Carlos Lozada -- Review of Leslie H. Gelb's "Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy"

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By Carlos Lozada
Sunday, May 10, 2009

How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy
y Leslie H. Gelb
Harper. 334 pp. $27.99

Leslie H. Gelb's new tome on U.S. foreign policy came out this spring with all the trappings of a Big Washington Book. First, a swanky release party at the Council on Foreign Relations's gleaming digs on F Street, where William Safire handled introductions while military, government and media types indulged in free-flowing wine, ginger-grilled salmon, orecchiette with arugula and raspberry strudel bars. (No Great Recession in sight.) Next, a "special media roundtable" where Gelb held forth before foreign and U.S. journalists, followed by a Nixon Center luncheon. Then a newsy NPR interview, plus the obligatory excerpt in Foreign Affairs. Finally, glowing reviews, from the uber-thinky National Interest to the New York Times, which liked the book so much that it said so twice.

As with most Big Washington Books, however, it's unclear how many people will read Gelb's "Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy" cover to cover. It's not that the book is a slog -- it's rather lively, in fact -- but there's just something about the genre that elicits much Washington chatter at the expense of actual Washington reading. Which big names wrote dust-jacket blurbs? Who racked up the most entries in the index? And does Gelb trash any old colleagues? Even Safire seemed to imply that folks might not actually read the whole thing, directing attention to Gelb's Power Rule No. 5, which contains "the guts" of the book, as he put it.

So for those who don't reach the end, I'll give it away. Gelb thinks that American leaders have misunderstood American power, which is really about "psychological and political pressure," not just military force. He channels Machiavelli and offers President Obama -- our "elected prince" -- rules for wielding power, as well as tips on Pakistan and Afghanistan. Politicians must avoid the three demons of foreign policy: ideology, domestic politics and the arrogance of power. Finally, the world is not flat; global power is a pyramid, with the United States atop other countries clustered in order of decreasing influence. The way to deploy power is to build coalitions with key second-tier nations, because these days, Washington can still lead the world, but it can't run the place alone. This underpins Gelb's grand new principle, compulsory in every such book: Mutual Indispensability.

On those terms alone, "Power Rules" is worth the read. But between his history of competing visions of U.S. foreign policy and his call for "power coalitions" (fyi, just talking about "coalitions" is a little wimpy and United Nations-y; they must always be "power coalitions"), Gelb underplays the book's real strength: his stories. Gelb has spent a lifetime working, thinking and writing about national security, in and out of government. His tales from this world make for better reading than any buzzwords he coins or intellectual scores he settles. Regrettably, the stories are too few. Les Gelb can keep writing all the big-think foreign policy books he wants (this is his fifth), but I'm holding out for his memoir.

It makes sense that Gelb has authored a Big Washington Book on power. His career embodies big and powerful Washington, with all the town's turf battles, crises and war stories. During his years at the New York Times, he was a Pulitzer-winning editor, correspondent and columnist; he served in the Pentagon and State Department in the Johnson and Carter administrations; and for a decade, he was president of the Council on Foreign Relations. This nifty hat trick has granted him ample opportunity to witness U.S. power in action from all angles -- and has allowed him to rub shoulders with many of the powerful themselves.

One of Gelb's anecdotes, for instance, captures Bill Clinton's frustrating mix of smarts and eagerness to please: "My first encounter with Clinton came when he was governor of Arkansas and I was the op-ed page editor of the Times," he writes. "I phoned him to discuss a piece on infrastructure, and he took my breath away with his knowledge and analysis. After almost an hour, I finally interrupted to say, 'So, you'll do the piece for me?' 'Yes,' he responded, 'but what do you want me to say?' "

A conversation during the Ford administration with Defense Secretary James Schlesinger confirms the Cold War-era smoke and mirrors regarding Soviet military might. "Well, I suppose the Soviets don't have military superiority in fact, but they have it in perceptions," Schlesinger admitted, according to Gelb. "To which I responded," the author triumphantly recalls, " 'It is we who are creating those perceptions.' " Gelb argues that such misperceptions gave the Soviet Union free power -- and that Washington made the same mistake with Saddam Hussein's Iraq and is repeating it today with Iran.

One night in 1978, Gelb found himself in Helsinki negotiating with the Soviets on cutting conventional arms transfers. As he downed vodka and traded laughs in a private dinner with his Soviet counterpart, Lev Isakov Mendelevich, Gelb ventured a question about domestic politics in the USSR -- and was politely but unmistakably smacked down. "Leslie, I like you very much," the veteran Soviet diplomat chided, "but you and all you Americans really don't know much about the inner workings of Soviet politics, and we're not going to tell you. It's our real advantage over you."

Finally, in the early stages of the Iraq war, Gelb suggested to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and her deputy, Stephen Hadley, that his think tank could help gather experts to brainstorm on how best to manage a destabilizing post-Saddam Iraq. Rice supported the idea, Gelb writes, and her rationale proved revealing: "She startled me with her honesty by adding that she and Steve just didn't have the time, with all the daily decisions that had to be made, to oversee a similar effort inside the administration." (A few days later, Hadley called and deep-sixed the exercise.)

No surprise, Gelb usually emerges as the wiser, more prescient or more principled player in such tales. After all, history is written by the writer, too. But these peeks behind the curtain -- iron or otherwise -- reveal how personalities, insecurities and even craven careerism can sometimes propel a nation's foreign policy, and its history, in new and unexpected directions.

Today, the latest chapter of history being written will carry the title "AfPak," and Gelb weighs in on those dilemmas. In Afghanistan, he argues, a good outcome "depends on our Afghan allies themselves," not just on U.S. or NATO forces. "We can give them military cover and train them, but they have to build a legitimate and effective government that the warlords and other Afghans will fight and die for." It's hard to hold your breath for that one. As for the ultimate nightmare scenario of the Pakistani government collapsing and its nukes falling into the hands of extremists, Gelb admits that not much could be done if that comes to pass. "Deterrence would have to be the order of the day," he writes grimly, if not quite convincingly.

Setting real battlefields aside, Gelb also spends much time planting his flag in the war of ideas over America's role in the world. However, when he distinguishes his views from other foreign-policy theories, he sometimes verges on pedantry. For instance, he boldly claims to chart an alternative course between the "hard-liners" who say that the United States can do "anything" and those "gentler souls" who say that America is "virtually powerless." "Both are wrong," he proclaims. You don't say?

Gelb reserves special disdain for such competing big-think foreign affairs books as Tom Friedman's "The World is Flat" and Joseph Nye's "Soft Power." (He complains frequently about the "world-is-flat globalization crowd" and dismisses soft power as "foreplay, not the real thing.") He frets that such popular arguments have hijacked smarter thinking on foreign policy. Sour grapes, one might suspect, but clearly works of this sort have become fashionable. Obama was photographed carrying Fareed Zakaria's "The Post-American World" during the 2008 campaign, and even Angelina Jolie was recently caught toting around "War of Necessity, War of Choice" by Richard Haass, Gelb's successor at the Council on Foreign Relations.

I don't imagine that "Power Rules" will rate quite the same star appeal. But a memoir -- if and when Gelb decides to write one -- certainly should.

Carlos Lozada is deputy editor of Outlook.

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