A decade ago, Ron Suskind wrote a pretty memorable New York Times Magazine cover story about the George W. Bush administration’s worldview. The memorable part is this paragraph:
The Zen Masters, on the other hand, belong to what Suskind’s source would label the “reality-based community.” These people think that the long arc of history is bending in their direction — that the fundamental strengths of the United States and its key allies are more robust than any potential rivals on the global stage. The worst thing to do, therefore, is to overreact in the short run to things that will balance out in the long run. They don’t believe in getting riled up too much, and that, in the end, the universe tends to unfold as it should. It’s not that they’re unaware of what Russia or China or the Islamic State is doing — it’s that they believe that these actions are short-sighted, counterproductive and very likely to fail. They believe that actors that try to forcibly revise the status quo will pay a serious price. The Zen Masters predict that Russia won’t be able to do much to directly control eastern Ukraine, China is alienating all of its neighbors, Iran is itching to re-join the international community, and the Islamic State will eventually alienate its subject population through its zealotry. If the Reality Creators emphasizes the ability of actors to alter the course of events, the Zen Masters believe in the power of structures to constrain and punish even the most ambitious revisionist. So long as the United States doesn’t do stupid s**t, as it were, then eventually the United States will find itself in a favorable geopolitical position — even if the current moment seems chaotic. The worst sin, from the Zen Masters’ point of view, is overreaction.
The Reality Creators include most GOP critics of American foreign policy, most foreign policy columnists for The Washington Post, most of the foreign policy community, a minority of Americans, and possibly Hillary Rodham Clinton. The Zen Masters are comprised of most Obama administration officials, the Democratic Party establishment, Rand Paul and other liberty conservatives, a majority of Americans, and possibly Hillary Clinton.
Not surprisingly, the Reality Creators think that the Zen Masters are foolish and naive. Equally unsurprisingly, the Zen Masters think the Reality Creators are reckless and overconfident in the use of force.
I’ll have more to say about this divide this week, because it helps to explains a few of the foreign policy frictions that are going on right now. For now, however, I’ll simply note that from a Beltway perspective, it stinks to be a Zen Master. Even if the American public currently supports the Zen Master approach to the world, they’re still not thrilled with the short-run outcomes. On the other hand, the compelling thing about being a Reality Creator is the profound belief in the will to act, to do something to alter the tides of history. The optical bias in politics always favors action over inaction.
Furthermore, Reality Creators do not control the reins of American foreign policy right now, so they can talk an excellent game. This doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily wrong, but it does mean that until 2017, we’ll have no idea if they would have been right. In the world of politics, it’s good to be able to claim that your way is the right way without having to prove it.