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Power Rules

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

By Kevin Hartnett / April 6, 2009



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.

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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.

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.

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