Shadow Government

Is Fareed Zakaria serious?

By Peter Feaver I found Fareed Zakaria’s latest apologia on behalf of President Obama even more underwhelming than Chris Brose did. Fareed is a very important mainstream foreign policy pundit, so when he criticizes the mainstream, my interest is piqued. As a professor, I can attest that he also has great appeal with the rising generation, ...

By Peter Feaver

I found Fareed Zakaria’s latest apologia on behalf of President Obama even more underwhelming than Chris Brose did. Fareed is a very important mainstream foreign policy pundit, so when he criticizes the mainstream, my interest is piqued. As a professor, I can attest that he also has great appeal with the rising generation, and he gets fawning treatment from seemingly the one media mogul in America who can make or break public figures: Jon Stewart. As the second-most frequent guest on the Daily Show, Fareed is a major public figure and probably the closest thing we have to a post-modern Walter Lippmann. (Full disclosure: he is also an old friend from graduate student days).

So I was disappointed to find that Fareed stuck to hackneyed critiques of the Bush foreign policy — a critique that was so cartoonish that a pundit as insightful as Fareed Zakaria could easily demolish it.

Undeniably, the Bush administration made mistakes in foreign policy — mistakes of policy development, mistakes of policy execution, and mistakes of personnel and process. But President Bush got a lot of things right, a lot more than the conventional wisdom Fareed celebrates in this piece admits. And, importantly, Bush was sometimes right when the chorus of critics was wrong. Shouldn’t we be glad that in late 2006 President Bush decided for this and not for this?

A more balanced perspective on Bush — some positive, some negative — would pave the way for Fareed to offer a more balanced perspective on Obama. I agree with Fareed that some of the critiques of Obama have been exaggerated, almost as exaggerated as, well, the conventional wisdom on Bush. But surely in a column calling for a reasonable perspective on Obama’s foreign policy performance, Fareed could have found space to at least discuss some of the missteps and rookie mistakes: perhaps a mention of the ham-handed personnel decisions (like this one or this one) or the needless insults to allies (such as this one or this one). If these are dismissed as minor peccadilloes, how about a candid admission that, as Fareed himself recommended, Obama has more often than not continued Bush’s foreign policies while claiming to make bold dramatic changes?

Ultimately, I believe it does Obama no favors to puff him up with whitewashed assessments. That only encourages the Obama administration to stay in a media bubble and cling to straw-man debates. The challenges this country faces are too great to be left to a dysfunctional marketplace of ideas. Let’s have a bit more robust and evenhanded engagement. And let’s have our best foreign policy thinkers (and that would include Fareed) show the way.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.

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