When smart people say stupid things
By Peter Feaver A friend of mine likes to flag the "13th chime of a clock" — those moments when a pundit says something so bone-headed that it calls into question the rest of what he is saying (which might otherwise be entirely sound). Doubtless, no faction in the public debate is immune from these ...
By Peter Feaver
By Peter Feaver
A friend of mine likes to flag the "13th chime of a clock" — those moments when a pundit says something so bone-headed that it calls into question the rest of what he is saying (which might otherwise be entirely sound). Doubtless, no faction in the public debate is immune from these errors. But recently I have noticed how sloppy caricatures of the Bush administration lead smart people into 13th chimes.
1) I was plowing through fellow FP blogger David Rothkopf’s sensible discussion of Moises Naim’s effort to brand "minilateralism" as the next favored concept in foreign policy circles. (To the editor: do I get a bonus if I reference an FP source referencing another FP source? Does that increase my chances of getting an FP reference of my own?) I kept waiting for him to note that minilateralism is a far more sophisticated way of saying "coalitions of the willing," the Texas-speak phrase for the very same concept. I even wondered whether David would give some grudging credit to the Bush administration, since coalitions of the willing — or, if you will, minilateralism — was the favored way of conducting international affairs over the past 8 years.
Then I stumbled over this brief clause: "This is true not only because we have come to see the deep flaws associated with unilateralism…" I realized that rather than drawing interesting and useful lessons learned about the conditions under which minilateralism can work or not work — lessons that are available because the Bush administration spent 8 years engaged in this form of multilateral effort — David was content with just invoking the caricature of Bush unilateralism. True unilateralism is a very, very rare item — rarer than black swans, to invoke another image David used. The dominant pattern of the last 8 years was multilateralism in the form of coalitions of the willing. In other words, minilateralism. If someone as smart as David could miss that point, what else is he missing?
2) I was reading with interest Fred Kaplan’s strong critique of President Obama’s earlier straddling rhetoric on Iran and then was brought up short with this howler: "[Bush’s policy of "democracy promotion"] … sought, at least rhetorically, to impose Western-style democracy without regard to a country’s political terrain." This is so blatantly false that I doubt Fred — another undeniably smart and capable observer of the current affairs — could find a single set-piece speech by President Bush that did not include the disclaimer that democracy would take different forms in different countries. (I had very few laugh lines in my own administration-approved public remarks on foreign policy, but one of them was my concession that America fully recognized that we did not expect other countries to reach the level of perfect democratic process that we had achieved in Florida or Illinois.) Why would Fred say something so thoroughly untrue? Could he really not realize that it was untrue?
With a little effort, I bet I could find other such examples from other pundits, and I bet they would have two things in common. First, the errors would be utterly unnecessary, not central to the point of the article. Second, the gratuitous error could be traced back to a cartoon image of the Bush years. As I have argued before, Obama’s foreign policy would benefit from the kind of constructive critique one can find in well-functioning marketplace of ideas — and the marketplace won’t function well if clocks keep striking 13 with discordant howlers about the past.
Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.
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