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Dangers of conventional wisdom



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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January 26, 2011

There is little doubt about it - in the last two decades mankind has taken giant strides forward. There are many indicators of this. I would single out half a dozen- most important, the sharp and steady decline in the mortality rate of mothers and their children, the rise in the educational levels of young girls, the eradication of an important number of infectious diseases, the fast spread of human rights and democracy, the downward path of the number of wars, and the emancipation in South Africa and the US of black people. Only a few dispute this progress. In development circles this is the conventional wisdom, a benign one.
But in foreign policy too often the conventional wisdom is a malignant force. Take the “domino theory”¯, alive and well despite the beating it took in the Vietnam War which was kept going on the American side by strategists who believed China was a big supporter of the war and that if the war effort failed communism would spread throughout South East Asia.
America lost and communism did’t advance outside Vietnam. Yet the conventional wisdom is alive and well in Afghanistan. As President Barack Obama has pointed out, he was only a boy during Vietnam. He is an open door for the new persuaders of the dominos about to fall. Credibility, he is told, will be lost if the US doesn’t defeat the Taliban, although defeating the Taliban was not the reason that the US started the war. In 2008 Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Afghanistan was “an important test of the credibility of NATO”¯ and NATO had to fight on to avoid that. Policy makers close to Obama argue that if Afghanistan falls so might Pakistan and that the guerrilla war in Kashmir against India will be re-charged. The reverse is true. By taking a decade to make so little progress NATO has already lost its credibility and saving NATO’s face is no reason for war. The US-led war has radicalised a big slice of the population of Pakistan, pushing them into the arms of the fundamentalists who until recently polled not more than 5% in the elections.
With Iraq, President George W. Bush argued for an invasion that apart from stopping Saddam Hussein developing Iraq’s supposed nuclear weapons was necessary to halt the spread of Al Qaeda. A gullible public and much of the press went along with his alarmism, convinced that vital interests were at stake. Bush felt that the US had so quickly routed Al Qaeda in Afghanistan with its innovative use of special forces, precision munitions launched from super fast planes and high tech information management that it would make short work of Iraq. This became the conventional wisdom in Bush’s circle. Indeed, the opening blitzkrieg worked as promised but no one foresaw the aftermath - for seven years Western troops totally bogged down amid a home grown insurgency.
The conventional wisdom in the US, but not in Europe, is that Israel must be supported at all cost, even though it means Israel walking blindfolded into a trap of its own making. The day, not that far ahead, when the Jews become a minority in the territory they have settled, is not that far away.  Yet to buck the conventional wisdom in America is hard. I have had my articles on Israel spiked, a book refused, and called an anti-Semite because of it. Dissenting Jews themselves are labelled “self-hating Jews”.

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Even well educated people with good intentions “have difficulty  in learning the right lessons from history because there are few iron laws of foreign policy and the facts of each case are rarely incontrovertible”, writes Harvard professor, Stephen Walt, in the last issue of Foreign Policy¯. “And unfortunately the theories that seek to explain what causes what are relatively crude.”
Did the US lose in Vietnam because the task was inherently too difficult or because media coverage undermined support for the war at home? Has Iraq now gone relatively quiet after seven years of carnage because of Bush’s “surge”¯ of troops or because al Qaeda affiliates overplayed their hand or because ethnic cleansing had created homogeneous neighbourhoods that made it harder for Shiites and Sunnis to target each other?
The conventional wisdom can be right but often it is wrong. It needs to be watched and sifted and turned over so we can see what’s underneath. It might be that a radically different version of events is the correct one. It too often is.


Copyright © 2011 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172
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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
"His is a powerful and comprehensive statement of ways to make the world better.
Is that worth the Nobel Prize?
I say, why not?"


Jonathan Power's 2001 book

Like Water on Stone
The Story of Amnesty International

Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the 40th Anniversary of Amnesty International



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