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Brooks and the Costs of Bad Leadership

David Brooks thinks he has discovered the reason why Americans want the U.S. to mind its own business:

It’s a radical belief that the nature of power — where it comes from and how it can be used — has fundamentally shifted, and the people in the big offices just don’t get it.

It’s frankly naïve to believe that the world’s problems can be conquered through conflict-free cooperation and that the menaces to civilization, whether in the form of Putin or Iran, can be simply not faced. It’s the utopian belief that politics and conflict are optional.

Brooks is making such sweeping, general statements that it’s impossible to tell who is supposed to be adhering to this “radical belief.” There are not many people that think that “politics and conflict are optional” or that it is desirable simply to ignore threats. Divergent interests and some degree of conflict are unavoidable in international affairs, and those aren’t ever going to be eliminated from the world. In order to have successful cooperation in anything, it is necessary to manage and contain the conflicts that inevitably crop up between different states or different interest groups. “Conflict-free cooperation” has never existed, and no one is more aware of that than the people that are trying to negotiate the compromises and agreements needed to make cooperation possible.

If most Americans are more aware of the limits of power generally and U.S. power in particular, I’d say that is a very sensible reaction to more than a decade of overreach and absurd ideological projects, and a very healthy backlash to the delusions of Bush’s Second Inaugural. The U.S. has suffered from an absurd overconfidence in the efficacy of hard power for more than a decade (and really ever since the Gulf War), and Americans have been recoiling from the costs and failures associated with that. I imagine that many Americans are fatigued by being told constantly how vitally important U.S. “leadership” in the world is, and how imperative it is that the U.S. “act” in response to this or that crisis. That fatigue is bound to be encouraged when Americans justifiably have little confidence in political and media classes that have presided over a series of major debacles since the start of the century. That makes it much easier to dismiss alarmism from politicians and pundits, including overblown claims about “menaces to civilization,” but that is not the same as ignoring real threats. Because of recent experiences, Americans have much less reason to expect competence from their political leaders. After watching nearly thirteen years of desultory foreign wars, Americans may have reasonably concluded that their leaders have been both too ready to rely on military force as their preferred option while being far too confused about how the military should be properly used. If Americans are now much less willing to be “summoned” by their leaders, it is because they have been so badly and irresponsibly led for so many years.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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