Foreign Policy: Declaring Sweeping Doctrines vs. Attention to Detail
An email conversation about the news of the day.
Jan. 31 2002 12:29 PM




Back to Teddy Roosevelt. At the Minnesota State Fair in 1901, he said, "There is a homely adage which runs, 'Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.' " Of course, Teddy never really lived by that, but it was sound advice—and George W. Bush seems to have done quite the opposite on Tuesday night. The question is, was his bellicose rhetoric mere posturing or real policy change? The papers today are filled with anonymous Bush administration officials scurrying away from a literal interpretation of the Evil Axis doctrine—and pundits, Safire in the Times and Kristol in the Post, engaged in Hearstian wishful thinking: WAR! WAR! WAR! Given my well-known proclivities toward anonymity, I tend to side with the Bush administration officials—though I'd really like to know their provenance: State, Defense, NSC, the Residence? Can't we journalists be a little more specific about our unnamed sources? But these officials do make a clear separation: Iraq stands well above Iran and North Korea in the hierarchy of infamy. I agree. But why didn't Bush say so? Why the trinitarian balance? The kindest interpretation is that the president merely wanted to warn all these guys that we're watching them. But they already knew that. And I wonder, is any sort of "stick" really lurking, or just the hope that hot words will scare the bejesus out of the Axis? We're not going to war with North Korea or Iran. In the former case, South Korea simply wouldn't have it, and we can't do it without them. As for Iran, I've just returned from there and must save the details for The New Yorker. But trust me: We're not going to war with those guys, either.

Which leaves Saddam. Good old Saddam. On the night before the Gulf War began, I was in Israel, talking to a "national security expert" who fearlessly predicted that Saddam would not arm his Scuds with poison gas to attack Israel. Why not? "Because he knows that we have the ultimate deterrent capability." Which is to say, of course, The Bomb. If we crank up our mighty arsenal with the clear purpose of taking Saddam out—as opposed to merely evicting him from Kuwait—he'll be less reluctant to douse Israel with whatever he's got. Are you ready for that? I'm not a "national security expert," so I don't know if there's a more subtle way of going after him. Assassination seems the most prudent course, but there's a reason why the CIA mistrusts the Iraqi opposition groups. And, as I said yesterday, there's a reason why the tacit American policy has been to keep Saddam in power: the likelihood of regional chaos if he goes.

I am sure the Armchair Warriors will accuse me of hand-wringing. But, as I get older, I tend to place more faith in attention to detail than to the pronunciation of doctrine. One of the great strengths of Clinton's foreign policy was his unwillingness to declare some sweeping doctrine; the great weakness of his foreign policy was an inability to pay sustained, detailed attention to the nuances and complexities overseas. Until Tuesday, Bush had shown a very clear head about priorities and a mature appreciation of the daunting complexities of this campaign. Now I'm not so sure. We can all agree on the desirability of ridding the world of powerful maniacs, but it should be done quietly, prudently, without recourse to overheated and inaccurate chest-pounding.

Joe Klein is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton.



The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

Does Your Child Have “Sluggish Cognitive Tempo”? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

The First Case of Ebola in America Has Been Diagnosed in Dallas

Why Indians in America Are Mad for India’s New Prime Minister

Damned Spot

Now Stare. Don’t Stop.

The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Don’t Panic! The U.S. Already Stops Ebola and Similar Diseases From Spreading. Here’s How.

Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD

The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  News & Politics
Sept. 30 2014 6:59 PM The Democrats’ War at Home Can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?
Sept. 30 2014 7:02 PM At Long Last, eBay Sets PayPal Free
Sept. 30 2014 7:35 PM Who Owns Scrabble’s Word List? Hasbro says the list of playable words belongs to the company. Players beg to differ.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 4:45 PM Steven Soderbergh Is Doing Some Next-Level Work on The Knick
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 30 2014 6:44 PM Ebola Was Already Here How the United States contains deadly hemorrhagic fevers.
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.