Beltway Intellectuals Are Useless
Washington intellectuals seem to have little idea
of how to fix US foreign policy
by Leon Hadar
he was once asked to define what exactly an "intellectual"
was, British writer Aldous Huxley proposed that it was "a person
who's found something in life that's more interesting than sex."
on Huxley's definition, I'm here to report to you that I had a very,
very interesting weekend which I spent with a group of some of Washington's
leading policy intellectuals, AKA policy "wonks" in a
Big-Ideas retreat outside of the US capital, where one of those
wealthy foundations wined and dined us for three days, in what could
be described as a mini-Davos.
return, we were expected to come up with new ideas on how to fix
the universe or, more precisely, draw up the outline of a strategy
that would permit the Master of the Universe, the United States,
to stabilize Iraq, bring peace to the Middle East, re-energize the
Western alliance and accommodate the Chinese, among many other things.
have to admit that most of these wonks are clearly more intelligent,
more knowledgeable and more experienced than your humble scribe
here. Some of them have Ph.D.s from the most prestigious universities
in the land, are fluent in many foreign languages, including Chinese,
Persian and Urdu, and have served in top positions in the White
House, Pentagon, State Department and Congress, where they provided
advice to US officials, lawmakers and generals as they attempted
to manage American foreign policy and resolve international crises.
the expectation among the conference's organizers that some of these
Washington's Best of the Brightest – I'm not including myself in
that category – would have one of those eureka! moments and 72 hours
of food consumption, beer drinking and long debates into the early
morning hours would produce – Boom, Gee Whiz – the Big Idea in the
form of, say, an exit strategy from Iraq or a new approach to deal
don't hold your breath. The long weekend failed to generate either
Big Ideas or even tiny ones. While I'm prohibited by the off-the-record
ground rules from revealing the names of the conference's attendees
or what exactly was said during that retreat in Virginia, I can
convey to you my main and very depressing impression: American foreign
policy in Iraq, the Middle East and elsewhere is in a mess, and
no one really knows how to get out of it.
of the participants suggested that Americans have to "stay
the course in Iraq," expressed hope (wishful thinking?) that
we will soon "turn the corner" there and things will get
better in Mesopotamia, that perhaps the Sunnis will join the political
process and that the elections in December will be "successful"
(whatever that means).
short, just continue muddling through and pray for a miracle.
are some signs of the emergence of a foreign policy debate in Washington
– clearly reflected in the discussions at the conference – which
pits Kissinger-style Realpolitik types against Wilsonian idealists.
taking into consideration some of the comments and predictions I
heard during the weekend, the idealists – that is, the neoconservative
ideologues who had hijacked US foreign policy after 9/11 – have
not lost their momentum.
notion that the US has the right and the obligation to promote American-style
freedom and democracy not only in the Middle East but worldwide
seems to be a dominant view among many of Washington's policy wonks.
In fact, one of the panels during the conference was devoted to
a discussion of how America could use its power to "democratize"
Southeast Asia, including Singapore.
those Democrats participating in the event who have been critical
of the neocons have not expressed opposition to the Global Democracy
project itself. They just seemed to suggest that unlike the neocons,
they would be able to achieve it at less cost especially in military
terms, for the US. Call it Neocon Lite.
enough, the harshest denunciation of the conduct of the Bushies'
foreign policy and the neoconservative Global Democracy agenda that
one can hear these days doesn't come from the direction of the Democratic
Party but from Republican establishment figures who had served in
the administration of President George the First.
Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser under Bush I, in an interview
he gave to New Yorker magazine, criticized Vice-President
Dick Cheney for siding with the militant neocons who wanted to reform
the Middle East by force.
said in the interview that he believed that Paul Wolfowitz and other
neocons "got a Utopia out there." Democracy cannot be
imposed by force, and not everyone values freedom above all, Scowcroft
a realist, Scowcroft expressed in the interview the necessity of
considering the consequences of action, or "outcomes."
For Scowcroft, "the second Gulf War is a reminder of the unwelcome
consequences of radical intervention, especially when it is attempted
without sufficient understanding of America's limitations or of
the history of the region," concluded the New Yorker
it's important to remember that one of the main reasons that Scowcroft
feels comfortable expressing such views that run contrary to the
policy paradigm dominating in Washington is that this elder statesman
is not looking for a job in the administration, Congress or the
other centers of power in Washington.
of the policy intellectuals I met over the weekend are still relatively
young and are marketing their ideas as part of a strategy to win
professional benefits, and challenging the conventional wisdom on
Iraq ("stay the course") and other issues wouldn't help
advance that goal.
might have found something more interesting in life than sex – but
it's not an exit strategy from Iraq.
Hadar [send him mail] is
Washington correspondent for the Business
Times of Singapore and the author of the forthcoming Sandstorm:
Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan).
© 2005 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved. Reprinted
with permission of the author.