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How Big Ideas distort American foreign policy

The Baltimore Sun

The Silence of the Rational Center

Why American Foreign Policy is Failing

By Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke

Basic Books / 312 pages / $26.95

[Special to The Sun]

In 2006, journalists, generals, scholars, senators and a former secretary of state agreed that the war in Iraq was a disaster. They were too late. During the "golden hour," when decisions were made about weapons of mass destruction, "shock and awe," de-Baathification and the detention of "enemy combatants," career professionals working in government, universities and think tanks did not analyze - or challenge - the policies and pronouncements of the Bush administration. With experts left in the shadows, American foreign policy was militarized, amid predictions of "Freedom on the March."

In The Silence of the Rational Center, Stefan Halper, a senior fellow at the Center of International Studies at Cambridge University, and Jonathan Clarke, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, seek to explain the sterility of public debate in the United States over war and peace. More than citizens in other nations, they argue, Americans have a penchant for "Big Ideas" - Manifest Destiny, the Domino Theory, the War on Terror. Moral assertions disguised as strategic doctrines, Big Ideas tend to change "complex issues into simple nostrums," convert policies into quasi-religious missions and preclude the "subtle balancing of interests and resources" that is the hallmark of a successful foreign policy.

The rise of the 24/7 media has put Big Ideas at the center of public discourse. Cable TV, talk radio and tabloids package and polarize, putting partisan prizefighters in a mosh pit. Equally disturbing, according to Halper and Clarke, public intellectuals and policy wonks have struck a Faustian bargain, "trading in their expert status for media-blessed celebrity or political influence." Sound bites and advocacy - not knowledge, nuance, or analysis - have become the coin of the realm.

As Halper and Clarke indicate, Big Ideas are a venerable American tradition. With and without a manipulative modern media. they have discouraged dispassionate analysis. And chilled - or killed - dissent. In the 1940a and '50s, for example, McCarthyites purged virtually all the China experts from the State Department because they were insufficiently anti-communist. More recently, Vice President Dick Cheney questioned the patriotism of anyone who advocated U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

Nonetheless, the authors do not make a compelling case that Big Ideas have silenced the rational center. Cold Warriors, they claim, turned "containment" from a strategy to a slogan, backed by a "simple-minded policy of across-the-board confrontation" with a Communist "monolith." Their account ignores President Dwight D. Eisenhower's decision not to intervene in the Hungarian revolution of 1956 - and his reluctance, despite the "Domino Theory," to commit American troops to Vietnam.

Even presidents apparently in thrall to Big Ideas learned from and listened to the rational center. Richard M. Nixon, the arch-anti-communist, went to China. Ronald Reagan sought agreement with "the Evil Empire" to eliminate nuclear weapons. The talented team assembled by George H.W. Bush developed an ingenious formula to unify Germany without antagonizing the Soviet Union. And George W. Bush concluded an agreement with North Korea, a charter member of "the Axis of Evil."

Although Halper and Clarke do not define "the rational center," they imply that it is inconsistent with policy advocacy. Think tanks, they assert, now spend more time and resources promoting a coherent political message than encouraging a robust debate with a diversity of views. Ideological funders now shape many think tank agendas. Members of America's intellectual elite, moreover, have become "policy entrepreneurs," tacitly or explicitly endorsing Big Ideas, and downplaying their own expertise.

Some experts, of course, have always relished access to people in power. And policy-makers have often used intellectuals like a drunk uses a lamp post: for support and not illumination. Halper and Clarke, it seems, are not really annoyed with Bernard Lewis of Princeton because he failed to provide a clear, reasoned and well-informed analysis of the prospects of democracy in Iraq. They're upset because Lewis gave lousy advice - and lent the weight of his prodigious reputation to an administration rationale the authors believe was flawed. And because once "the decider" made up his mind, he did what presidents are wont to do: He disdained and discredited "lesser voices, speaking truth to power," who questioned the "consensus" on the use of military power and emphasized that democracies rarely defeat insurgencies.

Citing the Iraq Study Group and Bush's use of diplomacy in dealing with North Korea, Iran and Lebanon, Halper and Clarke conclude that the rational center is returning. Abandoning their emphasis on the transformative power of Big Ideas and the 24/7 media, they posit a "recurring cycle" of crisis and war, in which the center does not hold, and, after reality bites, a return to reason and restraint. "Even at its most foolish," they write, "America retains a reservoir of good sense. Let us hope it prevails."

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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