HAD I LOST my mind, my glasses or just my place in "Foreign Policy?" It was one of those dizzying moments when the world turns upside down -- the sort of moment, I might add, that doesn't often arise in reading the prose in "Foreign Policy."
"Foreign Policy," you recall, is that oddly shaped magazine the Carnegie Endowment puts out, with the table of contents on the cover, which means it's definitely serious. It's one of Washington's most potent icons when left on a coffee table, say, or on your dashboard when you give somebody a lift home from tennis. Having it around means that you're a person with input, access -- even decision capability.
It's the shape that got me in trouble, I think -- tall and skinny, like a legal envelope. This means, by the way, that you can leave it on your hall table upside down and have visitors recognize not just your status but your modesty, like the Princeton boys who used to wear their letter sweaters inside out, so that all you saw was a ghost of a backward P.
Not that "Foreign Policy" is a mere status symbol, a sort of Architectural Digest for people who can think without simultaneously reaching for a credit card. In fact, leaving it around entails the risk that someone will ask what you thought of that piece on bilateralism or non-proliferation. You can't cheat and just read the cartoons, the way you do with the New Yorker.
Anyway, it's the shape that started it all. The magazine won't lay open. This means it's easy to lose your place, which I tend to do when reading it -- there's nothing to coax you along like there is in other totem books -- the lingerie ads in The New York Times magazine, the personals lurking at the back of The New York Review of Books. (Whatever happened to that guy who always ended his ad "Dutch treat a must," anyway?) The only temptations lurking in the back of my copy of "Foreign Policy" were items like a letter from a man named Dankwart A. Rustow, talking about "feasible goals" and "fundamental accord."
So there I was, reading a sentence that began "Nothwithstanding these caveats, the Thatcher government . . . " when things started to get strange. Did my thumb slip on the page? The next phrase I saw was "continues to strain its likewise finite organic resources . . . ."
Perhaps my mind wandered, but when I looked down again to read the concluding words of the sentence I saw: "needed when countermeasures add weight to a missile."
Taken as a whole thought, it had that high, earnest tone that the Foggy Bottom tuning fork resounds to, but I noticed that the last phrase was in a piece by Peter Zimmerman, called "Pork Bellies and SDI," whereas I'd thought that business about Thatcher was in Eric Willenz' "Why Europe Needs the Welfare State." And it wasn't till I scanned through George Liska's "Concert Through Decompression" that I found the part about the organic resources.
I hated to think I'd nodded off, read three separate phrases as one sentence, and thought it made sense. But certainly the sentence was as weighty and portentous as any other in "Foreign Policy." Was it possible that you could pick the first congruous phrases you saw out of any three pieces in "Foreign Policy" and they'd define policy for the '80s? I gave it a try. The results were disturbing.
"Yet releasing the Third World peripheries from/an interagency task force/can never be wholly self-regulating."
Indeed. It had that quality of so much distinguished foreign analysis -- that way of making you wonder whether you're getting senile or you just need to clean your glasses. Things got particularly heady with the next sentence: "During the rise of Afrikaner nationalism/ Marcos splurged on last-minute campaigning/encouraged by foreign broadcasts from Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia."
Third-world peripheries to be sure, but it was a little stunning to think that you could cut up one of America's premier policy publications into little pieces, throw them into a hat in the style of William Burroughs' "cut-up" experiments, and still have something that made as much sense as before. I mean, there's a difference between American foreign policy and "Naked Lunch," isn't there?
This raised an even more horrible question: Had "Foreign Policy" been running the same pieces over and over again for years, and just rearranging them with a pair of scissors and a hat, metaphorically seasoned with the usual warning flags, linchpins and soundings of the tocsin? Could it be that the last issue had featured "Welfare Concert Through Decompression," and "Why Europe Needs Pork Bellies"?
Or had the Carnegie Endowment followed the makers of cigarettes, beer and canned food and come up with a new, low-cost generic foreign policy? After all, "Foreign Policy" is the name of the magazine, just the way generic cigarettes are called "Cigarettes." And when you think about it, how much difference is there between the different name brands of foreign policy issues? Be honest -- don't you sort of lump, say, the Law of the Sea Treaty together with the Caribbean Basin Initiative, the same way you lump together Rutherford B. Hayes and Chester Arthur? Or the Council of Trent and the Treaty of Ghent?
I then realized that too much worrying about things like the Contadora Process and various other "long-stalled peace initiatives" had turned me into a cynic. I saw that "Foreign Policy" may be to foreign policy what Eli Whitney was to mass production -- an originator of interchangeable parts. With this new technique, foreign policy could be mass produced, be within the reach of the man on the street. Why should asymmetric East-West dialoguing be the province of a mere elite?
I headed for bed. It might be hours before I calmed down enough to sleep. Then again, I was taking my favorite reading. "In turn, such transactions were well suited to both stimulating organic transformations . . . responsible for the falling growth of aggregate energy production. . .and a disturbing erosion of U.S. influence . . . ."