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Sunday, August 17, 2014


The great medievalist scholar Harry Austryn Wolfson, with whom I had the privilege of studying in the Spring of 1952 and again in the Spring of 1953, explained to us one day that in medieval manuscripts there were three sorts of commentary -- short, medium, and long.  The short commentary was no more than a footnote or gloss on a word or passage.  The medium commentary might fill a column alongside the text.  The long commentary would fill both columns and the top and bottom of the page, so that one would have to hunt to find the original text being commented on.  Today, I shall offer a very long commentary on a very little piece of text.  In fact. this entire post will be a commentary on one word.

The word in question is contained in an interview that Hillary Clinton recently gave to Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic.  That interview garnered a good deal of attention because in it Clinton clearly criticized Obama's management of America's Syrian policy from a right-wing hawkish perspective, thereupon generating a considerable blather among the chattering classes.  But I shall leave that subject to them.  My eye was caught by a single word.  Here is the relevant segment of the interview.  I wonder whether you will be able to guess which word brought me up short.

"JG: You go out of your way in Hard Choices to praise Robert Ford, who recently quit as U.S. ambassador to Syria, as an excellent diplomat. Ford quit in protest and has recently written strongly about what he sees as the inadequacies of Obama administration policy. Do you agree with Ford that we are at fault for not doing enough to build up a credible Syrian opposition when we could have?

HRC: I’m the one who convinced the administration to send an ambassador to Syria. You know, this is why I called the chapter on Syria “A Wicked Problem.” I can’t sit here today and say that if we had done what I recommended, and what Robert Ford recommended, that we’d be in a demonstrably different place.

JG: That’s the president’s argument, that we wouldn’t be in a different place.

HRC: Well, I did believe, which is why I advocated this, that if we were to carefully vet, train, and equip early on a core group of the developing Free Syrian Army, we would, number one, have some better insight into what was going on on the ground. Two, we would have been helped in standing up a credible political opposition, which would prove to be very difficult, because there was this constant struggle between what was largely an exile group outside of Syria trying to claim to be the political opposition, and the people on the ground, primarily those doing the fighting and dying, who rejected that, and we were never able to bridge that, despite a lot of efforts that Robert and others made."

The word that brought me up short is the sixteenth in the second Clinton quote:  "carefully."  If we were to carefully vet, train, and equip early on a core group of the developing Free Syrian Army etc etc.  This one word encapsulates everything that is wrong with the approach to foreign policy that has dominated the American government's foreign policy decisions, under Republican and Democratic Presidents alike, for several generations, and arguably has shaped the foreign policy decisions of the European Powers as well for the past century.

What are we to make of Clinton's statement?  We might construe her simply as saying that if we had carelessly vetted, trained, and equipped those folks, things would have gone badly, and I am sure that seems a quite reasonable observation.  After all, when lives and money are at stake, it is probably better to act carefully than carelessly.  But Clinton, by using the word "carefully," is implying a great deal more.

First of all, she is trying to demonstrate that she is a very serious person, someone who can be relied upon to act carefully.  But there is much more implied by the use of the word.  To say that we should act carefully expresses the idea that in Syria we were presented with a problem to which we sought a solution, a problem that, because it was complicated and fraught with great perils, required us to be very careful to find and then carry out the correct solution.

Everything that is wrong with the foreign policy of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and -- should she be elected -- Hillary Clinton is encapsulated in the unexamined supposition that in our foreign affairs we face problems that have solutions which, if we are just sufficiently careful, we can find and then implement.

Now, there have in fact been a number of situations in which America has faced a problem, the solution of which it has found and implemented.  The decision by Franklin Delano Roosevelt to commission the making of the first atomic bomb in the Manhattan Project posed just such a problem, the solution to which was devised over several years by some of the world's greatest physicists and engineers.  It was basically an engineering problem of enormous complexity and difficulty, requiring no new fundamental scientific discoveries but the solution of a great many subtle and tricky problems of applied science.  Exactly the same is true of John  F. Kennedy's decision to commission the creation of a rocket capable of landing men on the moon and bringing them back to earth.  This really was rocket science, as the saying goes, and it was carried out brilliantly by the NASA physicists and engineers, and by the men recruited to serve as astronauts.

The fundamental error, the besetting sin, of our entire foreign policy establishment is the tendency to view the management of America's relations with the rest of the world as a series of problems whose solutions can be found if we just proceed knowledgeably, intelligently, and carefully.

The wisest words I know on this subject were written by Michael Oakeshott, the brilliant, eccentric British conservative philosopher.  I know it puzzles and irks some of you when I refer kindly to Oakeshott, since politically speaking, he is not what some German Jews would refer to as unsere Leute, but I recognize brilliance when I see it, wherever on the political spectrum it lurks.  Had I the power to command you in the way that a Professor commands his students, I would require you all to read two selections by Oakeshott from his book Rationalism in Politics:  The title essay and an even more important, but rather less hilariously funny piece, "Rational Conduct."  But, alas, those who live by the tweet must die by the tweet, so I can only copy out laboriously two brief series of selections from these seminal essays and hope that the most serious among you will seek out Oakeshott's book.      

Here first a taste of Oakeshott's penetrating characterization of  "the Rationalist." 

"[T]he mind of the Rationalist ... impresses us as, at best, a finely-tempered neutral instrument, as a well-trained rather than as an educated mind.  Intellectually, his ambition is not so much to share the experience of the race as to be demonstrably a self-made man. ... With an almost poetic fancy, he strives to live each day as if it were his first, and he believes that to form a habit is to fail. ... The conduct of affairs, for the Rationalist, is a matter of solving problems. ... in this activity the character which the Rationalist  claims for himself is the character of the engineer, whose mind (it is supposed) is controlled throughout by  the appropriate technique and whose first step is to dismiss from his attention everything not directly related to his specific intentions. ... Thus, political life is resolved into a succession of crises, each to be surmounted by the application of 'reason.' "

And now, for a little light relief, a passage from "Rational Conduct" in which Oakeshott turns his attention to the rigors of designing clothing.

"[T]he expression 'rational dress' was applied, in particular times, to an extraordinary garment affected by girls on bicycles, and to be observed in the illustrations of Punch of the period.  Bloomers were asserted to be the 'rational dress' for girl cyclists. ... The 'rationality' sought by these Victorian designers was ... an eternal and universal quality;  something rescued from the world of mere opinion and set in a world of certainty.  They might make mistakes; and if they were not mistakes of mechanics or anatomy (which would be unlikely), they would be the mistakes of a mind not firmly enough insulated from preconception, a mind not yet free.  Indeed, they did make a mistake; impeded by prejudice, their minds paused at bloomers instead of running on to 'shorts' -- clearly so much more complete a solution to their problem."

And so on.  There is simply more worth quoting than even my clumsy fingers can manage.

The comic and yet deeply tragic apotheosis of this deeply confused form of rationality is nation building, the bizarre fantasy that America can step into a millennia-old religious, economic, social, political and historical maelstrom and by an act of will, intelligence, and expertise carefully impose its conception of order -- the notion that a committee of foreign policy "experts" who cannot even speak, read, or write the languages of the people in the region are well-suited to decide to how deploy America's enormous military and economic power for ends they have defined with barely the slightest idea of their significance for the people whose lives they are overturning.

All of this, I am afraid, flashed through my mind when I read Hillary Clinton's use of the word "carefully" in the interview with Jeffery Goldberg.

I will be honest.  There was a time when I thought Barack Obama knew some of what I have just written.  Perhaps he did.  Perhaps he still does.  But that knowledge does not manifest itself in the decisions he makes about foreign policy. 

Who knows?  Perhaps no one occupying that constitutional office could act on such knowledge.  He would not be impeached or assassinated.  It would be worse.  He simply would not be understood.

1 comment:

Paul said...

I showed this post to a buddy of mine who said "Precisely. Exhibit A: Woodrow Wilson at Versailles."