Stephen M. Walt

The dumbing down of U.S. economic and foreign policy elites

By John Mearsheimer Frank Rich had an excellent column in the Sunday New York Times in which he suggested that President Obama’s economic team is unsuited to deal with the financial crisis. “I fear,” he wrote, “that too many of the administration’s officials are too marinated in the insiders’ culture to police it, reform it ...

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By John Mearsheimer

Frank Rich had an excellent column in the Sunday New York Times in which he suggested that President Obama’s economic team is unsuited to deal with the financial crisis. “I fear,” he wrote, “that too many of the administration’s officials are too marinated in the insiders’ culture to police it, reform it or own up to their own past complicity with it.” Let’s hope his fears are proven wrong.

But Rich’s column points to a larger and possibly more disturbing feature of our predicament: very few of the country’s economic experts foresaw the tsunami that is now upon us. Indeed, most of them thought that the global economy was working well and needed nothing more than some tweaking here and there. This is why Obama ended up appointing a team of economic experts who not only failed to see the storm coming, but in the case of Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers, promoted policies that helped cause it. Simply put, there were hardly any sagacious business people, economists, or policymakers who he could have turned to for help.  

Rich quotes a speech the president made last week that captures the essence of the problem. Talking about the controversial AIG bonuses, Obama said that they were a symptom of “a culture where people made enormous sums of money taking irresponsible risks that have now put the entire economy at risk.” In other words, the problem was not just a few bad apples; the culture itself was rotten. That is a remarkable indictment of our economic elite. 

One could make a similar case against Obama’s national security team. The two most daunting foreign policy problems facing the United States are the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is difficult to see how we can achieve a meaningful victory in either conflict. The Bush administration started off brilliantly in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 by toppling the Taliban from power without having to mount a large-scale invasion with U.S. troops. Afghanistan is the last place on earth that a great power wants to occupy. But before consolidating its victory in Afghanistan and capturing Osama bin Laden, the United States marched off to invade Iraq, which was supposed to be the first step in a radical scheme to transform the Middle East into a sea of democracies. There was even serious talk at the time about creating an American empire in the region.

The end result, of course, is that the United States got bogged down in a bloody war in Iraq, while the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated to the point where the Taliban now controls more than 50 percent of that country, and the United States has turned into an occupier. Consider that there were roughly 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan in December 2001, and there are now almost 40,000 U.S. troops plus another 20,000 NATO troops — to which Obama plans to add another 17,000 U.S. troops. And while there is no question that the level of murder and mayhem in Iraq has been reduced over the past two years, the all-important constellation of political forces there remains so unstable that we cannot leave without risking that war will break out as we go out the door.

The Bush administration is principally responsible for these twin disasters, but the fact is that most of the Democratic Party’s foreign policy experts — certainly the more senior ones — supported President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and to do massive social engineering across the Middle East. Consider, for example, Hillary Clinton, Richard Holbrooke, and Dennis Ross — three key players on the Obama team. They were all strong supporters of the Iraq war, and they had little inkling that we would end up getting bogged down in Iraq or that we would squander our initial success in Afghanistan. In fact, not one of Obama’s principal foreign policy advisors opposed the Iraq war, although the president did. It seems that almost all of the senior foreign policy experts in the Democratic Party have been “marinated in the [same] inside culture” as their Republican Party counterparts. What this effectively means is that Obama and the country will have to depend on a group of individuals who helped create the Afghanistan and Iraq disasters — albeit in a small way — to get us out of them. That is not a reassuring thought.

One wonders why our elites have failed us so badly. What went wrong? How could so many economic experts and so many foreign policy experts have been so mistaken about such important matters? Why weren’t there lots of prominent economists and bankers standing on the rooftops warning that the economy was heading for the precipice? Why were all those Nobel Prize winners so clueless about the potential dangers of derivatives and de-regulation? 

Why were there so few people inside the Beltway warning that Iraq was likely to be a disaster and that it was a fool’s errand to try to use the U.S. military to re-make the Middle East in America’s image? Why was there a serious conversation about creating an American empire among adults who grew up in the latter half of the 20th century, when all of the European empires turned to dust? Why did those same adults, who saw the United States lose in Vietnam and the Soviet Union lose in Afghanistan, not seriously contemplate the possibility that the same thing might happen in Iraq? 

Many trees will be cut down to produce the paper that will be needed for all the articles and books that will be written to try to explain how the United States lost its collective mind shortly after the Cold War ended, when so many thought that our elites were the best and the brightest in the world.

Brendan Smialowski-Pool/Getty Images

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