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Clarke and Halper view the cause and solution of America’s current problems reside in the collapse and restoration of the “rational center,” a term which does not quite capture the strength of their argument grounded in experience and expertise.
Clarke defined the rational center as comprising “experts who know the issues.” These experts, people like Clarke presumably (he is now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs), staff the major think tanks and government agencies — career professionals, scholars, analysts. They usually have experience on the ground. Their expertise is as deep as it is narrow.
These experts of the radical center have experience and learning that “have turned most into pragmatists, distrustful of ideology and mindful of long-term interests and enduring issues.”
Clarke believes the rational center, Washington think tanks in particular, have failed America. They should have been in the forefront of the debate prior to the war in Iraq. Of course, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a major node of neoconservative thinking and advocacy, was a full-throated advocate for the war in Iraq and the broader democratization project into which it morphed.
AEI notwithstanding Clarke criticizes the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), an institution of realist thought, and the Brookings Institution, a bastion of liberal intellectual policy, for not vetting or articulating the fundamental issues during the ramping up to war. Brookings “never said clearly that the war was a bad idea.” Even the libertarian Cato Institute “drew in its horns,” at least in the beginning, due to tremendous political pressure.
It is essential in a democracy that these organizations “air the full range of issues” on a matter as important as going to war. In their absence from the debate, they create a vacuum that is filled by extreme voices such as that of Noam Chomsky.
Clarke sees the rise of China, “a classic rivalry” for the U.S., as a test of the rational center to seek a peaceful resolution and insure that it be “adjusted” satisfactorily. It will test the relative strengths of expertise versus “sloganeering.”
WHETHER ONE SUPPORTED OR OPPOSED the Iraq war, the incompetence of the venture actually launched has been nothing short of remarkable. Of all the books and articles written on this subject, James Fallows’s “Blind Into Baghdad” (The Atlantic, January-February 2004) was one of the earliest and most penetrating accounts of how the upper echelons of the administration, most notably the Department of Defense, willfully ignored a vast amount of expert planning for post-war occupation and reconstruction. Thus was the narrow but deep expertise of Clarke’s rational center belittled and ignored.
The failing of many liberal political appointees is the uncritical acceptance of guidance offered by career civil servants. A failing of many conservative political appointees is the uncritical rejection of such advice and expertise for fear of “going native.” So Clarke is surely correct that independent centers of thought and policy development — think tanks — need to exhibit fortitude and courage through honest, forthright engagement with policy-makers when rumors of war are in the air. His analysis aligns with Tocqueville’s in that such “voluntary associations” of experts and intellectuals should provide a counterweight to government-approved thinking in the marketplace of ideas whether it be proffered by the left or right.
Jonathan Clarke’s intelligent and provocative argument raises questions as to the relative importance of prudence and fortitude or bravery. For instance, Virginia Senator and decorated combat veteran Jim Webb had the guts to oppose the war in Iraq long before the wise men in the think tanks spoke up. To assume that intellectuals or experts will muster the courage of a Jim Webb is, to quote another Englishman, the triumph of hope over experience. The hive of Washington think tanks may be the last place one would look for that kind of independence of spirit.
History is contingent, and no single factor contributes to human success or failure. Experts, be they in think tanks or anywhere else, are part of a very large cast playing on the great stage of national life. Yet, an individual can make a difference if he has both prudence and fortitude. The former must guide the latter, but both are necessary if one hopes to turn the tide of human events.
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