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Big Ideas, Big Problems

Big Ideas, Big Problems

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

by Author(s): Stefan Halper

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.

Today, two elements largely shape the policy debate. The first is America's unusual susceptibility to "Big Ideas." Some of these, like "Freedom on the March", affirm the nation's mission and destiny. Others, like "Axis of Evil", are "framing concepts", designed to advance and support specific policies. Still others-phrases like "Stay the Course"-are little more than transitory clichés. All these slogans compress complex issues into simple nostrums that obfuscate rather than illuminate. The worst phrases, like McCarthy's "monolithic communism", the Vietnam era's "Domino Theory" and the modern neoconservatives' "drain the swamp", have been disastrously misleading. All this begs the question of why we are so susceptible to this phenomenon.

From the beginningAmerica was an "imagined community", defined in non-territorial and non-ethnic terms, regularly re-conceptualizing its "Exceptionalism" to meet new challenges. What became an enduring American habit of self-construction served to create a perpetual industry of Big Ideas fashioning and illuminating the substance of nationhood-America as "New Jerusalem", the "Last Best Hope on Earth" or the "Indispensable Nation."[1]They emphasize the notion that America has a unique and providential mission.Big Ideas bind citizens to America's perceived mission. Used with care, Big Ideas translate abstract options to tangible policies.Used unwisely, Big Ideas foreshorten debate, unleash emotions and create false realities.

The second element is the 24/7 media, which, with large blocks of time and space to fill, seeks catchy stories and fresh faces to attract eyes, ears and advertising. The situation rewards amusing and superficial explanations ("infotainment"). Not surprisingly, slogans dominate the discourse.

A Recurring Syndrome: McCarthy, Vietnam and Iraq

EACH OF the three post-World War II generations has grappled with a ubiquitous, global threat, and each has suffered the consequences of ill-conceived policy responses. Each time-during the Red Scare of the early Cold War and during the run-ups to the Vietnam and Iraq Wars-Big Ideas turned complex foreign policy challenges into undifferentiated, apocalyptic threats. These episodes featured similar actors exploiting similar emotions-and each lacked a significant "push-back" from the actors that comprise the rational center.

Timing is everything in politics, and when Joe McCarthy made his first public accusations, America was in a state of advanced anxiety. In Europe, the now-nuclear Soviet Union was reneging on its Yalta Conference promises. In Asia, the People's Republic of China was proclaimed and the Korean Peninsula's stability was in jeopardy. At home a series of spy scandals, some involving nuclear intelligence transmitted to the Soviet Union, roiled the political scene.

Fear and paranoia rise in times of threat, joining their handmaiden patriotism to travel quickly and mute the rational center. McCarthy stepped forward to provide simple explanations: America was under attack from a Communist conspiracy, undetermined in its extent. Since the Truman Administration was "soft on communism", McCarthy would "clean house" (he wore a broom lapel pin). Few were immune to his sloganeering. McCarthy gave voice and form to the notion of destruction from within.[2]

The Congress was broadly silent, cowed by the fear of being thought unpatriotic. Though disapproving of the message and tactics, senior Republicans like Ohio Senator Robert Taft and General Dwight Eisenhower chose not to engage McCarthy. President Truman's administration also had no stomach for a fight. The press and the academy were mute or ineffective. The rational center had collapsed.

Henry Luce, the publisher of Time, Life and Fortune magazines, gave McCarthy vital support. He used the phrase "who lost China" to frame the debate and cast communism as an apocalyptic threat to Christianity and the American way of life. Though some journalists spoke out, like Drew Pearson, Walter Lippman and Edward R. Murrow, few if any major newspapers joined in-just as neither The New York Times nor the Washington Post challenged the Iraq War until 2005.

As with terrorism today, there was no room in 1950s America for dispassionate analysis of communism. McCarthy's assumptions about the nature of communism and Soviet and Chinese ambitions prevailed for two decades. This brought a catastrophic misunderstanding of policy options in Korea and Vietnam.

Experts explained that communism was not a monolith, and that not all communist movements threatened national security. "We are not necessarily always against the expansion of communism", George F. Kennan told the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System in 1947, "and certainly not always against it to the same degree in every area." Kennan's strategy of "containment" did not require universal engagement, as some advocated. The United States could contain communist expansion "by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy."

Had this approach prevailed, American engagement might have taken a very different course, and the scourge might have died out earlier. But it was not so. Several forces, most notably McCarthy, put forth irrational and moralizing catchphrases. Cross out "communism" and write in "terrorism", and McCarthy could work the levers of today's politics[3]

This laid the groundwork for Vietnam. In American folk memory the Vietnam era brought intense divisiveness with massive, sometimes violent, protest. But in fact, the fateful decisions came from remarkable unity. From 1961, when President Kennedy gave his inaugural address, to 1964, when the Senate passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, politicians, the academy and the media were on the same track. Robert McNamara, then Kennedy's secretary of defense, has said: "Like most Americans, I saw communism as monolithic."

To major media outlets-The New York Times, Washington Post, Time magazine and others-Vietnam was a Moscow-Beijing-Washington story where the Cold War provided an interpretive framework. Between 1955 and 1960, stories downplayed South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem's despotic tendencies, emphasized his anti-communism and portrayed his administration as transitioning from authoritarianism to pluralism. When Diem visited Washington in May 1957, The New York Times Magazine said he possessed "that high degree of courage that Ernest Hemingway once defined as grace under pressure."

Walter Lippmann, then considered the "Dean of American Journalism" and writing for Newsweek, rejected the domino theory and broke with President Lyndon Johnson over Vietnam. But he was the exception. The vast majority of reporters, editors and columnists remained sympathetic to the administration through the 1960s. When correspondents like David Halberstam challenged the consensus, they found it difficult or impossible to obtain space, especially on the front page. Four decades later the Washington Post ombudsman faulted his newspaper on exactly the same point in the run-up to the Iraq War.

Popular columnists like Joseph Alsop (Washington Post) and James "Scotty" Reston (The New York Times) reported local developments through the lens of the Big Idea. If South Vietnam fell, Alsop warned, Laos and Cambodia were the next dominoes. This region was the key to Thailand; Thailand was the key to India and Japan; the loss of South Asia would produce "grim repercussions further afield" in the "Middle East, North Africa and even Europe." As The New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger told the American public, "a political battle more significant than Dien Bien Phu is now being fought in Vietnam", with the United States having committed "all its prestige." Vietnam was not a Vietnam story but a communist one.

Then as now, the administration suppressed dissent. Referring to Senators Fulbright and Greuning, Secretary of State Dean Rusk said that, "insofar as anybody here or abroad pays attention to the quitters, they are lending aid and comfort to our enemies." Post-9/11, this sounds depressingly familiar. Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, addressing critics after the attacks, said, "My message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists." During these crises, forty years apart, the framing concept "dissent aids the enemy" crippled debate in Congress.

Essay Types: Book Review