SOFT AS A GRAPE
While no real world National Security Adviser has been so venal (to the best of our knowledge), the NSA has typically been the toughest most hard headed person in the White House. One of Ronald Reagan’s National Security Advisers, Richard Allen, was a legendary shadowy figure who was always up to god-knows-what. Another stereotypical National Security Adviser was Henry Kissinger, arguably the most reliable American practitioner of realpolitik over the past half century.
The tough guy image of the National Security Adviser was dealt an irreversible setback in 1987, however, when the then NSA, Bud MacFarlane, decided that the appropriate reaction to the burgeoning Iran-Contra scandal was to scarf down a bottle of sleeping pills. He didn’t do his reputation as a tough guy any help during his testimony in the Iran-Contra witch-hunt, er, hearings, either. During the hearings, Bud became resentful over what he felt was the kid-gloves the committee was handling him with. In response, MacFarlane, proudly proclaimed, “I am not a fragile flower.” Lord knows no one had ever confused Dick Allen with a fragile flower.
While he never made it all the way to NSA, you'd think the Clinton administration's Joseph Nye would have had a similar tough-guy persona as the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs and as Chair of the National Intelligence Council. If you thought that, of course, you'd be very mistaken. Wrested from the mean streets of Harvard Yard to deal with the world’s toughest customers, Nye repeatedly showed himself unable to deal with the kind of people who would rather shoot off AK-47s than study their Clausewitz. While a fine professor, Nye was a lot better at writing about realpolitik than practicing it.
In order to give us a flashback to those halcyon days of the 90’s when any Mogadishu warlord could make the world’s only super-power quake, Nye published a piece on the concept of “soft power” in yesterday’s Washington Post. The mere notion of someone who held his former post talking about something so mushy and wimpy as “soft power” is on its face absurd. A guy like that should be holding forth on subjects like secret assassinations and killer predator drones.
But the way Nye talks about the concept is also irritating. Note the way he takes the tone of a Harvard professor frustrated by the class dunce who just can’t keep up with his brilliance in the following passage:
“After the war in Iraq, I spoke about soft power to a conference co-sponsored by the Army. One of the speakers was Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. When someone in the audience asked Rumsfeld for his opinion on soft power, he replied, ‘I don't know what it means.’ That is part of our problem. Some of our leaders don't understand the importance of soft power in our post-Sept. 11 world.”
What’s especially delightful about that little Rumsfeld quote is how Nye doesn’t even realize that Rumsfeld was insulting him. Rummy wasn’t being dense, he was being dismissive. The concept of soft power is of course neither a new one nor a particularly complex one. Rumsfeld’s no dummy - I’m sure he understands it. What Rumsfeld meant, no doubt, was that it’s such a nebulous and undefined concept that it really doesn’t warrant much discussion, let alone a “conference co-sponsored by the Army.” What Rumsfeld was saying, in so many words was that soft power may be nice, but cruise missiles and tanks are nicer. And a lot more effective.
Nye goes on to give soft power way too much credit. “Soft power is the ability to get what we want by attracting others rather than by threatening or paying them…Think of Franklin D. Roosevelt's Four Freedoms in Europe at the end of World War II… Seduction is always more effective than coercion”
Now, if you took a poll of our World War II enemies, I’d bet they’d tell you that they found our hard power to be a lot more influential than our soft power. I’d bet they’d say our hard power had a lot more to do with us getting “what we wanted.” Furthermore, I bet a lot of the residents of Dresden or Nagasaki found some of our methods to be pretty damn “coercive.”
Yes, Roosevelt’s rhetoric was inspiring. But can Nye really think that the “Four Freedoms” had anything to do with winning either the war or the peace? Our WWII enemies reformed not because they saw the light. They reformed because they were abjectly defeated and they had no other choice. Naturally, Nye fancies “soft-power” playing a similarly prominent role in winning the war on terror. While he does concede that “hard power” will be necessary for the real hard core Jihadis, it’s obvious where Joe’s heart lies.
MISSING THE POINT
I’m not saying that soft power doesn’t have its uses. I’m also not saying that the use of soft power and hard power are mutually exclusive. Obviously both have their places and their functions. For instance, there’s a lot of things about, say France for instance, that we might like tweaked. These areas would be an ideal forum for “soft power.” But war, real war, is an entirely different beast.
The problem is that Nye, like a lot of mushy-headed academics, actually thinks that the current war is a war of ideas. It isn’t. To date, it’s been a war of bombed train lines and airliners flying into high rises and other atrocities. This is a war of blood and iron, like all the real wars that have preceded it. The term “war of ideas” is but a cute metaphor, nothing more. Furthermore, as today’s events in Fallujah showed, entire populations will have to be coerced into change. Some citizens will be more willing than others, but coercion will be part of the deal. Once again, the war on terror isn’t a metaphorical war. It’s the real deal.
This is no more a war of ideas than WWII was. I don’t know for sure, but I don‘t think many folks in the 1940’s were so confused as to actually think it might be relevant to ask why the Germans hated us. I doubt that there was even a single Ivy League navel contemplator who thought it was necessary to engage the “ideas” that under-girded Nazism. Such an exercise would have been ludicrous. A much more pressing project was determining how Nazism could be defeated.
Defeating the Axis had nothing to do with convincing them of the validity of our ideas. Hitler only “saw reason” in the bunker. After Hitler saw reason and the SS saw reason and the Wermacht saw reason, most of the Nazi assholes who followed or served them decided to see reason also. Similarly, someday soon, Osama bin Laden will see reason in a cave in Afghanistan. So will the Baathist dead-enders in Iraq and mullahs in Iran. And in quick order the Jihadi assholes who follow them will see reason also.
Note: A prior version of this column states that Professor Nye was once National Securtity Adviser. While the Clinton Administration made numerous mistakes, having Joe Nye as the National Security Adviser was not among them. I regret the error.
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James Frederick Dwight