The Old War, Revisited

Published April 1, 1994

As for David Ignatius’s second point, one can surely sympathize with the difficulties of policy-making in the strange new post-Cold War world. It is a new ballgame; many of the old reference points don’t apply; the new dilemmas aren’t readily susceptible to the traditional solutions; and to top it all off, the country is in a surly mood about international entanglements. These are circumstances that would test the wits and the mettle of anyone.

But one would be more inclined to a comprehensive sympathy with the problems faced by the Clinton people if Ignatius’s description of them were in fact the case: namely, that these are people who had trained for, and expected to have to run, the old war. In fact, though, as the writings of the FOB and former Time correspondent Strobe Talbott, now Deputy Secretary of State, graphically illustrate, a lot of the Best and the Brightest of the 1990s thought the old war was nonsense. Talbott, a ranking Gorbophile when the last Soviet leader’s stock was bullish, once described the West’s attitude toward the Cold War as a “grand obsession” based on a “grotesque exaggeration of what the USSR could do if it wanted to.” Talbott also argued that Western concerns about Soviet aggressiveness had a “touch of paranoid fantasy about them,” and claimed that “the doves” in the “Great Debate” over national security policy had been “right all along.” “About what?” one wants to ask, particularly in light of recent revelations from the Soviet state archives, virtually all of which substantiate the claims made by the anti-détente party during the Great Debate to which Talbott alludes.

Does it really matter that Talbott (and many, many others in the current administration) were so spectacularly wrong about the basic dynamics and moral stakes of the entire post-1945 competition between Communism and the West (as well as about the Cold War’s end-game)? After all, the counter-argument would go, this is a new situation, and as David Ignatius writes, “smart people … have the capacity to learn.” Well, let’s hope so. But one would be more optimistic about the learning curve here if there were any signs that these folks had really confronted, wrestled with, and learned from the analytic (and, let it be said, moral) misjudgments they made in the recent past.

Instead, we see a policy toward central and eastern Europe that not only is built around the orthodox arms-controller tactic of always cutting the Russians a little more slack, but that also concedes what NATO properly denied for forty-five years, viz., that its existence poses a threat to Russia. And this is not the only example of how mental and moral-analytic habits formed during the 1980s have proven hard to break, now that the new Best and Brightest are in charge. At his Moscow press conference in January, the President himself demonstrated how difficult the habit of moral equivalence is to break, suggesting that Russian military intervention in the “near abroad” of the former USSR or Warsaw Pact countries wouldn’t be all that different from what the United States had done in Grenada and Panama—at which point even the State Department people reportedly blanched.

Some may say that a public reckoning with judgmental errors is simply too much to expect of political intellectuals and publicists. To which it should be replied that that is precisely what the neo-conservatives did during the late 1970s and early 1980s (which may help to explain the loathing of neo-conservatives that emanates from the genteel New Establishment left). The point, though, is not to demand public penance, on the model of Henry IV’s pilgrimage to Canossa. The point is that the seeming unwillingness of today’s Best and Brightest to reexamine critically the serious analytic errors of which they were guilty in the recent past suggests an intellectual rigidity and temperamental arrogance that bodes ill for policy-making in the immediate future. People who continue to think they were Right From the Start even when the evidence is powerfully to the contrary are people likely to miss opportunities (such as NATO expansion, conceived as enlarging: the sphere of democratic stability in Europe) and to create trouble (e.g., eviscerating the nuclear non-proliferation treaty by pandering to North Korea).

They are also likely to be the kind of people who exhibit the moral vanity implicit in Wirth’s Law. And this seems to me to be a dimension of the problem not sufficiently addressed by David Ignatius. More than one commentator has suggested that the administration’s difficulties can be explained in part by the fact that the Democrats, after being out of office for twelve years, lacked the bench-strength necessary to fill the top foreign-policy positions quickly and imaginatively. There is surely something to that; and the problem has been compounded by the administration’s insistence on using racial, ethnic, and gender quotas to structure its major appointments.

But the deeper problem is that the Clinton people think there’s nothing to be learned from the past twelve years. In other words, the root of the problem is not the political fact that these people were, in the main, outside the corridors of political power from 1981 through 1992; the root of the problem is their intellectual disinclination to take any lessons from the twelve years of “stagnation, drift, and gridlock,” as the President (who frequently complains about the intensely partisan atmosphere of Washington) is wont to characterize the period.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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