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New York Times Book Review: The Silence of the Rational Center

February 20, 2007

The Silence of the Rational Center

As more and more books, articles and government reports on the Iraq war appear, the role that certain idées fixes and ideological preconceptions played in the Bush administration’s decision to go to war becomes increasingly clear. Not only was intelligence cherry-picked to support noisily argued but fallacious theories about weapons of mass destruction and Iraq-Al Qaeda ties, but the war itself seems to have been regarded by some members of the White House and the Pentagon as a kind of demonstration model of their ideas about pre-emptive war, unilateral action and the export of democracy.

In the useful if messy new book, The Silence of the Rational Center, the international affairs scholars Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke argue that the Iraq war represents the third time in post-World War II American history that “Big Ideas have seized the political discourse and driven policy experts to the sidelines,” foreshortening debate, oversimplifying complex issues and replacing reasoned analysis with crude emotional appeals. The other two times this happened, they say, were during the early years of the cold war, when Joseph McCarthy and his Red-scare tactics were riding high, and during the Vietnam War, when the domino theory was invoked as a reason for keeping South Vietnam from falling into the hands of the Communists.

In some respects, this volume is a continuation of arguments set out in America Alone, the authors’ estimable 2004 book, which examined the role neoconservatives played in shaping the administration’s post-9/11 policy and its decision to invade Iraq. That book laid out a detailed, rigorously reasoned critique of the neoconservative ideological agenda from the point of view of more traditional conservatives: Mr. Halper served in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations; Mr. Clarke, now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, was at the time affiliated with the libertarian Cato Institute. The Silence of the Rational Center is an altogether looser, more improvisatory performance.

Astute assessments of the consequences of the either/or thinking and Manichaean language favored by the Bush administration jostle for space with fuzzy generalizations about problems of intelligence gathering; illuminating analogies between Vietnam and Iraq coexist with glib comparisons of Vice President Dick Cheney and former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. The last quarter of the book—devoted to an assessment of potential conflicts with China over trade policy, resources and energy—is often fascinating but has curiously little to do with the main narrative.

As the authors point out, America has always been drawn to the Big Idea, in part because the nation was not established, like many European countries, around a shared culture or history, but was founded on an idea: the idea of exceptionalism, which held that “Americans were a chosen people delivered from corruption and evil to a New World” and destined to serve as “an example to the world.”

Over the years, this animating idea would surface in a variety of guises. In the country’s early years, Mr. Halper and Mr. Clarke write: “Manifest Destiny was the bumper sticker sentiment that asserted the civilizing impulse of Anglo-European culture and the innate supremacy of its practices. The treatment of indigenous populations and the practical necessity for expansion was explained by the notion that America stood in a pivotal position in human history. Manifest Destiny turned an unstoppable popular migration into an affirmation of American identity.”

Later, at the end of the 19th century, with the start of the Spanish-American War, the idea of what the authors call “the Imperialism of Righteousness” emerged: “the notion that Americans were a chosen people destined to transform and reform other civilizations and peoples.” It’s a doctrine that would be echoed by the economist Walt Rostow’s “stages of growth” theory, which would become a template for Washington’s support of South Vietnam as a free-enterprise democracy in the making, and echoed as well by the Iraq war architects’ talk of turning a post-Saddam-Hussein Iraq into a model democracy that would somehow remake the political dynamics of the entire Middle East.

Times of crisis, Mr. Clarke and Mr. Halper point out, tend to make America more susceptible to the lure of the Big Idea and the reductive thinking that often accompanies it. At such times, the nuanced and expert advice of what they call the rational center—career professionals, scholars, analysts and others working in government and at universities and think tanks—is sidelined or ignored, while emotional sloganeering is amplified by 24/7 cable news and Internet chatter that prize raucous confrontations between fervent avatars of the right and the left. Reasoned analysis is shoved to the sidelines, and critics of the party or faction in power are often accused of being unpatriotic or disloyal.

As Mr. Halper and Mr. Clarke see it, the lack of a more vociferous debate over the wisdom of going to war against Iraq reflects the failure of individual scholars and larger institutions to bring their expertise to bear during the “golden hour,” that crucial time when their views might have made a difference. The authors remind us that think tanks with a distinct ideological outlook (like the American Enterprise Institute and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy) are less research institutions than “well-funded lobbies with a support staff of scholars,” and they point to the silence of more nonpartisan organizations in this case as well.

Of the Carnegie Endowment’s record in 2002, they write that Iraq “got onto the agenda only once—in November 2002 when the die was already cast.” They also contend that the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations “stood mute on the matter of opposition.”

“Search the articles of Foreign Affairs from the fall of 2001 to the spring of 2003, the period in which the Iraq debate was conducted,” they write, “and you will look in vain for a single article that raises moderate skepticism, let alone fundamental questions, about the looming decisions.”

From time to time the authors themselves are guilty of oversimplifying or distorting the matters under discussion. For instance, they write that “a large majority of Americans—elite and ordinary, conservatives and liberals—embraced the Big Idea that they were conferring freedom on the Iraqi people, that this was a noble and quintessentially American duty, and that by bearing the gift of liberty they would be welcomed with open arms,” when, in fact, the war was sold to the American public not as a democracy-building project, but on the basis (false, it turned out) that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and posed a grave and gathering threat to the United States.

The authors’ prescription for dealing with the country’s intelligence problems is highly reductive—“Don’t pivot policy or the nation’s security around intelligence”—and their discussion of asymmetrical warfare is full of recycled platitudes.

Such lapses distract attention from the many persuasive and valuable observations Mr. Halper and Mr. Clarke make in this book, showing their own occasional susceptibility to Big Ideas in their efforts to identify the danger of Big Ideas.

Copyright © 2007 by The New York Times Co.  Reprinted with permission.

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