Power Rules

Longtime Washington inside Leslie H. Gelb prescribes common sense as the antidote to US foreign policy blunders.

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Last August, as America watched the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, you could almost hear a gasp go up across the country. The scale and precision of the show – its sheer spectacle – were beyond anything even the United States had ever attempted.

As Li Ning ran in mid-air around the upper edge of the Bird’s Nest to light the Olympic flame, it was hard not to wonder if a torch of a different sort had been passed.

According to foreign policy eminence Leslie Gelb, however, cries of America’s demise are premature. A former assistant secretary of State and longtime player in the Washington foreign policy scene, Gelb argues in his new book Power Rules that while the US may need the cooperation of other countries, the rest of the world still needs the US even more. America’s objective, he argues, should be to identify areas of mutual interest and to then leverage its standing as the only country capable of leading a collaborative effort.

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Gelb is essentially a realist – he believes self-interest is the only language of international relations – but his approach to policy is the technocrat’s. Looking at the major foreign policy blunders of recent decades, he discerns a common weakness connecting Vietnam to the Iranian Hostage Crisis to the current Iraq War. In each case, he argues, leaders allowed politics and ideology to co-opt their judgment.

“Had our leaders rooted their arguments in common sense and fought for it,” he writes, “we would have been spared most of the policy horrors of the last fifty years.”

Common sense is, of course, a notoriously tricky thing to define, and people may experience it differently, although Gelb does not acknowledge as much. Common sense, to mean anything, has to operate on facts, and the facts are not always clear in real-time.

Even when they are, reasonable people might disagree about how to interpret them, and it’s a wan kind of ex-post judgment that says the Bay of Pigs invasion might have succeeded or the Iranian hostage crisis might have turned out better if only Kennedy had provided air cover or Carter had not taken the use of military force off the table.

In both logic and style, “Power Rules” reads as if it were written hastily. It’s freighted with mixed metaphors (“As Nye’s thinking evolved, he added economics to the soft power quiver, whether wielded as carrots or sticks”) and peppered throughout by puzzling syntax.

It’s strange, for example, that a former New York Times editor would write of humanitarian crises in Africa, “[they] don’t levitate to become more than sad political topics [in Western countries],” when there’s really nothing supernatural about the situation.

Gelb’s audience in “Power Rules” is ostensibly the president and he frames the book as a latter-day version of Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” At the end of several chapters, Gelb appends lists of rules for foreign policy, written in the second-person to the president.

The conceit proves awkward and inconsistent with book’s overall tone which is geared, intentionally or not, to an entirely different audience. (One imagines, for example, that President Obama would not need to be reminded that the “continuing arms build up” during the cold war was “known as the arms race.”)

Although Gelb frames the book as a missive to the president and hopes it will serve as a foreign policy guide for American voters, “Power Rules” feels much more like an exercise in insider Washington combat. He often criticizes various foreign policy camps – “soft and hard powerites [and] the world-is-flat-globalization crowd” – but rarely quotes his interlocutors or even addresses them by name. As a result, the book has the unsatisfying quality of shadow-boxing.

All of this is unfortunate, because there are hints that Gelb had something important to say, had he pursued the book with more rigor. As a Washington veteran, he writes provocatively about the forces that warp foreign policy in the Capitol.

“Few have been punished in the government job market for being conservatives or hawks,” he notes ominously. Elsewhere he writes authoritatively about the challenge of voicing dissenting views in front of the president.

In one telling anecdote, Gelb relates the story of a State Department colleague who went to the Oval Office prepared to deliver some bad news, but froze and ended up leaving with barely a dissenting murmur.

There are plenty of insights sprinkled throughout “Power Rules.” Gelb has been at the center of American foreign policy for a long time, and it shows in the confident way that he parses past decisions and makes recommendations as to how to deal with our current challenges.

Yet in this respect “Power Rules” illustrates a central problem with the common sense, case-by-case approach to policy it advocates. Absent a convincing overall message or effective communication, such insights get you only so far.

Kevin Hartnett is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia.

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