Saturday, September 5, 2009

A missed opportunity: Guy Raz, Paul Wolfowitz, and one bad interview

I don't regularly listen to All Things Considered (ATC) but I hear snatches of it now and again, often if I happen to be driving when it's on. This Saturday afternoon I heard Guy Raz, the ATC weekend host, interview Paul Wolfowitz. The ostensible subject was a piece Wolfowitz wrote for Foreign Policy (a piece I was aware of but have not read) apparently criticizing the "realist" view -- as Wolfowitz labels and interprets it -- that other countries' internal political arrangements are their own concern and should be off-limits to U.S. foreign policy. Or, to quote or closely paraphrase Wolfowitz from the interview, he was criticizing the notion that "other countries' internal affairs is [sic] their own business" and should be insulated from U.S. interference of any kind, including peaceful efforts to promote democracy, womens' rights, etc.

There are more than a couple of interesting questions that could have been raised about this. First of all, does any analyst or commentator or academic or whatever hold the view Wolfowitz is labeling "realist"? If not, why bother criticizing it? If so, who are they? Second of all and more important, how is Wolfowitz defining "internal affairs"? When is intervention, peaceful or otherwise, in another country's internal affairs warranted and when is it not? If no bright-line principle can be stated, what kinds of considerations should be weighed? How does Wolfowitz's approach jibe, if at all, with the well-known axiom that, from the standpoint of international law and diplomatic norms, a country's internal affairs are indeed mostly its own business? And so on.

Unfortunately, Raz did not ask most of these questions, preferring to spend time needling Wolfowitz about the Iraq war and his role in its planning. Now far be it from me to suggest that Wolfowitz does not deserve to be needled, badgered, and hounded about his role in the Iraq war. The fact that Wolfowitz's reputation has survived Iraq sufficiently unscathed to permit him to be a visiting fellow at AEI and a writer of pieces for Foreign Policy in itself is suggestive of how gross mistakes, no matter how blatant and horrible, go basically unpunished in Washington policy circles. Nonetheless, the subject of the interview was supposed to be the "realist" doctrine of non-interference in internal affairs -- actually less a "realist" doctrine than, as I've already indicated, a basic principle of international law -- and it would have been nice if Raz had pressed more on this subject. He could have conducted just as tough an interview if he had asked fewer questions about Iraq and more about what Wolfowitz came to talk about, since it's a subject that people have been debating forever. Toward the end Raz started to ask some pointed, relevant questions but by then it was too late. This was not one of Nat'l Public Radio's finer moments, IMHO.

But wait!, I hear you crying. Wasn't the invasion of Iraq an extreme case of intervention in another country's internal affairs and aren't questions about Iraq therefore very relevant to the subject? Well, no. The very fact that it was such an extreme case means that it's not especially useful as a point of interrogation -- in this context.

P.s. James Fallows links to the unedited, longer version of the interview. I'm not sure I'm going to listen to this 37-minute version (indeed, I'm almost certainly not going to), but I'm providing this link as a service to this blog's hordes of readers.

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