Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Is Smart Enough?

At her confirmation yesterday, Hillary Clinton invoked the concept of "smart power" as a guide to American diplomacy.

In his hearings, Education Secretary Arne Duncan cited Barack Obama as a role model for America's school children. “Never before," he said "has being smart been so cool.”

And in another hearing room, Senators were mooning over Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu, the nominee for Energy Secretary. Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman enthused over Chu's "insight and vision" to carry out Obama's energy policies.

But is brilliance alone the panacea for all of America's problems? With the possible exception of the Defense Department's Douglas Feith, characterized as the "dumbest effing guy on the planet' by Gen.Tommy Franks, Bush's Neo-Cons were not stupid but blinkered in their perception of how the world works and too arrogant to learn from their mistakes.

The test for all that Obama brainpower will be to avoid replicating the record of JFK's "The Best and the Brightest" whose tunnel vision led to quagmire in Vietnam as surely as the Neo-Cons confidently took us into Iraq disaster and, back home, free-market ruin.

"It doesn’t help," Nicholas Kristof wrote recently, "that intellectuals are often as full of themselves as of ideas."

What's encouraging is that, although Obama has surrounded himself with figures like Lawrence Summers and Rahm Emanuel, who never suffer from an excess of doubt, he himself keeps showing the open-mindedness to empathize with opposition and avoid hubris.

Talking about measures to save the economy, the President-Elect said the other day, "“This is not an intellectual exercise, and there’s no pride of authorship. If members of Congress have good ideas, if they can identify a project for me that will create jobs in an efficient way--that does not hamper our ability to, over the long term, get control of our deficit; that is good for the economy--then I’m going to accept it.”

Now that sounds like the smart use of power.


Mike said...

That Kristof quote applies well to Canada's Liberal party leader - an "intellectual" who supported the Iraq invasion and can't bring himself to give a mea culpa without qualification. I could say the same about my country's Prime Minister, but then he's no intellectual.
Maybe Team Obama is punching up the "smart" angle to contrast themselves with the anti-intellectual (Palin) wing of the GOP. If so, it's a pretty good dig.

Anonymous said...

I think by "smart" most folks are using short-hand for "not blinkered". But youre point is very well taken. Smart alone isn't enough. wise, perhaps?

(O)CT(O)PUS said...

Despite the renewed emphasis on "smart," I don't expect significant change in our body politic. The hard-right wing, still "smarting" from an election loss and bereft of ideas, will try to hamper administration initiatives, and cheer every gaffe and failure.

Sarah-Palin-who-refuses-to-go-gently and the Joe-the-Plumber-cum-war-correspondent are examples of dumbness that still pervades our political life. More than dumbness, I equate it with residual McCarthyism in the Republican Party that refuses to go away ... along with Coulter, Limbaugh, Savage, et. al. These will remain the same.