Column: Devils in the details: exorcism time?

Farm Forum

Last month, while the Obama administration fretted over what might be done in Syria, Los Angeles Times columnist Doyle McManus chimed in with a suggestion. Just do what Clinton Defense Secretary Les Aspin had recommended in Bosnia: Send in American bombers, and see what happens.

On both humanitarian and strategic grounds, this is breathtakingly bad advice, as the American experience in the Balkans should make plain. Bill Clinton’s eventual wag-the-dog bombings of Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999 were no high-water mark in American foreign policy. Quite the reverse.

But to an American public shocked by stories of international humanitarian disasters yet unwilling to do the hard work of understanding events beyond our own borders, the McManus approach to foreign policy probably has widespread appeal: We can give ourselves a pat on the back for effort even if our intervention does more harm than good. What counts are good intentions, never mind the details or the actual results.

One often sees the same attitude to domestic affairs, a curious enthusiasm for “solutions” that, because the details aren’t well thought-out, only make worse the problems they are intended to fix.

We want health care to be better and cheaper and we don’t want anyone to go without coverage, so we jump on the Affordable Health Care bandwagon despite the fact that it isn’t clear how it can do any of those things.

We’re concerned about a broken immigration system, so we applaud “new” measures that look a lot like the failed 1986 reforms.

We’re alarmed at the decline of family farms and the shrinking of rural America, so we’ve absolutely got to have a farm bill, whether it actually helps rural America or not.

We worry about education, so we insist that schools conform to No Child Left Behind standards. And, when that doesn’t work, we put NCLB on steroids with Common Core reforms that can’t possibly improve education. And when schools get worse rather than better, well, we’ll give ourselves an A for effort.

The trouble with this general focus on good intentions is that it opens the door to unscrupulous rent-seekers who know exactly what they want when it comes to the details of legislation and can exert enough lobbying pressure to make sure that they get it. Affordable health care? Well, no, but Big Pharma, the insurance companies and the big medical providers came out just fine. Better schools? Well, no, but the big publishers may be able to use their captive markets to stave off bankruptcy for a while longer.

Whether it’s Bush’s Troubled Asset Relief Program or Obama’s American Recovery and Investment Act, big business interests of one type or another always manage to turn omnibus spending bills to their advantage. But now there’s a problem as far as many of the big players are concerned. Tea party Republicans aren’t playing nice. Congress can’t pass a farm bill, can’t pass an immigration bill and can’t even make a deal to keep student loan interest rates down.

Any way around the impasse? Well, we could bomb Syria and see what happens.

Art Marmorstein, Aberdeen, is a professor of history at NSU. He can be reached at The views are his and do not represent Northern State University.