The Silence of the Rational Center


By Stefan Halper

By Jonathan Clarke

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What has happened to American foreign policy? Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke argue that the members of what used to be called the foreign policy establishment are no longer doing the job of keeping our foreign policy informed and rational. Instead, hungry to coin the next Big Idea, they are in the business of advancing simplistic, glib mythologies. The result is that Americans are often presented with a fantasy world of nightmare scenarios rather than with explanations that lead to rational choices. Taking to task such well-known figures as Samuel Huntington, Noam Chomsky, and Jeffrey Sachs, Halper and Clarke argue for a revival of integrity within our foreign policy elite so that America’s standing in the world can be restored. A book that pulls no punches, The Silence of the Rational Center is both a penetrating diagnosis and a stirring call to reform in what is possibly the most important area of American political life.


Stefan dedicates this book to his wife, Lezlee, and
his children Elizabeth and Marin.
Jonathan Clarke dedicates this book
with love and affection to his wife, Suzanne, and children,
Crispin, Robin, and Tiffany, truth-seekers all.

At times, United States foreign policy has been extraordinarily successful. The current era, sadly, is not one of those times. With the American image tracking new lows in almost every part of the world and American policies meeting nearly unprecedented resistance, the state of US relations with the rest of the world is bleak.
People who are dissatisfied, as we are, with the nation’s foreign policy have often written books to critique the offending elements or priorities and propose better ones. That is not our intention here. Instead, in this book based on a lecture series delivered by Stefan Halper at Cambridge in 2005 and 2006, we invite the reader to consider a broader question centered on foreign policy but also reaching into contemporary culture. The administration of American foreign policy, particularly if it involves significant human and financial costs, can proceed only with the support of the public. This means that in advance of major decisions a debate about the options takes place in the public space. In considering this critical juncture in the policy process, we suggest that embedded flaws within the structure of foreign policy deliberation produce irrational impulses rather than rational calculation and that these flaws are especially apparent in times of crisis.
The format of the foreign policy debate has been shaped by two mutually reinforcing elements. The first is the unusual American susceptibility to what we call Big Ideas. Some of these, phrases like Manifest Destiny, have achieved iconic status. Others, such as “Axis of Evil,” are little more than transitory clichés. In both their grandiloquent manifestations, as in today’s Freedom on the March and more modest renditions like Stay the Course, these phrases allude to a deus ex machina that tends to compress complex issues into simple nostrums and obfuscate rather than illuminate. At their worst, these phrases—like Domino Theory during the Vietnam era and “drain the swamp,” the neoconservative rallying cry for ridding the Middle East of terrorists—are disastrously misleading to both policy-makers and the public. The second element is the requirements of 24-7 media, which, with large blocks of time and space to fill, are hungry for a constant stream of catchy notions and fresh faces to attract eyes, ears, and advertising dollars. In combination these elements produce a distorted public discourse in which the nature and implications of important policy decisions are obscured. Superficial explanations are rewarded and expert analysis, which is usually complex, is penalized. Slogans dominate the discourse in place of the subtle balancing of interests and resources typically needed in executing a successful foreign policy.
The people responsible for this balancing of interests and resources are sometimes the career professionals, scholars, and analysts working in government offices and think tanks, and at other times they are political activists, editors, and those with experience on the ground. Their expertise is often narrow but very deep: They have read the long histories of arcane subjects and are familiar with the nuances of local cultures. In conversation, they are able to explain why some dramatic scheme will likely encounter difficulty, raise factual complications to glib and fashionable ideas, or refer to the lessons of some long-forgotten misadventure.
Experience and learning have turned most into pragmatists, distrustful of ideology and mindful of long-term interests and enduring issues. Their function in the nation’s political life is to bring their knowledge and judgment to bear on the issues of the day and to find solutions that safeguard the nation’s varied interests. This is the group we have termed the “rational center.” Its role is not limited to foreign policy, but foreign policy is where its influence has traditionally been most crucial and today, most endangered.
During relatively calm periods, experts from the rational center face an uphill battle in making their voices heard over the hubbub of media-enhanced Big Ideas. In times of stress, their voices are barely audible. For example, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s insistence that communism was a monolithic force marginalized prominent experts who could have told us that the Korean War was a peninsular affair inspired as much by Kim Il-Sung as by Moscow or Beijing, or that Moscow and Beijing had distinct worldviews and often clashing interests. In the late 1950s, as the United States considered how to respond to the looming crisis in Indochina, the experienced voices that might have offered sage perspective about Chinese intentions and historical conflicts in Southeast Asia had been driven from government. In the run-up to the Iraq war, those few prominent figures from the diplomatic and military communities who warned in prescient detail of the problems the occupation would encounter were ignored or bundled off into premature retirement.
The problem becomes critical when, rather than resisting these forces, leading experts themselves start coining or adhering uncritically to Big Ideas. In such cases, academic luminaries strike a Faustian bargain in which they trade in their expert status for media-blessed celebrity or political influence. The workings of the modern media amplify, package, and distort—often with political intention—the product of public intellectuals like Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis in a manner unheard of when George Kennan and Henry Kissinger were starting their careers.


In many ways America was born as a Big Idea that was rooted in the concept of American Exceptionalism. John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” speech of 1630 still resonates as the defining image of American Exceptionalism. Since that time, rhetorical renditions of Big Ideas have provided cohesion, identity, and a sense of national, often providential, “mission.” Unlike its European counterparts, whose sense of nationhood is deeply grounded in a shared culture and history, America is a land of immigrants who have consciously forged a nation. In effect, they have forged the idea of a nation.
The Big Ideas running through the American discourse often have strong spiritual or religious roots: Redeemer Nation, New Jerusalem, Manifest Destiny, or Last Best Hope on Earth. These slogans provide rhetorical emphasis to the notion that America is both special and separate, with its own version of the rules.1 They contrast it sharply, for example, with the European Union, which takes the form of a “project.” While the European Union as an undertaking echoes the creation of the United States, there is a complete lack of spiritual content in its founding and successor treaties. America, by contrast, was animated by a series of Big Ideas that welded identity and direction to a quasireligious mission.
Because these ideas are now seen as hallowed statements of national purpose, it is easy to forget that they often originated in the newsroom or the pulpit as popularizing expressions. This underlying purpose forms a common thread that joins these earlier slogans with contemporary ones such as “Indispensable Nation” or “Unipolar Moment.” Big Ideas are often moral assertions disguised as strategic doctrines or objective factual statements (e.g., Ronald Reagan’s use of the phrase “Shining City on a Hill” to depict the American example in global affairs or the early twentieth-century phrase “Imperialism of Righteousness” to describe America’s ambitions on the world stage); or else they wear their moralism more openly. For nearly four hundred years, these ideas have expressed a continuing belief that the complexity of America and its place in the world can be distilled into a simple phrase.
The Big Idea is a broad and idiosyncratic class. While it often includes the enduring headlines of American history, many political slogans en route to obscurity are also rooted in Big Ideas. The common element is that the Big Idea is a rhetorical device that rests on shared assumptions reflecting American Exceptionalism and functions as a direction-setting form of shorthand, an easily grasped metaphor or signpost for an underlying notion that is difficult or tiresome to spell out or, indeed, may not be well understood. For a person or a nation in a hurry, Big Ideas save time. It is much easier to dream up a concept like Axis of Evil than to enunciate a common policy toward nations as different as Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. In political discourse the Big Idea may act in several ways: as a simplifier (Containment), an illuminator (Evil Empire), or a mobilizer (Freedom on the March). Notions like Axis of Evil, which was a speechwriter’s phrase, can develop their own momentum and take over policy—and even become the policy.
Big Ideas themselves, are neither good or bad. In certain respects they are simply instruments used by politicians around the world to solidify opinion and to generate support for their causes.2 They might be described as “macroslogans.” But left unchecked, this more or less harmless norm contains a systemic danger: Big Ideas tend to foreshorten debate, unleash emotions, and create false realities. They often lead to truncated thinking—as when President George W. Bush, referring to the War on Terror, declared “You are either with us or against us”—and policy volatility. In fact, when it comes to foreign affairs, those who claim to have a simple solution are often trying to promote their version of a Big Idea . . . and we should be skeptical.
Consider two modern examples. The first is 9/11 Changed Everything. Here, the notion is that the events of 9/11 suspended what was previously known about regional politics, culture, and personalities in the Middle East and particularly in Iraq. This argument enabled the Bush Administration, through use of a framing concept, to impose strong conformist pressure on what became a one-way debate over “weapons of mass destruction” (WMDs). Slogans and apocalyptic images abounded. Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser, argued that “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”3 This assertion illustrates how unfounded assumptions can capture the space that should be occupied by careful analysis. Political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic, abetted by errors—or worse—on the part of top intelligence officials, were able to use the “everything has changed” concept to suppress dissent so successfully that prominent newspapers like the New York Times were subsequently moved to apologize to their readers for having been intimidated and having not, for nearly three crucial years, challenged the Administration’s rationale for war in Iraq.4
As we know, some experts did dissent. For instance, former Secretaries of State James Baker and Lawrence Eagleberger and former National Security Advisors Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski challenged the Administration’s rationale privately and then in public before the war began. They were ignored. And UN weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Mohammed El-Baradei, in a report released on January 27, 2003, expressed doubt that a WMD program existed in Iraq. They were also ignored. Later, the Administration sought unsuccessfully to have El-Baradei removed. Recent research identifies a clear pattern of skepticism within the CIA and the Pentagon about the Administration’s approach to the war.5
A second framing concept, Nation at War, provides political advantages to the Administration but distorts the political and legal environment. The political implications are obvious. Being on a war footing rallies the population around the executive, increasing presidential power. The Nation at War notion permitted President Bush to campaign for re-election as a war president, implying that times were too perilous for a change in leadership. Moreover, the legal status of being at war accords certain rights under the UN Charter and provides the executive with legal powers governing such areas as privacy, speech, search and seizure, and the use of the military justice system that otherwise would be unavailable.
The run-up to the war and the first years of the Iraq occupation saw a marked failure of the institutions Americans rely upon to analyze and, when necessary, challenge Administration policy governing major foreign engagements. Until the spring of 2004, though some influential analysts and writers spoke out, most remained silent. The Brookings Institution continued to publish tendentious statistics about progress in Iraq well into 2006.6 And the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), the quintessential establishment voice in foreign affairs, advanced little criticism of the effects of the Nation at War idea on political or legal discourse. It was not until the conventional wisdom shifted away from “all is well” that CFR officials went public with full-throated criticism .7 Congress is notable for not having challenged the Administration’s rationale for the war until questions were raised in the Democratic presidential primaries by Howard Dean—and then only after public dismay became palpable. The media were especially slow off the mark. Books by senior journalists acknowledging their profession’s shortcomings after 9/11 are only now, as we write, beginning to appear.8
Taking a concept from trauma surgery, we argue that the “golden hour,” when intervention can be most effective, was allowed to pass. In 2006 we saw the emergence of generals, State Department officials, and scholars decrying the mistakes that were made. We value our public policy institutions and the analysts and experts who inform them for their contributions under pressure. Yet the time for performance is during the crisis before irrevocable decisions are made, not after the storm has passed.
All too often the Administration’s narrative acted to suppress difficult issues. For example, at a conference convened by Cambridge University in June 2005 on the legal issues surrounding the Coalition’s use of force in Iraq, NATO officials raised the following questions:
• What is meant by the right of self-defense accorded under Article 51 of the UN Charter?
• Can states that claim they are “at war” launch preemptive or preventive actions if they believe their security is threatened?
• Do some states or groups, for example, threaten North Korean, Syrian, or Iranian security? If so, do the latter have the right to launch preventative strikes?
• Can a strike be justified based on intelligence information that indicates an attack is likely and where there could be little or no warning?
These are all legitimate questions that must be asked before, not after, hostilities have commenced.
Yet, the Nation at War idea has proven politically potent. Spooked by their successive electoral defeats, the Democrats—and many moderate Republicans—were pulled to the right after 9/11. They replaced their long-time reliance on diplomacy with the assumption that to be credible they had to express a willingness to project power, including both preemptive and preventive war.9 Only with the 2006 mid-term elections, as the nation sought to regain its equlibrium, did these tendencies abate. In fact as late as 2005, the Washington, D.C.-based Center for American Progress provided an example of liberal acquiescence to the notion of force as an early option. Founded ostensibly to offer an alternative to the Republican version of the war on terror, it has taken pride in advocating, as a matter of broad policy, “vigorous military action.” The many possible steps short of military action and the art of risk management get secondary consideration even in a forum established to look critically at just such concepts. The Nation at War Big Idea thus goes unchallenged.
In his 2005 commencement address Yale President Richard Levin urged the university’s graduating class to confront this phenomenon. He said: “In the last presidential election . . . every issue . . . was reduced to a formula. ‘Staying on message’ was the name of the game. There was no real debate, no progression in the argument. The tendency to oversimplification and polarization leads us to represent too many important public choices as false dichotomies.” 10


The lure of Big Ideas in American politics is as old as the republic itself. The young nation was animated by the notion that it was exceptional in its moral clarity, its foundation in divine providence, and its appointment to a higher purpose. These ideas mark the United States as fundamentally different from its European ancestor nations. It is rooted in this sense of higher, providential purpose. We can not easily imagine a modern European leader describing his country, as President Bush did in January 2005, as having “a calling from beyond the stars.”11
Nearly all Big Ideas have strong spiritual roots. This dimension is important to the connections among different eras. By any measure of international comparison, the United States stands out as a deeply religious nation. It is unusual in the prevalence of religious belief and acceptance of revealed, nonrational truth. Americans are far more likely to attend weekly religious services and believe in a supreme creator than the citizens of other industrialized countries. They do not hide their faith. When Karen Hughes, then the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, toured four Middle Eastern Islamic countries in 2005, one of her specific goals was to convey to her audiences the importance of faith in American life. Since 9/11, especially, much of America’s foreign policy has been justified in religious terms, such as this line in President Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address, given on the eve of the Iraq war: “The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world. It is God’s gift to humanity.” 12 We ask, therefore, whether the large role played by faith in the United States may render Americans more susceptible to the notion of American Exceptionalism.


If Big Ideas in various rhetorical guises are a persistent phenomenon throughout American history, the rise of the 24-7 media has placed them firmly at the center of public discourse. The primary agenda of cable television outlets, talk radio, and the networks is to build ratings, gain market share, and accumulate advertising dollars. Their interest in issues and policy runs a distant second. Hungry for sensation, they feed off of simplified ideas, expressed without nuance or qualification and often pitted against other simplifications in a “point-counterpoint” format. Like prizefighters, guests are urged to go “head-to-head” as if there were only two, mutually exclusive, options to each policy choice and no common ground existed.
Those whose education and experience would qualify them as experts quickly learn that sound bites and repartee, not analysis, are the keys to being invited back. This means playing the game according to the format. As Bruce Bartlett, formerly a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis, put it:
I just got off the phone with a booker for one of the cable news channels who wanted me to play the role of the knee-jerk Bush supporter and I had to decline . . . The fact is—and everyone knows this—that few issues are black-and-white. There are always nuances that are impossible to discuss in a debate format. But 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.13
This format is ideally suited to advancing Big Ideas, a skill in which the anchors of the popular shows excel. They are expert at attracting audiences with snappy phrases. Unfortunately, this entertainment skill has nothing to do with illuminating the complexity of foreign policy choices. Take a catchphrase like “shock and awe.” Harlan Ullman, a former naval officer and co-inventor of the term, told us that he intended it to describe a policy of both carrots and sticks, with two components: short-term “shock” and long-term “awe.” But it has been appropriated by the media to mean simply a dramatic bombing campaign.
America’s fixation with framing concepts and the demands of commercial media thus feed off of each other. Together they turn the policy process back to front, so that mythology too often precedes rationality. This sets the stage for the third and decisive element in the decline of American foreign policy.


Big Ideas and the news media are what they are. We may regret our culture’s susceptibility to glib political merchandizing, but we cannot change it. There are whole library shelves full of works that deplore the shallowness of the mass media. Moreover, the new media—the Internet, blogs, e-mail lists, and podcasts—do not herald any dramatic improvement. So in this book, out of a concern for conciseness and the reader’s blood pressure, we treat these elements as given.
What is not a given is the role of the foreign policy experts who inhabit the rational center. It is not that experts don’t make mistakes; they do and there are many examples of egregious errors. Experts believed, for example, that General Douglas MacArthur’s plan to introduce democracy to Japan would not work and counseled against it. But effective policy is rarely achievable without them, and impediments to their participation in the policy debate need to be minimized.
We devote a good part of this book to charting the rational center’s occasional moments of ascendancy in foreign policy—for example, the remarkably successful diplomacy that accompanied the end of the Cold War and the adroit diplomacy that has managed the US-China relationship. Much of the rest of the book looks at the rational center’s opportunism, which has contributed to recent diplomatic dysfunction and could result in catastrophic outcomes should the US-China relationship be driven by Big Ideas, not American interests, going forward.
Because all Americans have (often quite strong) views on national security it is easy to underestimate the value of experts. In so complex an area as foreign policy, where the choice between particular options is always subject to vigorous competition between values and means, we are obviously not suggesting that there is ever a single “right” answer available only to the expert; experts have been wrong on many occasions. But the delicate weighting of complex political, military, and economic variables that together determine the nation’s strategy in specific arenas, and that strategy’s execution, require the participation of people who have devoted time and effort to acquiring the necessary knowledge and experience. The probability of a terrorist nuclear attack, balancing the complex factors underpinning the transatlantic relationship, or plotting an integrated response to emergent giants in Asia are highly complex matters. We depend on experts to analyze these challenges objectively and to carry out the decisions reached through the democratic process. The expert role in foreign policy is thus to examine policy options with reference to the data—to historical developments and the record—and then recommend policy and guide its implementation. This role is inconsistent with the easy celebrity offered by talk-show programs.
Many esteemed academics are lured by media hungry for credentialed authorities. Those with TV-friendly skills, namely a forthright, telegenic presence and an ability to squeeze complex issues into forty-five-second sound bites, are in particular demand. All too often, however, they are persuaded to give producers what they want: either credentialed justification for national policy they know is questionable, or else reflexive opposition. The problem is that citizens who watch these Punch and Judy acts come to believe these are real policy discussions and then go out and vote.
We have nearly reached the point where experts devote more time to packaging their ideas in a media-friendly way than to the rigor or implications of their analysis. It is entirely counterproductive that distinguished former Secretaries of State such as Madeleine Albright and Lawrence Eagleburger should lend dignity and credibility to confrontational talk shows whose truncated, rapid-fire format effectively excludes expertise from the debate.
It would be bad enough if scholars merely misrepresented ideas that were fundamentally sound. But the infection cannot be quarantined; it comes back to distort the ideas themselves. For example, Harvard professor Samuel Huntington’s influential concept, the Clash of Civilizations, started life in the journal Foreign Affairs as a phrase borrowed from another scholar and appearing with a modest question mark after it: “The Clash of Civilizations?”14 By the time the idea went between hard covers, there was no sign of academic modesty. Clash of Civilizations had become an assertion with cosmic validity despite an outpouring of serious and pointed criticism across the academy.15
When experts of distinction reinforce the Big Idea/media nexus instead of resisting it, they become enablers of what is, often, misconceived policy. In effect, they cease to function as experts and become advocates for one or another set of ready-made policy positions. Henry Kissinger, for example, is perilously close to acting in this way with regard to preventative war. 16 In times of national stress the rational center’s failure to perform its vital function threatens to return the United States to a pre-Enlightenment way of thought, where its conception of the world is defined by overbearing nationalism, scare scenarios, and religious rhetoric at the expense of reason, skepticism, and analysis.
To illustrate this state of affairs, we reintroduce readers to the ways in which information is offered to them. In some cases we discuss familiar fixtures of the national media: the hosts of popular shows, the stars of the opinion circuit on television and radio, trendsetting editorial writers. In others we will describe less well-known figures who, out of the public eye, play a critical issues as intelligence, the role of the military, and US policy towards China.



On Sale
Feb 13, 2007
Page Count
320 pages
Basic Books

Stefan Halper

About the Author

Stefan Halper is a Senior Fellow in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge, and a Distinguished Fellow at the Nixon Center in Washington, D.C. Halper served in the White House and Department of State during the Nixon, Ford, and Reagan administrations. He divides his time between Great Falls, Virginia, and Cambridge, UK.

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