The Silence of the Rational Center: American Foreign Policy Is Failing

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What has happened to American foreign policy? Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke argue that the members of what used to be called the foreign policy establishment are no longer doing the job of keeping our foreign policy informed and rational. Instead, hungry to coin the next Big Idea, they are in the business of advancing simplistic, glib mythologies. The result is that Americans are often presented with a fantasy world of nightmare scenarios rather than with explanations that lead to rational choices. Taking to ...

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The Silence of the Rational Center

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Overview

What has happened to American foreign policy? Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke argue that the members of what used to be called the foreign policy establishment are no longer doing the job of keeping our foreign policy informed and rational. Instead, hungry to coin the next Big Idea, they are in the business of advancing simplistic, glib mythologies. The result is that Americans are often presented with a fantasy world of nightmare scenarios rather than with explanations that lead to rational choices. Taking to task such well-known figures as Samuel Huntington, Noam Chomsky, and Jeffrey Sachs, Halper and Clarke argue for a revival of integrity within our foreign policy elite so that America's standing in the world can be restored. A book that pulls no punches, The Silence of the Rational Center is both a penetrating diagnosis and a stirring call to reform in what is possibly the most important area of American political life.

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Editorial Reviews

Michiko Kakutani
As Mr. Halper and Mr. Clarke see it, the lack of a more vociferous debate over the wisdom of going to war against Iraq reflects the failure of individual scholars and larger institutions to bring their expertise to bear during the “golden hour,” that crucial time when their views might have made a difference. The authors remind us that think tanks with a distinct ideological outlook (like the American Enterprise Institute and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy) are less research institutions than “well-funded lobbies with a support staff of scholars,” and they point to the silence of more nonpartisan organizations in this case as well.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
The experts we trust to provide guidance to our elected officials have failed us, seduced by the lure of cable television fame and popular book sales, argue Halper and Clarke (coauthors of America Alone: The Neoconservatives and the Global Order). Abandoning scholarship, too many have instead set off in search of the next Big Idea in foreign policy that purports to explain the world in five words or less. This phenomenon is not new-the authors identify Big Ideas from manifest destiny through the domino theory to the clash of civilizations-but the tendency to simplify a complex reality has become especially pernicious in the Iraq war debate. Finding targets on the right and left, the authors excoriate the Heritage Foundation as much as Noam Chomsky for lowering the level of public discourse. Though sometimes overblown (e.g., calling a public intellectual's decision to pen a regular op-ed column for a major daily newspaper a "Faustian arrangement with the media"), they paint a picture familiar to anyone who follows politics. Ironically, for a work that praises dispassionate, in-depth investigation, this book would have been better as a short essay. (Feb.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
When the Big Idea dominates, nuance and discussion go out the door. So write former State Department official Halper and British diplomat Clarke in this study of recent international affairs. The "rational center," that populous body of experts on everything under the sun, has given way to a coterie of people who, in politics and the media, serve as talking heads on any point. Thus, argue Halper and Clarke, Paul Krugman as economist is one thing; Paul Krugman as columnist opining on all manner of subjects "is striking a dangerous bargain that jeopardizes his standing as an expert." Ditto Noam Chomsky; ditto Samuel Huntington (whose "clash of civilizations" began life as a question mark and became a lucrative slogan); ditto an army of pundits on left and right. In the place of rational discussion by the rational center-essential in matters of foreign policy-has come the dominance of the Big Idea, the soundbite-friendly notion that, say, Vietnam is a domino that, once fallen, will take other dominoes down with it. "Islamofascism," for instance, was coined in 1990 to describe certain authoritarian governments in the Middle East, with a very specific meaning, rather than the Bush administration's all-purpose "derogatory term for fundamentalist terrorism." One Big Idea the Bushies are pushing, the authors note, is that America is a "nation at war," which relieves them of legal niceties such as habeas corpus. "Foreign affairs really do require expert knowledge and first-hand experience," they write, "without it one is often left to fill in the blanks with total conjecture"-as, dangerously, the administration is now doing with China, since there are few China hands left and sloganeering abouteither a competitive hegemony in Asia or the world's biggest market is all that is left. Useful, though the notion of the rational center itself makes a rather Big Idea. Policy wonks, have at it.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465011414
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 2/12/2007
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.26 (h) x 0.98 (d)

Meet the Author

Stefan Halper is a Fellow of Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge and a Senior Fellow of the Centre of International Studies. He served as a White House and State Department official in the Nixon, Ford, and Reagan administrations. He lives in Cambridge, England. Jonathan Clarke is a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs in New York, and a former career diplomat in the British Diplomatic Service, Together, Halper and Clarke are the authors of America Alone: The Neoconservatives and the Global Order. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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Table of Contents


Introduction     1
The Big Idea in History     21
Three Institutional Failures     49
Cable News: Accelerating the Big Idea     73
Think Tanks     89
An Unreliable Elite     111
Elites and the Use of Force     143
Insurgency     161
The Intelligence Dilemma     179
The Acid Test     199
A Return to Rationality     253
Postscript     265
Notes     267
Acknowledgments     293
Index     299
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