Stephen M. Walt

David Brooks fails the “Big Test”

David Brooks’s insight and intellectual integrity have never impressed me much, but his column in today’s NY Times is a low mark even for him. After reminding us that he read Edmund Burke in college and used to be a liberal, he announces that the fate of Obama’s programs will be "the big test" between ...

David Brooks’s insight and intellectual integrity have never impressed me much, but his column in today’s NY Times is a low mark even for him. After reminding us that he read Edmund Burke in college and used to be a liberal, he announces that the fate of Obama’s programs will be "the big test" between liberal and conservative views of the world. Liberals supposedly believe in human reason and the capacity of government to conduct transformative solutions; conservatives are "epistemologically modest" and skeptical of "top-down" initiatives. Here’s the money quote:

We’re on the cusp of the biggest political experiment of our lifetimes. If Obama is mostly successful, then the epistemological skepticism natural to conservatives will have been discredited…If they mostly fail, then liberalism will suffer a grievous blow, and conservatives will be called upon to restore order and sanity."

Such shamelessly partisan pseudo-intellectualism is Brooks’s stock-in-trade, but where he’s been the past eight years? George W. Bush and the GOP conservatives inherited a strong economy and a budget surplus, and a country whose international image was mostly favorable. And then they squandered them all with a thoroughness that almost seems deliberate. There was no "epistemological modesty" involved when Bush placed loyalty above competence and let lobbyists and other special interests loose in Washington, or when he launched a foolish and ill-planned war in an attempt to transform the entire Middle East. And let us not forget that Brooks himself was an enthusiastic supporter of these policies; I guess he forgot his Burke back when his party was in power.

The result of these "conservative" policies, as we all know to our sorrow, is the most serious combination of domestic and foreign policy challenges to face America in decades. But if Obama fails to clean up the mess left by his predecessor, it is "liberalism" that will have failed. Huh?

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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