My Weekend With the Wonks

When he was once asked to define what exactly an "intellectual" was, British writer Aldous Huxley proposed that it was "a person who’s found something in life that’s more interesting than sex."

Based on Huxley’s definition, I’m here to report to you that I had a very, very interesting weekend, which I spent with a group of some of Washington’s leading policy intellectuals, AKA policy "wonks," in a Big Ideas retreat outside of the U.S. capital, where one of those wealthy foundations wined and dined us for three days in what could be described as a mini-Davos.

In return, we were expected to come up with new ideas on how to fix the universe or, more precisely, draw up the outline of a strategy that would permit the master of the universe, the United States, to stabilize Iraq, bring peace to the Middle East, re-energize the Western alliance, and accommodate the Chinese, among many other things.

I have to admit that most of these wonks are clearly more intelligent, more knowledgeable, and more experienced than your humble scribe here. Some of them have Ph.D.s from the most prestigious universities in the land, are fluent in many foreign languages, including Chinese, Persian and Urdu, and have served in top positions in the White House, Pentagon, State Department, and Congress, where they provided advice to U.S. officials, lawmakers, and generals as they attempted to manage American foreign policy and resolve international crises.

No Big Ideas

Hence the expectation among the conference’s organizers that some of these Washington’s Best and Brightest – I’m not including myself in that category – would have one of those eureka! moments and 72 hours of food, beer, and long debates into the early morning hours would produce – boom, gee whiz – the Big Idea in the form of, say, an exit strategy from Iraq or a new approach to dealing with Iran.

Well, don’t hold your breath. The long weekend failed to generate either Big Ideas or even tiny ones. While I’m prohibited by the off-the-record ground rules from revealing the names of the conference’s attendees or what exactly was said during that retreat in Virginia, I can convey to you my main and very depressing impression: American foreign policy in Iraq, the larger Middle East, and elsewhere is in a mess, and no one really knows how to get out of it.

Most of the participants suggested that Americans have to "stay the course in Iraq," and expressed hope (wishful thinking?) that we will soon "turn the corner" there and things will get better in Mesopotamia, that perhaps the Sunnis will join the political process, and that the elections in December will be "successful" (whatever that means).

In short, just continue muddling through and pray for a miracle.

There are some signs of the emergence of a foreign policy debate in Washington – clearly reflected in the discussions at the conference – which pits Kissinger-style realpolitik types against Wilsonian idealists.

But taking into consideration some of the comments and predictions I heard during the weekend, the idealists – that is, the neoconservative ideologues who hijacked U.S. foreign policy after 9/11 – have not lost their momentum.

The notion that the U.S. has the right and the obligation to promote American-style freedom and democracy not only in the Middle East but worldwide seems to be a dominant view among Washington’s policy wonks. In fact, one of the panels during the conference was devoted to a discussion of how America could use its power to "democratize" Southeast Asia, including Singapore.

Even those Democrats participating in the event who have been critical of the neocons did not express opposition to the global democracy project itself. They just seemed to suggest that unlike the neocons, they would be able to achieve it at less cost, especially in military terms, for the U.S. Call it "neocon lite."

Interestingly enough, the harshest denunciations of the conduct of the Bushies’ foreign policy and the neoconservative global democracy agenda one hears these days don’t come from the direction of the Democratic Party but from Republican establishment figures who served in the administration of George the First.

Democracy by Force

Hence Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser under Bush I, in an interview he gave to New Yorker magazine, criticized Vice President Dick Cheney for siding with the militant neocons who wanted to reform the Middle East by force.

Scowcroft said in the interview that he believed Paul Wolfowitz and other neocons "got a utopia out there." Democracy cannot be imposed by force, and not everyone values freedom above all, Scowcroft argued.

As a realist, Scowcroft expressed in the interview the necessity of considering the consequences of action, or "outcomes." For Scowcroft, "the second Gulf War is a reminder of the unwelcome consequences of radical intervention, especially when it is attempted without sufficient understanding of America’s limitations or of the history of the region," concluded the New Yorker article.

But it’s important to remember that one of the main reasons that Scowcroft feels comfortable expressing such views that run contrary to the policy paradigm dominating in Washington is that this elder statesman is not looking for a job in the administration, Congress, or the other centers of power in Washington.

Most of the policy intellectuals I met over the weekend are still relatively young and are marketing their ideas as part of a strategy to win professional benefits, and challenging the conventional wisdom on Iraq ("stay the course") and other issues wouldn’t help advance that goal.

They might have found something more interesting in life than sex – but it’s not an exit strategy from Iraq.

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