Lies, damned lies and labels…

I think Paul Wolfowitz performs a useful service by thoughtfully and systematically examining the underlying flaws in the current conception of “realism” — the hype surrounding it and the “policies” associated with it. If only someone had more effectively done the same with neoconservatism — which, of course, was neither new nor, as it was ...

581643_090827_wolfowitzb2.jpg
581643_090827_wolfowitzb2.jpg

I think Paul Wolfowitz performs a useful service by thoughtfully and systematically examining the underlying flaws in the current conception of "realism" -- the hype surrounding it and the "policies" associated with it. If only someone had more effectively done the same with neoconservatism -- which, of course, was neither new nor, as it was practiced by the Bush administration, remotely conservative. (How could anything so politically and militarily risky, fiscally wasteful, and seemingly allergic to any principle, be called "conservative"?)

Reading Wolfowitz's piece, I kept thanking Providence for giving me a concentration in English in college rather than say, political science. I actually was taught what words mean. (In fact, being an English major taught me that "political science" may be the humdinger of all oxymorons ... even if calling "realists" realists and "neoconservatives" neoconservatives comes pretty darn close.) Economists have their "lies, damned lies, and statistics" and clearly, political scientists have their "lies, damned lies, and labels."

I think Paul Wolfowitz performs a useful service by thoughtfully and systematically examining the underlying flaws in the current conception of “realism” — the hype surrounding it and the “policies” associated with it. If only someone had more effectively done the same with neoconservatism — which, of course, was neither new nor, as it was practiced by the Bush administration, remotely conservative. (How could anything so politically and militarily risky, fiscally wasteful, and seemingly allergic to any principle, be called “conservative”?)

Reading Wolfowitz’s piece, I kept thanking Providence for giving me a concentration in English in college rather than say, political science. I actually was taught what words mean. (In fact, being an English major taught me that “political science” may be the humdinger of all oxymorons … even if calling “realists” realists and “neoconservatives” neoconservatives comes pretty darn close.) Economists have their “lies, damned lies, and statistics” and clearly, political scientists have their “lies, damned lies, and labels.”

It’s not just “neocons” and “realists” of course who are mislabeled or falsely advertising themselves. There is nothing “conservative” about the reckless fiscal policies of “conservative” champions like Reagan or Bush, nothing “progressive” about the New Deal nostalgia of many on the left, nothing “pro-life” about abortion opponents who also use a misreading of the Second Amendment to allow them stock up on assault weapons, nothing “liberal” about folks who think the answer to everything is greater government control of people’s lives. Say what you may about the underlying beliefs, the labels are meaningless.

That said, if we can stipulate the labels are primarily forms of branding and positioning that are as related to the underlying realities as Madison Avenue claims of the health-benefits of smoking in the middle of the last century, then we can move on to the more relevant policy questions raised by Wolfowitz. These turn not on whether “realists” are more realistic than other policymakers but rather on whether the “realism” peddled to the public actually holds water as an approach.

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Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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