Big Dangerous Ideas

Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke, The Silence of the Rational Center: Why American Foreign Policy is Failing (New York: Basic, 2007), 312 pp., $26.95.

by Doug Bandow

The supposedly indispensable nation is having a tough time in what is supposed to be the unipolar moment. The U.S. might be the unipower, the globe’s sole superpower, but a handful of Iraqi insurgents, Afghan guerrillas, and Islamic jihadists didn’t get the Bush administration memo. Being an imperial power just ain’t what it once was cracked up to be. Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke, two astute foreign policy practitioners and observers, attempt to answer the question: “what happened”?

They write, with prodigious understatement: “At times, United States foreign policy has been extraordinarily successful. The current era, sadly, is not one of those times. With the American image tracking new lows in almost every part of the world and American policies meeting nearly unprecedented resistance, the state of US relations with the rest of the world is bleak.”

Of course, for many neocon warriors – the Dick Cheneys of government, academia, and journalism, who are far better at plotting wars for others than in fighting wars themselves – the attitude of the rest of the world is irrelevant. America is right and should be obeyed. Anyone who resists Washington’s dictates is an enemy state or fellow traveler, deserving of contempt and pressure (always), as well as sanctions and bombing (sometimes).

The fantasy that this policy would work lasted a few months after 9/11. The Bush administration took for granted the general sympathy and support of other nations. When even allies balked at the bizarre detour of war with Iraq, the U.S. treated them as irrelevant irritants. “Once we have victory in Baghdad, all the critics will look like fools,” said Vice President Richard Cheney in 2002.

The fools turned out to be running the U.S. government, and soon found their foreign policy in ruins. Iraq was aflame, the Mideast was destabilized, Iran was empowered and moving forward with a nuclear program, North Korea was adding nuclear weapons to its arsenal, Afghanistan was slipping away, Latin America was becoming more hostile towards America, Russia was turning belligerent, and peace between Israelis and Palestinians was as elusive as ever. So much for not needing the rest of the world.

The president and his neocon coterie had little to say except to blame everyone but themselves: treasonous Democrats, cowardly Republicans, evil leftists, biased journalists, inept officials, blundering soldiers, ungrateful foreigners. But the armchair warriors recently have fallen out among themselves. Some former Bush allies now paint him, and especially former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, as incompetents. Our plan was brilliant, say Richard Perle, Bill Kristol, and others. It was that fool Bush and his idiot aides who messed everything up. Quite a charming cat fight.

Halper and Clarke have a different answer as to why Iraq turned out so badly. They point out that it wasn’t that long ago when an American government was noted for its adept diplomacy, notably that of George H.W. Bush. They write: “The reunification of Germany took place less than twenty years ago, but as a diplomatic accomplishment it seems to come from another age. The Bush team’s quiet competence in securing American interests and advancing global good without causing resentment seems a distant memory now.”

Why the difference? Halper and Clarke believe that Bush II & Co. triumphed with disastrous policies because of the flawed policy debate. The authors explain in The Silence of the Rational Center:

"The administration of American foreign policy, particularly if it involves significant human and financial costs, can proceed only with the support of the public. This means that in advance of major decisions a debate about the options takes place in the public space. In considering this critical juncture in the policy process, we suggest that embedded flaws within the structure of foreign policy deliberation produce irrational impulses rather than rational calculation and that these flaws are especially apparent in times of crisis."

It’s an intriguing thesis. One problem is what the authors term the “Big Idea,” the tendency to launch a grand crusade irrespective of consequences. This is not a new phenomenon in U.S. history – Manifest Destiny and Wilsonian war-making were two ugly “Big Ideas.” In the case of Iraq, the authors note, the American people “found the notion of ‘Freedom on the March’ so alluring that few challenged the Administration’s rationale for the policy or demanded that the media or Congress ask the required questions on their behalf. Those who did make such demands were dismissed or barely heard.” Big Ideas often are alluring, but ultimately dangerous.

As in Vietnam, the Iraq Big Idea overwhelmed non-governmental institutions, each of which “is entrusted with our hopes and guided by its responsibility to provide the nation with balance, leadership, and substantive analysis.” Thus, a relatively few neoconservative ideologues effectively seized the U.S. military for use in their misguided crusade. As a result, the authors write, “we witnessed a similar institutional failure, as an entire generation of Middle East experts from the State Department, the CIA, the uniformed military, the think tanks, and the academy were left in the shadow of rising neoconservatives who seized and defined the debate.”

One of the great ironies is that the so-called mainstream media, so often derided by conservatives for its liberal bias, played a critical role in amplifying neoconservative fantasies. Note the authors, “Administration-manufactured crisis narratives fed the media’s endless search for sensation and drama while measured criticisms of these scenarios were far less exciting to watch or hear. Ratings-driven media competition exploited an insecure public’s compulsion to learn as much about unfolding or worsening crises as quickly as possible. In this context themes advanced by Administration officials were echoed and repeated relentlessly by media outlets hungry for eyeballs and eardrums.”

The Silence of the Rational Center devotes an entire chapter to the negative impact of cable news. The cable networks have been charged with sensationalism and even fabrication, among other things, but on these the authors take no position. What bothers them is “as a force multiplier of Big Ideas and the concepts that frame them, cable news creates a new and genuine foreign policy problem.”

More surprising in their view was the failure of the think tank community to lead “the assault against the primacy of entertainment over detailed exchange, and celebrity over substance.” Obviously, think tanks may employ advocates of promiscuous war-making, and those advocates may advance their views. However, Halper and Clarke perceive a collective failure of the think tank community to promote a serious debate.

They further explain:

"Though they had well-identified views in favor of the Iraq policy, they failed to remain true to their intellectual mission of offering a platform for a debate on the merits. They have been led by the Administration’s crisis narrative and framing concepts. This is wrong for an organization ostensibly in the ideas business. Heritage, for instance, demonized those who disagreed with it in a formal seminar where opponents of the Iraq war were described as “communist fellow travelers.” In effect, these organizations, together, fashioned a well-funded campaign of conferences, books, magazine articles, op-eds, and regular appearances on television and talk radio that relentlessly advanced a single Big Idea, namely that the Middle East could and should be transformed into democratic states, in which process the Iraq war was an essential first step."

The problem of the devolution of think tanks to message tanks probably affects foreign policy more than domestic issues since the former is more likely to involve complexity and nuance. Yet, the authors write, “information and open debate struggle to compete in the public space with empty, slogan-based exchange that simplifies the variables and suppresses detailed discussion. The more a think tank can craft a simple coherent message, the more its message prevails in an environment of complex ideas.”

Halper and Clarke see the performance of other elites, including from academia, as no less flawed. They direct their fire at critics as well as advocates of the Iraq war. For instance, some elites see America as the enemy. Thus, “theirs is an unstinting celebration of the virulent and, at times, paranoid left. These academics, while gaining great prominence on campuses and in the left-of-center press, have distanced themselves from the rational center, becoming morbid ‘hawkers’ instead of problem solvers in the policy debate.” Indeed, the tendency of liberal critics to voice the most extreme attacks on the administration and America weakened the case against the war.

One of the worst tendencies identified by Halper and Clarke, something with implications far beyond Iraq, is the increasing willingness to employ military force. The fact that 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry “chose to play up his martial side illustrates the potency of one of the more important Big Ideas of our time: namely, that America’s advantage in foreign policy lies in its military power and willingness to use it,” the authors write.

This may be the most important point of their fine book. Neocons, obviously, believe in coercive social engineering around the globe. It is America’s right and destiny to reorder any society which it desires. Thus Iraq. And thus potentially many other countries.

Yet many liberal critics of the Bush administration are equally eager to use the U.S. military, only in different lands – Darfur, North Korea, Kosovo, Haiti, and more. Halper and Clarke note that this tendency “is particularly marked among the civilian leadership, who are often more aggressive in their advocacy of force than the professional military.” The authors trace the intellectual roots of this new militarism (a phenomenon ably described by Boston University’s Andrew Bacevich in The New American Militarism). As the authors observe, it is not enough to believe that America is able to “exert its will anywhere in the world.” The more fundamental question is whether the U.S. can “force other cultures, with very different histories and traditions, to embrace democracy, free markets, free expression, and the secular state?”

Halper and Clarke hope to revitalize “the rational center” because its services are desperately needed in the future. When the U.S. confronts the next insurgency, for instance, it must, they write, “define the conflict in a palate of grays, with emphasis on limiting cultural and religious clashes – the handmaidens to civil war – underscoring the massive, long-term commitment involved, and not falling silent in the midst of the fevered patriotism that seems always to provide the context for these events.”

However, “the acid test,” as the authors put it, is China. If the Iraq Big Idea has turned into a disaster, consider the consequences of a similarly wrong-headed China Big Idea. The world’s most populous nation, with a growing nuclear arsenal and rapidly expanding economy, China is likely to eventually be a peer competitor of the U.S. Yet there are proponents of a “China as inevitable enemy” Big Idea – many of whom, not so surprisingly, also backed the “Democratize the Mideast through war” Big Idea.

The consequences of the former policy could be truly catastrophic. Warn Halper and Clarke: “The debate in the United States over China policy must move beyond depictions of a cunningly rapacious monolith to quantify China’s military and trade challenges so that the policy discourse on China is anchored by fact and driven by a strict assessment of American interests.” That is, the China debate must not devolve into another neocon crusade, like Iraq.

The authors propose to advance such a policy by convening a broad-based China Working Group, but such an approach is unlikely to work absent the “return to rationality” which they call for in their final chapter. As Halper and Clarke demonstrate, the policy-making process today is broken.

There were legitimate arguments for invading Iraq, but they received little attention. Neocon warriors preferred to push an attractive Big Idea and demonize their opponents, and the flawed policy-making process rewarded their efforts.

The passing of the Bush administration – ignorant, incompetent, dishonest, manipulative – will provide a better environment for the flourishing of “the rational center.” But that won’t be enough. Other institutions and elites also performed poorly in the run-up to the Iraq war. Whether real reform is possible is unclear. But the stakes are only likely to rise.

As Halper and Clarke conclude their sobering book:

"For all the damage the Iraq war has caused, and for all the disappointment brought by the Bush Administration’s policies elsewhere in the world, one could say that America has dodged a bullet. Iraq was a pitifully weak enemy, and all of radical Islam, despite its chokehold on the world’s most coveted resource – despite even the sometimes hysterical rhetoric coming from both the Arab countries and our own – is not a threat on the scale of Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia at its height. If we had committed such a blunder against an enemy whose strength was more nearly equal to our own, our future – and the world’s – would be in jeopardy. The rational center was silent not exactly at the right time – there is never a right time – but not at the worst time either."

Let us hope that there never is a worst time. But if there is, let us hope and pray that American policymakers do better, much better, than they did over the last six years.