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Sunday, September 02, 2007

"The Paul Wolfowitz of the '60s"

Walt Whitman Rostow was "one of the most controversial economists of his time," and it wasn't just because of his views on growth theory and economic development:

The Paul Wolfowitz of the '60s, by David Milne, Commentary, LA Times: ...One of the key members of John F. Kennedy's and Lyndon B. Johnson's inner circle was Walt Rostow, whose contributions to the making of the Vietnam War bear striking similarities to the role played by Paul Wolfowitz in strategizing the American invasion of Iraq.

Possessed of a brilliant mind, a Yale PhD, noble intentions and an unwavering belief in himself, Rostow was a decorated OSS agent during World War II who established a global reputation as an economic development theorist at MIT in the 1950s. As a speechwriter for President Eisenhower, he worked tirelessly to convince him that increasing America's foreign aid budget was morally imperative in a time of economic abundance -- not to mention tactically essential in an age of a global Cold War.

In the summer of 1961, he became the first civilian to advise Kennedy to deploy U.S. combat troops to South Vietnam and the first to recommend the bombing of the North. Rostow reasoned that airborne destruction would crush Hanoi's resolve because "Ho Chi Minh has an industrial complex to protect; he is no longer a guerrilla fighter with nothing to lose." Rather than serving his country primarily as a catalyst for Third World development, Rostow ended up recommending the brutal bombing of a developing nation and was a chief architect of America's worst-ever military defeat.

Enamored of the quality of his own counsel ..., Rostow framed a policy of military escalation, manipulated CIA field reports to provide Johnson with a more positive spin on U.S. military prospects and then, through 1967 and 1968, advised Johnson against pursuing a compromise peace with North Vietnam. An irrepressible Pollyanna, Rostow utterly failed to visualize the possibility of defeat even when it became imminent. A true ideologue, he believed that it was beholden on the United States to democratize other nations and do "good" no matter the cost. ...

Although Eisenhower was unmoved by Rostow's call for a global New Deal, his successor was not. When Kennedy took office, he appointed Rostow as his deputy national security advisor, hoping that the ... economist would help ensure that the poor nations in the developing world stuck with Washington and avoided flirtation with Moscow or Beijing. Rostow's appointment was celebrated by liberals and mourned by fiscal conservatives, who were concerned that combating communism through the eradication of poverty would not come cheap. His friends joked that Rostow envisioned "a TV set in every thatched hut."

Rostow was adamant that the United States had a duty to help modernize the Third World, but he was equally determined to eradicate ... the "disease" of communism wherever it threatened the liberal societal progress he viewed as morally superior and historically preordained. ... Rostow was the most hawkish civilian member of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations...

In recent times, ... Wolfowitz and other neoconservatives have been identifiably Rostovian with respect to their reading of international relations: that it is the responsibility of the United States, as the world's most powerful nation, to democratize and do "good" -- at the point of a bayonet, if necessary. ...

Yet the path that the ancient Greeks charted from hubris to nemesis remains as seamless as ever; those individuals who have absolute confidence in the efficacy of their ideas -- who fail to account for real-world contingencies -- invariably lead U.S. foreign policy down blind alleys. ...

Rostow, Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and others believe in the redemptive powers of liberal capitalism in the same way evangelical Christians believe in God; they act as if their value system is divinely authored and view deviations from the righteous path as heresy. But might not the heretics come around to the West more enthusiastically if the United States acted as an exemplar, rather than a militarized agent for change? Tin-pot dictators often lose their mystique when they do not have an enemy to confront. ...

What happens next in U.S. diplomacy is anyone's guess, but there is a distinct possibility that history will repeat itself and America will move toward a more modest role in the world. After a period of frenetic activism on the international stage, it appears highly probable that President Obama, Clinton, Giuliani or Romney will look to a pragmatist ... rather than an ideologue like Rostow or Wolfowitz for foreign policy advice. Spreading good is an exhausting business, and America's exertions in Iraq are having serious political repercussions in the homeland.

    Posted by on Sunday, September 2, 2007 at 02:25 AM in Economics, Iraq and Afghanistan | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (12)


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