Thursday, April 17, 2008

I'm going to be a little busy this week

Blogging will be be light for the next two days, as I'll be running a conference here at the Fletcher School on the Past, Present, and Future of Policymaking:

2007 marked the 60th anniversary of the founding of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff. This agency, housed in the State Department, is unusual in two respects. First, it will forever be associated with its first director, George Kennan, and the successful doctrine of containment that he originated. Second, the mission of Policy Planning is, according to its own website: “to take a longer term, strategic view of global trends and frame recommendations for the Secretary of State to advance U.S. interests and American values.” This goes against the grain of a 24/7, real-time, rapid-reaction era when government policymakers define the long term as two weeks from the present.

As the United States prepares for the 2008 election, there is a yearning for a new approach to foreign policy. Containment is dead and gone, the Bush doctrine has been unpopular at home and abroad, and isolationism is not an option. In a world of complex, overlapping and asymmetric threats, the need for policy planning has never been greater. Both policymakers and scholars need a better grasp of how to craft viable, long-term strategies for the 21st century....

Moving forward, the future of policy planning – in both the abstract and bureaucratic senses – is open to question. What are the proper ideas orient American foreign policy? Is the Policy Planning Staff, as currently organized, influential enough to improve American grand strategy? Is it even possible for any planning agency to retain its relevance in the modern era?

Click here for a look at the conference program. The event is open to the public, so Boston-based readers can register their attendance by clicking here.

For those of you not in the Bosto area, don't fret -- if all goes well, all of the sessions will be webcast in real time.

posted by Dan at 08:06 AM | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A random elitist question

Given the media firestorm over Obama's "bitter" statement, and given the overwhelming commetariat consensus that this episode would hurt Obama in the polls, and given the polling results clearly indicating this not to be the case in either Pennsylvania or across the country, what can be inferred?

A) Gun-toting, small-town Jesus-worshippers are so bitter that they don't watch cable news outlets;

B) Gun-toting, small-town Jesus-worshippers are so bitter that they aren't likely to show up as "likely voters" in a poll;

C) Gun-toting, small-town Jesus-worshippers are so bitter that their phone service has been cut off;

D) Gun-toting, small-town Jesus-worshippers are so bitter that they dislike Hillary Clinton even more than Barack Obama;

E) The commentariat is elitist and out of touch with what engages gun-toting, small-town Jesus-worshippers.

posted by Dan at 11:04 AM | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The oldest theme in the business

I'm beginning to wonder if there's a cognitive tic in my system that causes me to "not get" Jacob Heilbrunn's published output.

Last month I was puzzled by Heilbrunn's assertion that Samantha Power represented a vanguard of angry Democrat foreign policy mavens.

This month, Heilbrunn has an essay in World Affairs that bemoans the decline of the public intellectual:

For all the heat it has generated, for all the moments of good theater it has provided, the debate over the War on Terror has also called into question the role of public intellectuals today. In a prior time, these intellectuals could be judged by their output; today it is by the noise they make and the comment they generate....

With lifelong fights over changes of position, charges of intellectual treason, and tortured explanations to rationalize the party line, the political was personal in the 1930s and 1940s in a way it never was during the 1960s. But in recent years something has changed. Those who’ve set up shop as public intellectuals, with their keen sense of how high-stakes arguments were waged in the past and their equally keen appreciation for the role figures such as George Orwell played in those debates, have tended to be referential and self-referential in positioning themselves for maximum effect. Rather than the hard and solitary work of writing and thinking and achieving an output that far overshadowed their public presence, today’s intellectuals often succumb to celebrity culture, shouting on FOX News and MSNBC rather than arguing their ideas in books or in the pages of magazines.

While the stakes are arguably as high today as they were in the 1930s, our current crop of public intellectuals has resurrected some of the acrimony of those heady times, but little of the substance. What in an earlier era were battles grounded in strenuous intellectual engagement today often amount to little more than highbrow food fights and, in some cases, nifty career moves. The life of significant contention that the critic Lionel Trilling once lauded as the intellectual’s calling has been overtaken by a life of competing for significant attention. Compared to their predecessors, who staked everything on disputes over fascism, Stalinism, and imperialism, today’s rank-breakers are mere epigones.

Having battled this meme for several years now, I'm beginning to observe a few pathologies in the standard "decline of the intellectual" essay:
1) Provide as little evidence as possible for your argument: Heilbrunn tries to persuade by asserting that, "Most of the intellectuals who stepped up to the mics at FOX News spent more energy wondering if they were the next George Orwell than writing books that would cast light on what the country faced in a time of terror." This is truly odd for two reasons. First, the only effort Heilbrunn makes to substantiate his argument about intellectual decline is to look at the trajectories of Andrew Sullivan and Christopher Hitchens. This would be fine, except that neither Sullivan nor Hitchens have been shy in writing books on this topic.

Second, beyond Hitchens and Sullivan, what other public intellectuals have appeared on FOX? Seriously, I want to know.

2) Repeat past assertions of intellectual decline -- if you do it enough times, it will sink in: For example, in this essay, Heilbrunn notes that, "Richard Posner cites the craving for celebrity—and its availability because of radio and television talk shows and the Internet—as a reason for the decline of public intellectuals." Actually, no. Posner hypothesized that the professionalization of the academy was responsible for the decline in public intellectual output -- and, to be blunt, he never provided any systematic evidence for his assertion of decline.

Later on, Heilbrunn approvingly quotes Lee Seigel's thoughts on the matter -- also not a point in his favor.

3) Evoke intellectual nostalgia for the 1930's. Seriously, these kind of essays appear to be the only genre that looks back at the yeas of the Great Depression with something approaching fondness.

This matters, because even Heilbrunn seems to acknowledge in his essay that the state of public intellectual debate in the 1960's was pretty God awful. This raises the question -- what's the baseline point at which one starts to talk about a decline?

The decline-of-the-public-intellectual trope has been repeated so often -- and so baselessly -- that I'm going to make a request to readers, even though comments are down. Is there any way to objectively measure the quality of current public intellectual output?

E-mail me if you have ideas, because I'm getting tired of swatting these kind of articles down.

posted by Dan at 08:50 AM | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, April 14, 2008

Trade politics and embarrassing biographical details

You can hear me talk about the merits, demerits and politics of the proposed free trade agreement with Colombia on PRI's Fair Game with Faith Salie.

As an added bonus, embarrassing biographical details of your humble blogger are revealed at the very end of the discussion.

UPDATE: Wow, I had no idea who Faith Salie was when this was recorded -- and a good thing, too, or I would have been way more nervous and way less coherent.

posted by Dan at 11:46 PM | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

Through the prism of history, it's the "quiet diplomacy" of the Bush administration that will stand out

I see that NSC advisor Stephen Hadley doesn't think much of a boycott of the opening ceremonies of the Olympics:

It would be a "cop-out" for countries to skip the opening ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics as a way of protesting China's crackdown in Tibet, President Bush's national security adviser said Sunday.

The kind of "quiet diplomacy" that the U.S. is practicing is a better way to send a message to China's leaders, Stephen Hadley said.

President Bush has given no indication he will skip the event.

"I don't view the Olympics as a political event," Bush said this past week. "I view it as a sporting event."

The White House has not yet said whether he will attend the opening ceremony on Aug. 8.

"This issue [of the boycott] is in some sense a bit of a red herring," Hadley said in a broadcast interview. "I think unfortunately a lot of countries say, 'Well, if we say that we are not going to the opening ceremonies we check the box on Tibet.' That's a cop-out.

"If other countries are concerned about that, they ought to do what we are doing through quiet diplomacy, send a message clearly to the Chinese that this is an opportunity with the whole world watching, to show that they take into account and are determined to treat their citizens with dignity and respect. They would put pressure on the Chinese authorities quietly to meet with representatives of the Dalai Lama and use this as an opportunity help resolve that situation," Hadley said.

Hadley goes even further in the New York Times' version of the story: "[Hadley] suggested that the recent public protests, particularly in the chaotic Olympic torch processions, would only backfire."

Three thoughts on this:

1) Is Hadley seriously suggesting that the Tibet issue was going to crop up in "quiet diplomacy" in the absence of public protests? I suspect that, absent the news coverage, the only way it would have surfaced would have been in a completely pro forma way, with the inevitable "go away sonny, you're bothering me" reply from Beijing.

2) When, exactly, has the modern Olympics not been a political event?

3) Six months from now, will a reporter please remember to ask Hadley,"Hey, all that quiet diplomacy you've conducted with China on the Tibet issue, how did that pan out?"

posted by Dan at 08:37 AM | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)