Mistaking bad deeds for good intentions

The Silence of the Rational Center

May 18, 2007

In the summer of 2004, Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke published America Alone , a thought-provoking critique of American neo-conservatism and the origins of the Iraq War. If this had a fault, it lay in the tendency to place too much emphasis on the role of a shadowy group of intellectuals and bureaucrats close to the White House, or at least to the Vice-Presidential office.

Now, in The Silence of the Rational Center: Why American Foreign Policy is Failing , the authors cast their net much wider in the search for an explanation of the events leading up to the war of 2003. Their argument, in a nutshell, is that the very structure of the US public debate militated against an informed discussion of the case for and against war.

In their view, the protagonists of preventive war and regime change in Iraq were able to "frame" their case far more successfully than the sceptics.

They did this not just with the aid of flawed intelligence but also with the help of the "big idea" of America's historic mission to bring democracy to the Middle East. Those who should have known better, so the argument runs, were seduced by the glamour of the mass media or neutered by its format; those who did know better were sidelined at a very early stage.

The authors quail from the abolitionist certainties of the Bush Administration, who want to see "freedom on the march" through the Middle East; they tend to see everything in "shades" and "palettes" of Confederate grey. Where neo-conservatives speak of "robustness" and "principles", they celebrate "balance", "calibration", "ambiguity", "complexity" and "nuance".

They are not above a little "framing" themselves, of course, when they call for the reconstitution of the "rational centre". Who, after all, wants to be thought of as an irrational extremist?

This most stimulating book makes uncomfortable reading for those such as this reviewer who believed in the weapons of mass destruction and supported the removal of Saddam Hussein. They cannot even avail themselves of the bridge that Halper and Clarke offer them and plead that the flawed debate in 2002-03 prevented them from reaching an informed judgment. There were many who reached opposite conclusions on the basis of the same information.

Those who recall the spurious claims for moral "equivalence" between the two sides in Bosnia, for example, might argue that a simplification that serves the truth is preferable to a "complexity" that obscures it.

This is what Dean Acheson, one of the architects of the successful American post-Second World War order meant when he said that the arguments for the policy of "containment" against the Soviet Union in 1947 needed to be "clearer than the truth". Those who supported and still hope for the democratic transformation of the Middle East hold that the export of Western political values is crucial to our security, and not just a gesture of quixotic benevolence.

Finally, how are we to know where the "rational centre" in the debate on the most pressing question of the moment - the Iranian nuclear programme - really lies? Should the West opt for a protracted process of "engagement"

or would a confrontation in the style of John Kennedy's policy during the Cuban Missile Crisis be more appropriate? To this the authors have no answer, beyond suggesting that the decisions should be informed by experts rather than the "big idea".

Brendan Simms is a fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge.

The Silence of the Rational Center: Why American Foreign Policy is Failing

Author - Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke
Publisher - Basic Books
Price - £15.99
ISBN - 9780465011414

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