- The Washington Times - Monday, May 21, 2007

In “The Silence of the Rational Center,” Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke review the forces making for the current difficulty in Iraq, including the background and implications of American “exceptionalism” and “manifest destiny” and American enchantment with a “Big Idea” as a framework for foreign policymaking. Beyond the Middle East, the book casts a worried eye on our ambiguous, often strained relations with China.

The recent dominant Big Ideas in Middle East policy include the “Middle East Project,” “Freedom on the March” and the war on terror, which developed a full head of steam in response to the September 11 attacks on America. Earlier manifestations included the Domino Theory that underlay America’s long and ill-fated military involvement in Vietnam. These Big Ideas are most often theoretical and may fare badly in contact with the facts on the ground.

Mr. Halper and Mr. Clarke, well-experienced government and scholarly professionals in international affairs whom I know and regard as friends, view discussion and debate as subdued and stifled after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Perhaps Mr. Halper and Mr. Clarke expect Americans to have risen to true exceptionalism. Most nations rally to their leaders immediately after an attack, whether it be Pearl Harbor, assassination of a royal heir, the Spanish Armada or so on.

The authors persuasively argue that factors making for misadventure in Iraq include scarce reliable intelligence and a determined disinclination to accept the findings and judgments of U.N. weapons inspectors on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD). To policymakers, a lack of WMD was counterintuitive and contrary to past experience. Another blind spot was a dearth of well-placed “two-legged” sources of dependable human intelligence, such as those we had in the former Soviet Union.

Saddam Hussein was never explicitly tied to the September 11 attacks, but pro-war arguments invariably seemed to identify Iraq with those attacks, and the two became conflated in the public mind. Many wise old heads counseled caution privately and publicly but perhaps were not heard clearly enough.

The real failure was not in assuming Western militaries would make short work of the Iraqi forces but in believing a territory two-thirds the size of Texas, home of ancient and militant cultures, complete with large cities and 27 million people could be subdued, occupied and politically reformed under 150,000 or so American troops, many of them repeatedly rotated reservists. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki warned this wasn’t enough and was shunted aside for his trouble.

The Big Idea of transformation was predicated not on momentary “dancing in the streets” as arriving Americans ended Saddam’s regime but on a genuine, successful planting of democratic practices in this untested soil. Expatriate Iraqis led an encouraging chorus later made largely inaudible by insurgent explosives.

The authors provide several tables documenting the predominantly successful records of insurgent wars against governments and occupiers over 40 years. This was not a promising context for an occupier seeking to replace an indigenous authority with a regime pursuing a democratic framework.

The dilemma of unpersuaded intellectuals and commentators was not whether the administration had made a case for war in Iraq but how to challenge it and put across a contrary view.

George Tenet now claims Bush officials misrepresented or misused his statements. But Bush administration supporters portrayed the Clinton-appointed holdover CIA chief as having supported the assumptions about Saddam’s WMD and hence the rationale for war.

The authors fault public intellectuals and commentators’ quiescent response to the march to war. But it is difficult to authoritatively challenge the CIA and other international intelligence agencies on such matters unless one is privy to very arcane and secret information. And the Big Idea of transforming the Middle East involves interpretation and beliefs rather than provable facts.

The authors recommend a cautious, managed and centrist approach to the rising challenges posed by China, lest aggressive slogans take over and inflame tensions. A China working group should coordinate the many different strands of the China relationship and collect knowledge and expertise, they say. On intelligence matters, the authors urge “rather than thinking supersize, think elite. Shrink the CIA to where it is… concentrating quietly and discreetly on what really matters.”

The Vietnam and Iraq missteps were bad enough, but an ill-conceived China policy could pose an existential crisis for America, the authors warn. They find hope in America’s restrained containment policy toward the former Soviet Union — “a policy that had the virtue of self-preservation… America retains a reservoir of good sense. Let us hope it prevails.”

Benjamin P. Tyree is deputy editor of the Commentary pages of The Washington Times.

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