Simplify and exaggerate

by Henry on January 19, 2007

This column by Gideon Rachman in the FT is pretty interesting; he argues that what’s wrong in right wing foreign policy discussion in the US is that there are too many journalists and former journalists.

An editor of The Economist in the 1950s once advised his journalists to “simplify, then exaggerate”. This formula is almost second nature for newspaper columnists and can make for excellent reading. But it is a lousy guide to the making of foreign policy. … the journalists are a vital part of a neo-con network that formulated and sold the ideas that took the US to war in Iraq and that is now pressing for confrontation with Iran. The links between journalists, think-tanks and decision-makers in the neo-con world are tight and there is plenty of movement from one area to the other … You get the same combination of overstatement and ancestor-worship in Mr Stelzer’s introduction to The Neocon Reader, when he writes of the “formidable intellectual firepower behind neo-conservative foreign policy”, which “has probably not been seen since George Kennan led a team that formulated America’s response to the threat of Soviet expansionism.” The comparison with Kennan is instructive but not in the way Mr Stelzer intends. The main difference is that Kennan had a profound knowledge of the part of the world he was writing about. … Neo-conservative columnists have tended to follow the trial lawyers’ approach to expertise. First, decide what you want to argue then find an expert who agrees with you. … The current debacle in Iraq is what you get when you turn op-ed columns into foreign policy.

To which I’d add that right-wing house-organs such as Commentary have also shaped these commentators’ style, by creating a culture in which you get ahead by smearing your opponents (to illustrate this, it’s worthwhile to read through, say, a selection of Norman Podhoretz’s old columns, or Charles Krauthammer’s more recent attempts in The National Interest to claim that Francis Fukuyama is an anti-Semite). This isn’t to say that things are much better among the centrist and Democratic divisions of the foreign policy commentariat; they also have their own exaggerated simplifications. Here, the tendency seems to be to argue over grand and abstract paradigms for foreign policy making, without any real attempt to account for the actual human costs that this or that paradigm will have, if implemented. This seems to me to be the more fundamental problem that lies behind recent complaints that commenters who got the Iraq war wrong have done quite well out of it; that there’s a fundamental disconnection between the DC-centric arena of foreign policy debates, and the world in which the results of these debates play out. This intellectual disconnect isn’t only a sin of journalists; it’s a sin that academics are often guilty of too (I suspect that the problem with Henry Kissinger’s behavior as Secretary of State wasn’t exactly that he was a Metternichean realist, but that he was an academic trying to be a Metternichian realist). But it’s a pretty fundamental sin, and a pretty fundamental problem.



CJColucci 01.19.07 at 11:16 am

I’ve long wondered who all these people are and why anyone takes them seriously. They rarely have practical experience in conducting foreign policy or substantive expertise about, say, some country where we face some problem. (Not that these qualities are enough — Condi has both and we can see how she’s doing.) Why should the Kristols and Krauthammers of the world be paid any attention?


Mark 01.19.07 at 11:21 am

I think the problem with Henry Kissenger’s behavior as Secretary of State is that it was depraved, and uniquely so.


Barry 01.19.07 at 11:56 am

I’ve seen a similar critque before – that right-wing columnists, for example, were generally not journalists, or got out of journalism after only a short time. That lead to a situation where liberal columnists had spent more time in a journalistic, ‘he said/she said’ environment, whereas the right-wingers had generally spent their entire/almost their entire careers in advocacy.


roger 01.19.07 at 12:28 pm

Henry, this analysis seems right to me about the internal structure of the foreign policy industry. But the skewing of D.C. commentators towards an automatic stance of aggression has an additional external aspect, which is economic. Looking at the money poured into the D.C. area since 9/11, it seems clear that George Bush is the best president D.C. has ever seen. War related expenditures in the past six years have been an unprecedented bounty to the Ph.D class, especially as this is a war that is, by design, obscure – nobody, after all, knows what the GWOT really means (the suggestion that it should be about the actual taking of terrorists, such as Usama bin Laden, are routinely treated as the naive suggestion of clueless pipsqueaks.) The GWOT doesn’t call for manufacturing subs, or tanks, or things like that, but the much more expensive manufacturing of ideas and software and the kind of things that companies like SAIC does.

These matters aren’t talked about on the news pages, but they are very cheerfully talked about on the business pages of the Washington Post, which, like any local newspaper, is happy to report on and hurray the targeting of money to its city. I’m puzzled by the fact that no connection is ever made between that influx of money, a commentariat that sits in the middle of it and can see the benefits accruing, at the very least, to friends and neighbors, and the template aggressiveness of the commentariat. If you had a group of policy makers living in Las Vegas churning out papers about the moral and economic benefits of gambling, I think you would make the connection – surely the same thing is true of D.C.


otto 01.19.07 at 12:46 pm

I think it’s time to see Commentary/ Krauthammer etc as similar to anti-global warming publications sponsored by Exxon etc – as part of an organised effort to suffocate the ‘profound knowledge’ of world politics to which GR refers. A different version of The Republican War on Science.


abb1 01.19.07 at 12:51 pm

Seems to me that this intellectual disconnect isn’t the sin of journalists or academics, but of the messianic megalomaniacs everywhere. Neocons and other ultra-nationalists, communists, religious fanatics, true believers of all kinds.


Henry 01.19.07 at 1:19 pm

Mark – I don’t question that Kissinger was depraved – what I’m interested in is the particular source of his depravity. Which seems to me to have been in large part that of an academic who has elevated a certain version of Realpolitik into a theory of statecraft, and then has the opportunity to apply this abstracted version in reality, while glorying in how much intellectually ‘tougher’ and more ‘realistic’ he is than lily-livered liberals. In short, I think that he elevated coldblooded brutality into an ideal, and then tried to apply this ideal. Which is something that is different in some ways than someone, like his hero Metternich, who applied brutal methods in the pursuit of a vision of order (I’m not saying that the latter is at all necessarily better, but it _is_ a different kind of depravity).


Ben Alpers 01.19.07 at 2:08 pm

This analysis sounds like an early 21C version of la trahison des clercs. If so, it may be part of an old and rather international story about intellectuals (including but not limited to academics) and foreign affairs.


mijnheer 01.19.07 at 3:47 pm

“there’s a fundamental disconnection between the DC-centric arena of foreign policy debates, and the world in which the results of these debates play out. This intellectual disconnect isn’t only a sin of journalists; it’s a sin that academics are often guilty of too….”

How true: The noun is “disconnection”; “disconnect” is a verb, even if it’s used intellectually by academics.


Ginger Yellow 01.19.07 at 4:10 pm

Not that these qualities are enough—Condi has both and we can see how she’s doing.

Eh? Rice’s area of expertise is Soviet Russia.


ben cronin 01.19.07 at 7:48 pm

Gideon Rachman is quite good, really the best at the FT, I think. I wanted to applaud when I read this column at the office the other day; it somehow makes me feel better in spite of all the Jonah Goldbergs of the world.


ben cronin 01.19.07 at 7:54 pm

Let me make an addendum: having recently started working in an old-school financial journalism environment, I was taken aback by what a shill for the various advertising interests the editor is. It’s like bloody Pravda, but for capitalism. The comment above about the implicit quid pro quo in which magazines and newspapers do various advertisements disguised as “stories” about new products or corporate puff pieces is right on the money. In fact, I’d say it’s a bit more than implicit.


novakant 01.19.07 at 9:55 pm

I don’t think it has anything to do with the disconnect of academics and journalists or grand designs per se – there were plenty of arabists warning of the consequences of going to war and a lot of journalists were very skeptical, especially in europe where they tend to be a tad more intellectual. Also, arguing for the principles of international justice, which a few philosophers and law professors did, requires belief in a rather grand and abstract paradigm, so that can’t be a fault in itself.

The problem had three sources which were all distinctly anti-intellectual in their recourse to absoulte certainties and converged to become an overwhelming force: the belief of the Straussian neocons that they are above critical debate and empirical verification, because they have access to a higher truth; the belief of the Bush administration that they could do whatever they want without any checks and balances; and the belief of a majority of US citizens that 9/11 had given them a free pass exempting them from common moral accountability.


Tyrone Slothrop 01.19.07 at 10:04 pm

As novakant just suggested, I’m not sure why anyone thinks that the Bush’s administration’s foreign policy is affected by the opinions of journalists and commentators. If the D.C. commentariat was uniformly suggesting that Bush do something he didn’t want to do — e.g., withdraw from Iraq, or negotiate in good faith with Iran or North Korea — who really thinks that Bush would listen?

This is not to defend the quality of the commentary. Of course, the pundits love to believe that they’re influential.

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