Marginal Footnotes

Bad Ideas
April 24, 2006, 12:42 pm
Filed under: Media, Politics, Uncategorized

Alan Wolfe, a professor of political science at Boston College, has one of those must-read articles which is both entertaining and deeply insightful, even if the optimism which undergirds its major thesis is sadly misplaced. Wolfe, in the course of reviewing Francis Fukuyama’s autobiographical tell-all of his intellectual crimes and Bruce Bartlett’s excoriation of Bush’s betrayal of fundamental conservative principles, chronicles the ‘bad ideas upon which [Bush] built his administration’.  That Iraq has proved such a catastrophic military disaster must, surely, discredit the intellectuals and the ideas behind its provenance, namely (since we’re naming names) the neoconservatives Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz (who it appears, feels so guilty about Iraq that he’s doing his best to do some good at the World Bank, if one is willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, as I am. Richard Perle, not so much).  As a result, Bush’s preventative war doctrine is in ‘shatters’, as is the entire concept of ‘hawkishness’, according to Wolfe.  But preventative war remains in force as a national strategy (as if it weren’t always in force) and it seems that Iran is on the table for a possible if more frightening repeat of the whole Iraq war thing.  And as Wolfe notes, ‘Just because ideas are bad does not mean they will disappear’.  They haven’t.  And they won’t, because for this president to make them disappear would be a really courageous thing to do.  And if we know anything about President Bush, his courage is of the swaggering, schoolyard, I’m-bigger-than-you bullying sort and not the do-the-right-thing-even-if-its-tough sort. 

Wolfe posits that Bush’s practical demonstration of the real-world effect of bad ideas will revivify, in future administrations of course, an interest in intellectual debate and create an environment in which ‘foreign and domestic policies will have to confront the real world around them, not the imaginary one bequeathed to them by their ideology’. What he fails to acknowledge is that all ideas are ideology, and even if men like Francis Fukuyama and Paul Wolfowitz have been wholly discredited, their ideas were a component of a larger failure in the apparatuses of the state to sort out the good from the bad.  This is a structural problem.  The neoconservative ideas which made the Iraq war conceivable prevailed because the men behind those ideas ran roughshod over the process, manipulating facts or creating their own when that seemed most efficient. This has been documented lucidly by Larry Wilkerson, Secretary Powell’s former chief-of-staff, here and here. There will always be good ideas, and there will always be bad ideas. To assert that good ideas (whatever they may be) will automatically prevail in the post-Bush world would depend on a profound complacency. The Iraq war proponents succeeded not because of the validity of their ideas, which had been marginal for decades, but because the entire national security apparatus failed in allowing itself to be crippled or evaded by the ideologically determined. Congress failed by refusing to consider seriously the implications of a war. The media failed for refusing to ask the right questions, the sort of questions they are asking now. And the public failed for refusing to pay attention, even when they were watching.  

Neoconservative ideas were self-evidently bad from the start. A few people noticed this at the time.  Now, thanks to much spilled blood, they have been demonstrated to be the empty theories of reckless intellectuals and technocrats who made very good use of a very dumb president.  And yet, we’re having the debate again, about, as Jon Stewart put it, a four-letter Middle Eastern country that begins with I-R-A.

Assuming that we are in for ‘a golden age of intellectual inquiry’ due to the ‘pernicious consequences of Mr. Bush's bad ideas’ is assuming quite a lot. Until the system is reformulated to better test the hypotheses put before it, I’m sure we can continue to count on the bad ideas which are the hallmark of American government.


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