Big-Think Central: At the Council on Foreign Relations, the Stately Moderation of the Past Is Giving Way to a Growing Debate about Bush and Democracy

Article excerpt

IN ADOPTING NEOCONSERVATISM AS ITS GRAND STRATEGY, the Bush administration took a breathtaking gamble. It broke from the conventional foreign-policy wisdom of both parties, cleaving to an aggressive but idealistic new vision of America's role in the world. The strategy would either succeed spectacularly, touching off the promised domino effect of freedom in the Middle East, or fail spectacularly, forcing a chastened, bloodied withdrawal from Iraq and a significantly weakened American hand against other foes.

Have the neoconservatives, with their uncompromising talk and use of force, succeeded in bringing the most humane of American values to a hostile region? Or have we crashed into the hard limits of American power just as we attempted to display its invincibility? Recent grass-roots activity in Lebanon points in one direction; the ongoing Iraqi insurgency in the other.

I brought these questions to four grand strategists, two liberal and two conservative, at the foreign-policy establishment's vital center, the Council on Foreign Relations. The council is a uniquely influential think tank that has long had the ear of policy-makers in Washington. Founded in 1921 as a select conclave of wealthy businessmen and once and future statesmen, the council has staked out the respectable mainstream of elite opinion in foreign affairs for the better part of a century. The wood-paneled parlors and libraries of its tony Upper East Side townhouse carry a whiff of another time.

Indeed, the stately moderation the council embodies may be a vanishing relic. Collegiality prevails within council precincts, but its fellows increasingly express widely divergent views of the world. These days, the conservatives sound optimistic and visionary, though often feverishly out of touch; the liberals sound cantankerous and faultfinding, though often soberly realistic. It's a strange role reversal for stranger times.

Listening to the conservative thinkers, the world seems a relatively simple place. It responds to force and it aches for freedom. The challenge to these thinkers is to assimilate, rather than simply reject, the lessons of the Iraq War. Specifically, the war has shown us that, whatever their virtues, hawkish policies have terrible human and geopolitical costs; powerful armies are neither militarily nor politically invincible, and freedom is harder in practice than in theory to "export." Neoconservatism will survive as a grand strategy to the extent that it is responsive to the world as it actually is.

For liberals, the dilemma is even more acute. They are aware of the costs of war and unwilling to declare victory amid continuing bloodshed. They view the prospects for liberalization in the Middle East with caution, as a long slog rather than a suddenly actualized revolutionary moment. But pessimism is not a grand strategy, any more than optimism is a war policy. Liberals point out that the Bush administration has yet to define the policy that will bring about what most everyone truly wants: a peaceful Middle East where governments respond to the will of their people. But if that's the case, the task before the administration's opposition couldn't be clearer.

LESLIE H. GELB IS A STRAIGHT TALKER IN HIS MID-60S, with thinning white hair, an old-time New York accent, and an affection for Persian cats. We meet in his Upper East Side home, where he works. Gelb served in two Democratic administrations--under Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter--before his decades-long stint at The New York Times, followed by his tenure as the council's president from 1993 until 2003. In 1979, he wrote in his Times column that the right wing was replacing the center in foreign policy, and he predicted that without a robust response, its "cut-throat" politics and "frightening logic" would soon become mainstream.

Foreign policy had only recently become a partisan field. At mid-century, Gelb recalls, the foreign-policy establishment was a small club of like-minded moderates headquartered at the council. …