The foreign policy blame game

The last few years have produced an avalanche of books by journalists and former administration officials trying to shed light on the path to the Iraq war in 2002–03. The most successful of these efforts address the “who, what, when and where,” but most have left aside the more slippery questions of “how and why.” The richness of the reporting to date has not seen a comparable analytical effort to fill out the story.

To their credit, Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke have tried to fill this gap. In The Silence of the Rational Center, the two diplomat-scholars point fingers at multiple culprits for aiding and abetting the Bush administration, and they offer a deeper explanation as to which elements of American foreign policy led to the war. In particular, they cite the American penchant for “Big Ideas,” such as the notion of U.S. exceptionalism in the world. They also blast the media’s tendency to boil complex ideas down into crude sound bites or to opt for shrill debates. And they excoriate the establishment think tanks for giving the administration a free pass during the critical months ahead of the war.

This review will address that last charge first, because the role of professional wonks has received little coverage to date. (Full disclosure: From 1998 to early 2003, I was an editor at Foreign Affairs magazine, published by the Council on Foreign Relations.) The authors charge that these think tanks either skimped on their treatment of Iraq — whether in publications, conferences or other venues — or hewed to the administration line in 2002. The latter was predictable in cases like Heritage or the American Enterprise Institute, but the authors’ more damning charge is that the non-partisan outfits, such as Brookings and CFR, effectively enabled the administration with caution and attempts at even-handedness.

That critique will no doubt hit a raw nerve among those in the think-tank community who now regret things they said and wrote in 2002 and 2003. Many already have issued mea culpas, while others are likely to point out that the record is not quite as bad as Halper and Clarke make it out to be. For example, Brookings’s policy briefs on Iraq in 2002 were generally skeptical of the administration’s approach, including the notion of preventive war as well as the alleged collusion between Iraq and al Qaeda. CFR ran a “war room” exercise shortly before the war began that included the full gamut of views. And yes, Foreign Affairs should get a reprieve, too. In the year before the war, at least half a dozen full essays took aim at the administration, from its Middle East policy to the notion of preventive war to unilateralism. And one of the lead pieces in the January 2003 issue, authored by Columbia University professor Richard Betts, launched a no-holds-barred attack on the administration’s war plans.

The authors also give short shrift to the fact that the window for a debate was narrow and closing rapidly before Congress gave President Bush war authorization in October 2002. Through August 2002, the question of whether to invade — at least in the public sphere — was largely on the backburner of elite and public opinion. The broader think-tank community could hardly have expected that the administration would unleash its full rhetorical firepower in September and October 2002 and effectively consolidate its war plans once Congress got behind it. And there, too, timing was key. With a solid GOP majority in the House, the only true firewall against the administration’s war plans was a precarious Democratic majority in the Senate, headed by a senator from the solidly pro-Bush state of South Dakota. The Democrats gambled that a war vote before the election would serve their party better than one afterwards. That in fact may have cut their losses in November, but it left them with no good cards to deal afterwards. In short, the time frame for either the think-tank community or Congress to make a difference was extremely compressed.

The authors also look back on the war debate through today’s lens, rather than the reality of 2002. The political terrain did shift tremendously following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the initial military success in Afghanistan gave Bush a further boost in political capital that very few presidents have enjoyed. Against this backdrop, it was the combined threat of terrorism and WMD that the administration cited to make its case for war — not, as the authors argue, grandiose “Big Ideas” about spreading democracy and remaking the Middle East. Those arguments were largely a sub-theme in White House rhetoric — until no WMD were found the following year.

The Silence of the Rational Center is still a valuable attempt to jump-start an overdue debate. No partisan screed, it points fingers at figures on the left and right and usefully expands the discussion to issues such as intelligence reform and managing China’s rise. Given that scholars will be rehashing these questions for decades to come, this book will not be an authoritative account — but it is a healthy opening salvo.