The Earthling

Against Dumb

Slate’s Chatterbox, a leading authority on Republican apologism for George W. Bush’s brain, reports that it has now entered a new phase. Whereas Bush defenders long argued that a mediocre mind needn’t be a liability for a president, now some of them claim it can actually be an asset. Chatterbox cites a recent column by the Wall Street Journal’s Robert Bartley, and summarizes it (with some poetic license) as follows: Yes, Bush is dumb, but that’s good.

Needless to say, the main historical precedent Bartley invokes is Ronald Reagan. Bartley says that Reagan, though referred to by Clark Clifford as an “amiable dunce,” nonetheless performed great feats—for example, he “won the Cold War.” And he did so because, lacking the kind of high-energy cognitive style that might get a man lost in detail (think Al Gore), he could stay focused on the big picture.

You could argue about whether the Cold War victory trophy really belongs on Reagan’s mantle (more on that later), but I’m willing to stipulate that Reagan did oversee American foreign policy in non-disastrous fashion. So does that mean we can again put a man of narrow bandwidth in the Oval Office without fearing disaster?

I think not. Reagan lived in a bygone world tailor-made for simple-mindedness. For purposes of waging the Cold War, a president’s brain needed only to be capacious enough to accommodate two ideas: good and evil. We were good, they were evil, and to resolutely resist their encroachment at every turn was the path to ultimate victory.

Obviously, I don’t mean that we were purely good and they were purely evil. If you go back and look at various things America did while fighting communism—covertly subverting national leaders, backing murderous authoritarians—it is clear that the scorecard had more shades of gray than Reagan’s moral spectrum could accommodate (that is, at least one). What’s more, Cold War policy turns out to have been more complex in its ramifications than was commonly realized. The threat we face from terrorists today has at least something to do with our having supported the Shah of Iran’s repressive reign, having armed and energized Afghan rebels who later turned their wrath on us, and so on.

Still, in terms of short-run consequences, the game was fairly simple: If you subsidized proxy wars to thwart Communist advance, avoided direct involvement in out-and-out quagmires, and were mindful not to start a nuclear war, there was only so much trouble you could get into. To make things even easier, this strategy, in its broadest contours, enjoyed a bipartisan consensus. The doctrine of containment had been more or less followed by every president since Truman.

True, there was quibbling at the margins—did the cost-benefit calculus make a particular intervention worthwhile?—but there was little disagreement over the policy of containment itself. (Nor did the quibbling have a close correlation with party affiliation. It was Democrat Jimmy Carter who had started arming the Afghan rebels, and Republican Dwight Eisenhower who had declined to help Hungary’s freedom fighters.) Reagan was president during a time of essential agreement on a grand unified theory of foreign policy, and, as a bonus, the theory was simple enough to fit into his head.

Reaganites would have you believe that Reagan was distinctively vital to the West’s eventual triumph; the “Reagan doctrine” of more aggressive engagement upped the ante beyond what the Soviets could pay. But anyone who visited the Soviet Union around the end of the Cold War—I did—can tell you that communism’s collapse had long been as inevitable as sunset, even if the timing was slightly less certain. In the best department stores in Moscow and Leningrad, the home electronics section sold vacuum tubes instead of solid-state technology, and the home appliance section sold washboards instead of washing machines. Does anybody seriously think that whether the Communist economic system ultimately prevailed depended on whether we armed the Contras?

The fact is that, once the policy of containment had been laid out in the late 1940s, American foreign policy could have been competently run by well-trained laboratory rats. (OK, I exaggerate.) 

Today the world is more complicated. There is nothing approaching a bipartisan consensus on some grand unified theory of foreign policy. And certainly George W. Bush shows no signs of having his own grand unified theory. It would be one thing if he were the pure isolationist that he is sometimes caricatured as. True isolationism is at least a simple recipe to follow. But, judging by Bush’s advisers, his party’s interest groups, and his vague comments on the subject, he would actually be quite interventionist in some respects: more willing than Gore to go to war over Taiwan, say, and perhaps over oil. There is no simple overarching theory here—rationales for action range from the idealistic (Taiwan) to the pragmatic (oil)—and no single, clear-cut criterion for intervening.

And what is Al Gore’s grand unified theory of foreign policy? I’m not claiming he has one. But I am claiming that he’s a pretty smart guy, and that in a complicated world, that’s a plus.

And while we’re on the subject: Needless to say, Bartley’s column avoids calling Bush “dumb.” His euphemism is “hands-off management,” and as evidence that a Bushlike person can effectively govern, he invokes Dwight Eisenhower—”the true epitome of hands-off management.” To support this comparison, he cites an excellent book on Eisenhower by Princeton political scientist Fred Greenstein, The Hidden-Hand Presidency. But, as I recall, Greenstein’s argument doesn’t back up Bartley here at all. Greenstein’s point was that, although Eisenhower seemed disengaged—and sometimes used this impression to his advantage—he was in fact covertly and astutely engaged in the workings of his administration. Hence the term “hidden hand.”

What’s more, as Greenstein shows, Eisenhower’s famously convoluted press-conference utterances were sometimes used for deliberate, tactical obfuscation, and they concealed a sharp analytical mind. Eisenhower’s voluminous personal correspondence shows beyond doubt that he was vastly smarter than either Reagan or Bush.

It’s true that Eisenhower ran a high-delegation White House. He didn’t micromanage the tennis-court schedule, as Jimmy Carter famously did. But as Greenstein’s book shows, the success of this approach was vindication not of disengagement, but of efficient engagement. Because Eisenhower was smart and attentive, he could immerse himself in details when necessary. And because he chose subordinates wisely (rather than, say, letting his daddy choose them) and gave them clear marching orders, they were magnifiers of his influence, not buffers against it. 

And, finally … as if more evidence were needed: As I have written time and again, strongly favoring a missile defense system, as Bush does, is solid evidence of general muddle.