that it was a Monday night, and that it was a political debate, and on the same night as the start of the Democratic National Convention, which you assume would keep everyone interested in politics at home in front of their TVs. The moderator for the event was Jon Langford who is the founder of the seminal British punk band the Mekons, and also a member of the Chicago-based alt-country band the Waco Brothers. He stated (and made clear throughout the night) that he is very liberal, but I felt that his questions were very even handed, and he always showed respect to both participants (Note: a notable exception was during introductions, where Kennette was given a lengthy and glowing intro and received a long ovation, and Dan was simply described as "a Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago." At that point the questions began, and there was no time for applause). He asked each debater 5 questions over the course of the evening, and each had 5 minutes to answer.

Some general observations:

1. This debate was incredibly civil, and was very enjoyable to listen to. There was no partisan sniping, and even the crowd, which purportedly got a little rowdy at the last GOAt debate, listened diligently the whole time.

2. Drezner supporters were a distinct minority.

3. Daniel really played well to the crowd. I think that they were expecting a big Bush supporter (Dan is still on the fence on who to vote for) and they instead got a very pragmatic and even-handed view of foreign policy from a guy who knows his stuff inside and out. He was often critical of the administration:

What we learned is that while you can win a war with a small light force, you can't occupy a country with a small light force.


The administration is bad at articulating its reasons for war. Really this is nothing new. During Bush 41's administration some political scientist went back and located 27 different justifications for that war. And that war was a war in which a nation state invaded another nation state. The reasons stated for the current war were some of the least compelling reasons. And remember it's ok to go to war for more than one reason. That's allowed. I would have made a bigger deal out of the humanitarian impact. For instance, since about 2002 Saddam Hussein had been carrying out what could only be called genocide against the Shiite Marsh Arabs that live between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 500,000 Marsh Arabs have been wiped out by his regime. And this was ongoing through this year. (The moderator expressed shock at not having known this fact).

4. Kennette was uneven. She sometimes gave very good answers on why an interventionist foreign policy was a bad idea. She often came back to the points that it creates ill will overseas, it costs us American lives, American dollars, and that it is often unnecessary, as people are perfectly capable of taking matters into their own hands in their own countries.

A few times she got off topic and rambled a bit. She pointed out that "we created Hussein and Bin Laden" which is sort of true. We funded Bin Laden in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, and Hussein against Iran as part of our Middle East balance of power politics in the eighties. Is that really an argument not to wage war against them?

She also was enamored with the idea that war never results in stability afterwards, and that the correct path to take with regard to the radical Islamist movement is to understand them better, and "look inward at what we have done wrong." That understanding our enemy would make it unnecessary to fight our enemy. I have never understood this argument. (Drezner, to his credit, responded to this by quoting verbatim the bipartisan 9/11 commission report. It states that negotiation with al-Qaida and Islamist regimes is impossible, as we share no common ground, "not even a respect for life.")

Kennette also made a few way-out-there comments to the effect that the US was as morally bankrupt for having nuclear weapons as North Korea was for seeking them, that North Korea could use a nuclear facility for energy production purposes to aid it's impoverished population and that we were wrong for opposing it, and that we wish to dominate space and develop a laser weapon to kill preemptively those that we disagree with. Seriously. She also stated that Castro was "not the friendliest guy" in the understatement of the evening. But this probably makes her sound wackier than she was. This list is mainly composed of what caused Dan to roll his eyes. By and large she was very down to earth and made a few compelling arguments.

5. Dan was always on topic. He always started by stating his conclusion and then used facts to back it up. He supported promoting democracy abroad because two democracies have never fought each other in war. A democracy has never experienced a famine. Democracies are more likely to have other democracies around them. He offered hard facts.

In answer to this question, Kennette stated that everyone wants democracy and we can't import it, because it already exists internally in every person. She cited 4th century Indian emperors as instituting the earliest democracies (she was emphatic that ancient Greece did not invent it) and that several African tribes have used democracy for centuries, although these may not look like what we conceive of as democracy. Basically, she argued that we need not bother exporting democracy abroad because it is impossible, and already desired by all.

Dan responded to this point with the fact that the Middle East has never had a democracy and has no tradition of democracy that might naturally take hold (except Israel, of course). Therefore, injecting democracy into the region is not only a good idea for us, but also for the Middle East. He also agreed that every country would like democracy, but not that every country was internally capable of instituting it.

6. There were two instances of sniping that I noticed.

A. When asked if the "Axis of Evil" is evil, Dan responded with an emphatic "yes" citing all of the humanitarian and human rights catastrophes that Iran, Iraq, and North Korea were responsible for and how Reagan's "Evil Empire" speech was an important moment in turning the cold war in our favor. How?

Believe it or not, totalitarian regimes seek legitimacy. They like to be recognized in the international community, and it makes life easier for them. By labeling these governments as evil, it makes it harder for the rest of the world to recognize them and aid them. Furthermore, most of the people that live under totalitarian regimes don't like their government, and it is good to communicate to those people just whose side we are on.

Whether you agree with this or not, this is a pragmatic statement citing the strategic importance of the use of the word evil. He also stated several evil actions by the named countries, but by and large he focused on why it was smart to use the words, not why it was right to use them. For this, Kennette called him a "Theologian." It was meant to imply that use of "good" and "evil" to describe people was simplistic and irrational, based in faith and not reason. This only served to illicit an "oooh" from the crowd, and provide Dan with some ammo for later, when the two were discussing the civility of the debate:

Kennette: And really, two sides can have a rational reasoned discussion on this topic.
Dan: Although you did call me a "Theologian" a little over an hour ago.

B. The two were asked a question about sanctions on Cuba. Kennette went first and stated support for ending the Cuban embargo and opening up commerce. She stated that if we do this that Castro would be gone within 2 weeks.

Dan went second and started by saying, "well I've written a book on sanctions so I can speak here as an expert and not a pseudo-expert." This sounded like a rip on Kennette and maybe it was. I think what he meant was that the last few questions were off the topic of discussion and he finally got one that he could speak knowledgeably about, but it sounded a bit harsh to me.

For the record, he also supported opening up Cuba but was less optimistic about the result. His reasoning was that when Castro did die it would be better to have a Western influence there than not to.

7. Dan does a killer Bill Clinton impression. Not just a send up and not the typical SNL impression where the actor sounds like an actor trying to do Bill Clinton. He sounds just like him. He has the mannerisms down as well.

8. Dan drank beer the whole time. I respect that.

9. There should be more debates in bars. It's relaxed, the participants are more open and less guarded, and I think the audience is more receptive to new ideas. In a way, a debate is like trying to pick up a member of the opposite sex. You're trying to get someone to see your side of things through conversation and performance. Often alcohol is a catalyst in this process. Why not a bar? Wouldn't the debates be better if Bush and Kerry had a beer on the podium?

10. Overall, I think that Dan had a better showing, and "won" the debate, to the extent that a debate can have a clear winner. His arguments were sound, and he never acted pompous, never resorted to rhetoric, and always showed respect for his opponent. I think the crowd was generally impressed as well, even if they disagreed with him.

11. Most of the audience questions were, to be as diplomatic as possible, stupid. Both participants did their best to answer anyway.

12. I would highly recommend attending one of these debates in the future, and I would encourage more taverns to copy this idea. Schubas was packed on a Monday, even though they didn't have a special and charged ten bucks a head. Now that is a good business opportunity.

13. Politics should always be as reasoned and devoid of political rhetoric as this. No "Bush lied" or "Kerry is a commie." It was entertaining and informative at the same time.

Fun Fact: (Unless you're North Korean) Did you know that the average South Korean is now four inches taller than the average North Korean? 


Dan clarifies:

One correction -- when I made the statement about answering a question as a real expert and not a pseudo-expert, that crack was NOT targeted at my debating partner, but rather myself -- the previous question or two had covered areas where I felt uneasy making authoritative statements.


  • "There should be more debates in bars. It's relaxed, the participants are more open and less guarded, and I think the audience is more receptive to new ideas. In a way, a debate is like trying to pick up a member of the opposite sex. You're trying to get someone to see your side of things through conversation and performance. Often alcohol is a catalyst in this process. Why not a bar? Wouldn't the debates be better if Bush and Kerry had a beer on the podium?"

    Beer: the cause of and solution to all of life's problems.

    By Blogger DannyNoonan, at 11:29 AM  

  • Dan Drezner's comment about democracy in the Middle East is not true. If he considers Israel a democracy, then he should consider Lebanon one as well (though neither are a true democracy).

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:04 PM  

  • If neither are true democracies, as you assert, than his point is true, as you deny.

    My knowledge of Lebanon is lacking, so I would feel wrong saying definitively that they are not a democracy, but I know a fair amount about Israel, and they most certainly are a democracy. Elections. Prime Minister. Senate (Knesset). Reasonably strong separation of powers. What more do you want?

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 3:38 PM  

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