“Smart” People

At Foreign Policy’s new Shadow Government blog, Philip Zelikow takes issue with Hillary Clinton’s use of the term “smart power”:

There was also a conceit embodied in the phrase, “smart power.” The conceit is interesting because it is so characteristic of contemporary American political life and scholarship in its preoccupation with process. Process shaping substance (this is the underlying premise of what political scientists somewhat confusingly call ‘rational choice’ theory); process trumping substance; and — quite often — process actually being the substance. Talking — or talking in a certain way — as, in itself, the solution. Or at least therapeutic.

So no surprise that a team of highly experienced people, having lived through the Bush years, might feel that ‘smart power’ is a term that really captures the contrasting vision they offer. It was an appealing way of saying: “They were kinda dumb or at least blinkered; we’re smart and open-minded. They weren’t clever and professional enough to use all the tools; we will.”

I suppose Bush sympathizers might disagree with the (supposedly unfair) characterization of the outgoing Administration as “dumb,” but really, emphasizing innocuous terms like “smart power” and “competence” – terms that are, as Zelikow points out, fundamentally procedural – suggests a strong degree of continuity between Obama and Bush. If you agree with the Bush Administration’s underlying policies  – the Global War on Terror, Iraq etc. – you should be downright enthusiastic at the prospect of an incoming Secretary of State who emphasizes competence and cosmetics over substantive political change. And if an implicit dig at Bush’s intelligence is the worst criticism Republicans have to endure from Obama, I think they’ll have gotten off rather lightly.

Some of Bush’s more astute supporters recognize this, which is why Krauthammer is writing columns predicting Bush’s imminent rehabilitation at the hands of none other than Obama. If this sounds slightly absurd, it’s probably because you supported Obama as a more decisive break with past foreign policy failures than either McCain or Clinton. McCain’s entrance into the hallowed ranks of bipartisan heroes and Clinton’s appointment as chief architect of the new Administration’s foreign policy ought to make anyone think twice about the content of Obama’s “change,” but if you’re still not convinced, I recommend this excellent op-ed from Andrew Bacevich.


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