Big Ideas, Big Problems

Policy decisions suffer when the rational center remains silent and catchphrases take over the debate.

Issue: Mar-Apr 2007

JOE NYE of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government is fond of saying that it's not whose army wins, it's whose story wins. Today neither America's army nor its story is winning. Americans ask why.

Many analysts believe today's national security team is the weakest in recent memory: transfixed by a single irresolvable challenge, unable to integrate divergent views, lacking strategic perspective and so on. Though some of this may be true, American undertakings depend on popular support-so the flawed public debate may equally contribute to the problem. How we frame oncoming challenges, debate them and decide a course of action is problematic.

As George F. Kennan observed, truth is a poor competitor in the marketplace of ideas. It is complicated, unsatisfying, full of dilemmas, and vulnerable to misinterpretation and abuse. At times of severe challenge or crisis the American debate is often driven by passion and supposition. Sloganeering prevails and think tanks, opinion writers and the Congress-the institutions we rely upon for pragmatic, informed analysis and guidance (what I have termed the "rational center")-are sometimes uncertain and often silent. As a result, irrational impulse prevails over rational policy.

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