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Power, Terror, Peace, and War I

I spend so much time dealing with the much of nonsense that's attracted itself to the Bush administration like so much pond scum trailing a leaky rowboat, that I've become a bit shrill of late. As a result, I feel the need to engage with something a bit more high minded. Last night, then, I picked up Walter Russell Mead's Power, Terror, Peace, and War: America's Grand Strategy in a World at Risk in an effort to grapple with some points made by a relatively serious apologist for Bushism. I'm going to try and blog the book as I read it. Herewith Part I:

Right now I'm at page 91 of a 216 page book and I must say that the most persistent flaw is that Mead often doesn't seem to know what he's talking about. We get a lot of grand sweeping claims based on pretty flimsy metaphors or superficial analyses of incredibly complicated topics. Time and again I think back to the section on pages 8 and 9 where Mead essentially admits this and tries to explain it away:

We live in a world full of specialists, but American foreign policy demands generalists. American national strategy tries to integrate economics, politics, military studies, and any other subjects to create and support an international system. It seems to me that only a generalist can write a book about American foreign policy as a large, single system; it also seems pretty clear that such a book will be flawed. Generalists are superficially mistaken about a great many subjects; specialists are profoundly mistaken about a few.
As a journalist, I keenly feel the pain of the generalist. I find myself in Mead's shoes all the time -- needing to somehow touch on a range of material that I am perfectly aware I don't understand nearly as well as those people who've spent years focusing in on it narrowly. I like to think that having studied philosophy as an undergraduate is a reasonably good preparation for such a task. Obviously, I never wind up writing an article about meta-ethics or the way structurally similar issues about reductionism pop up in diverse areas (insofar as I know a lot about anything, it's these things), but what philosophy fundamentally teaches you about (especially as an undergraduate when you don't really have the time to master any particular sub-area) is how to spot an unsound argument, irrespective of the topic of discussion. That's a useful and generally applicable thing. And I think we'll see it pop up again and again in this discussion.

But back to Mead. The observation that American foreign policy demands generalists seems pretty clearly correct. Not only does the author of a book on the subject need to be a generalist, but the author of the grand strategy itself needs to be one. The President of the United States, in other words, must be a generalist. But -- and I think this is important -- foreign policy also demands specialists. Lots and lots of specialists. You don't synthesize economics and Middle East studies and military strategy by being "superficially mistaken" about all of those things. At least not at the policy-making level. At least not if you want to avoid a debacle. You need to synthesize all these things while getting them all pretty much right. Which is another way of saying that it's hard to be the president, and that the president needs to be smart. Not smart enough to know all this stuff all on his own, but smart enough to be able to think criticially about the advive he's getting. Smart enough to take advantage of the enormous resources and knowledge base (for who, if he got a call from the White House saying the president wanted his take on something wouldn't offer it up?) at his disposal to figure out how to get this stuff right.

These are all side points, though. Back to Mead -- good for him for admitting up front his own limits. When I write a book I hope I'll do the same. One should simply note, however, that acknowledging a flaw only goes so far in excusing it. The implication of his "superficially mistaken about a great many subjects" thesis is that, at some level, these "superficial" mistakes don't matter. But when you're building a grand synthetic edifice, superficial mistakes made in one area can grow ever larger as they become pillars upon which the whole construct lies.

September 10, 2004 | Permalink

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