Another Perspective

Missing a Rational Center

Has ideology trumped competence in American foreign policy?

By 4.5.07

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The moderator introduced the speaker as the "scourge of the neoncons." A kind invitation to lunch at Washington's Metropolitan Club offered the opportunity to hear this scourge, Jonathan Clarke, a former career British diplomat and, along with Stefan Halper, co-author of The Silence of the Rational Center: Why American Foreign Policy Is Failing.

The dust jacket to his new book bears endorsements from Alfred Regnery, publisher of The American Spectator, and John Lehman, former Secretary of the Navy and member of the 9/11 Commission, among others.

Regnery wrote, "The case for a return of expertise to international affairs has never been made so cogently."

Clarke is not at all pleased with the damage wrought by ideology, particularly neoconservatism, on the conduct of foreign policy. He believes that various and sundry "Big Ideas" have trumped competence and sheer expertise since World War II, most notably in the cases of Vietnam and the war in Iraq.

He finds it striking that America has had two back-to-back generations which have perpetrated failed foreign and military ventures. He believes that both Iraq and Vietnam were grounded in millenarian assumptions. Rather than focus on the persona of President George W. Bush, he prefers to focus on the "systematic failing" that is "built into the system" of American foreign and military policy-making.

Clarke is concerned that both the left and the right are contemplating further military interventions in Darfur and Iran. He sees the possibility of an alliance between both ends of the political spectrum promoting a bellicose approach to China's rise as a world power.

Clarke describes the "format" of American foreign policy as derived from three influences: a historic sense of American Exceptionalism; the vast superiority or preeminence of U.S. military power unprecedented in the history of the world, accompanied by a growing "sense of power"; and a frenetic 24/7 news cycle with a penchant for immediate, adversarial programming on media outlets such as cable news.

As to the Big Ideas which can overwhelm rational, deliberative processes, Clarke cites such examples as Manifest Destiny, the Domino Theory, the Axis of Evil and Freedom on the March. These concepts are hard for Americans to resist, making it very difficult for robust debate to take place, intimidating even the most vaunted think tanks in Washington.

Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, top officials in Bush I and the Carter administrations, respectively, were the only members of the Washington establishment to have remained immune to the Big Ideas in vogue in 2003.

CLARKE EMPHASIZED THE "extraordinary accuracy" of American military, "smart bombs" and the like, as creating a mindset on both the left and right which looks to the deployment of armed force "in a painless way." He cites the famous taunt of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright hurled at Colin Powell while he was serving as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: "What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it."

Except for the matter of the Chinese embassy, the bombing of downtown Belgrade in 1999 was a virtuoso display of stand-off weapons which contributed to a "new aesthetic of war." The deployment of military force to deal with international crises has now become for many not a question "of whether but only where to use U.S. military force."

Policy-makers now believe these new technological marvels allow them to avoid running afoul the Just War Doctrine, given the ability to discriminate between civilian and military targets with precision. Hence, almost every instance of "collateral damage" is viewed as "genuinely accidental."

Clarke claims today's media renders serious debate or extended, nuanced discussion almost impossible given the demands of the 24-hour news cycle and the polemical nature of so many news programs.

Clarke and Halper quote conservative economist Bruce Bartlett who, after begging off a cable show because he did not want to be the "knee-jerk Bush supporter," noted that "the debate format creates the illusion that there is always a simple answer to every complex problem and encourages average television viewers to assume that those of us in the Washington policymaking community are all idiots totally beholden to our party, without a lick of common sense or integrity."

Clarke did not explain how the media's impact on policy is any more deleterious than during the ascendancy of the three network news establishments with their monochromatic liberalism during the Vietnam era. Foreign policy failures seem to have occurred under both dispensations.

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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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.