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January 22, 2009

Smart-Ass Power

By: Bernard Chazelle

Soft power... Joseph Nye coined the phrase. The idea is simple. Why "bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran" when, instead, you can drink cola with an ayatollah, watch Cinderella with a mullah, and then bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran? A distinction without a difference perhaps, but a distinction nevertheless.

True but, lately, Establishment libs have gotten hard on softness, so soft is out and smart is in — smart as in the latest self-congratulatory buzzword, smart power.

Smart is good, power is good, so smart power is good. Chocolate is good, chicken is good, so chocolate chicken is good. So far so good. Trouble is, smart is a tricky word. It is its tragic destiny to be blessed with only one worthy companion. And that's the word "ass."

As a substitute for "imperialistic brute force," smart-ass power is refreshingly honest. "We're the Smart Asshole Brigade, and who the hell are you?" Smart power, on the other hand, is snide, creepy, duplicitous. "Me smart, you dumb! Me bump you off with my elevated IQ!"

It's also atrocious writing. Here's a simple literary rule: Never claim or recommend anything whose opposite is preposterous. For example, never write that your goal is to do better (unless, that is, your goal is to do worse). Hillary explains smart power to Congress:

We must use what has been called smart power, the full range of tools at our disposal — diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural — picking the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation.

We've got cola to cover the economic, Cinderella to cover the cultural, and for the rest we've got white phosphorus. And so inquiring minds will want to know: what's dumb power like?

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at January 22, 2009 12:24 PM

And so inquiring minds will want to know: what's dumb power like?

Honestly, if you have to ask that question, you haven't been paying attention for the past eight years.

Posted by: SteveB at January 22, 2009 01:49 PM

GAZA round 2, coming to a TV near U.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at January 22, 2009 01:51 PM

Yeah, unfortunately, "smart power" is better than "dumb power," as we have seen lo these many years. But it's the "power" part that sets the dial at Business as Usual.

Posted by: mds at January 22, 2009 02:21 PM

But, seriously now, they already switched to the "smart power" mode during the Bush years, back in in 2007-8, when they started making concessions to N.Korea, bribing sheiks in Iraq, when they (reportedly) stopped Israel from attacking Iran. I doubt Hillary has anything smarter to offer.

Posted by: abb1 at January 22, 2009 02:48 PM

"Here's a simple literary rule: Never claim or recommend anything whose opposite is preposterous."

Like many of our rules, that's one our political class doesn't want or need to follow.

Frankly, I don't understand it. People say all kinds of ridiculous shit about how they want to work to better America rather then give in to partisan bickering, or how they love puppies, or whatever, and I always think "Who the hell is going to say that they want to bog the process down in partisan bickering that achieves nothing?"

People who say things like that are condescending and probably trying to pull the wool over our eyes. I don't understand why they aren't more heavily criticised for it.

Posted by: Christopher at January 22, 2009 03:53 PM

Who the hell is going to say that they want to bog the process down in partisan bickering that achieves nothing?

*shyly raises hand*

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at January 22, 2009 04:02 PM

It's a dangerous mistake to frame the Bush era in terms of smart vs dumb. That's the fault line along which the Dems want to position the debate. Never mind that Rummy's incompetence is something we should all be grateful for. Never mind that Katrina had nothing to do with incompetence but with a deliberate attempt to focus all of the government's resources (as opposed to simply most of them) toward servicing the elites: compare the bailout with Katrina. Appointing Michael Brown to head FEMA was not "dumb." It was part of the ideology.

Was killing half a million Iraqi children with sanctions smart power? Is that what we should be looking forward to?

We've got smart bombs, smart power. These are propaganda terms, which should be treated with all the respect such mode of communication deserves.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at January 22, 2009 06:36 PM

What John Caruso said.


It's similar to the term "American leadership," what they mean is American hegemony, but disguised so as to, as John put it, blunt domestic opposition and provide cover for allies (and puppets) with domestic opposition.

Speaking of "American leadership:" When it comes to the Palestinians, I think, "American leadership" in the "peace process" (there's another one), will no longer garner the illusions it once did.

Posted by: Rojo at January 22, 2009 06:42 PM

What Bernard said up-thread, with a twist:

there may be no such thing as smart power or dumb power. But there are certainly such things as dumb objectives.

Posted by: MarcLord at January 22, 2009 06:48 PM

It's a dangerous mistake to frame the Bush era in terms of smart vs dumb.

Would it be a dangerous mistake to say that invading Iraq was a dumb thing to do? Not just immoral or illegal (because we all know that those in power don't care about such things), but dumb in terms of the stated goals of the U.S. government, of advancing American power in the Middle East.

Of course, those of us who don't want the the U.S. to be successful in advancing its power in the M.E. may celebrate the dumbness of invading Iraq, but the consequences were horrific, and we're not the ones suffering the consequences.

Posted by: SteveB at January 22, 2009 11:01 PM

SteveB: Agreed. There's nothing inherently dangerous about "smart" or "dumb" as applied to Bush's policies; it depends entirely on the context and the point of view. Beyond that, I think Bernard may have confused my explanation of the Democrats' intentions with "smart power" (and the deeper underlying meaning) as endorsement of the phrase itself, which it definitely was not. I don't think there's much danger of anyone who reads this site popping up with non-bullshit-quoted references to "smart power" in their everyday conversation.

Posted by: John Caruso at January 22, 2009 11:31 PM

I dunno, there is certainly logic to "the worse the better" concept, but I agree with SteveB: I would much prefer to be attacked and robbed by a smart crimial than a psychotic and dumb one.

Posted by: abb1 at January 23, 2009 04:06 AM

DUMB POWER= Raw Power ( F-16, Apache helicopters, Drones, White phosporus-Tungsten-Depleted uranium ammunition) used with IMPUNITY ( pulverising a narrow strip of land, hitting UN facilities with civilians taking refuge there, hitting Red Crescent medical center, blowing up hospitals, mosques, schools ) without for one second thinking of the CONSEQUENCES.....,7340,L-3658823,00.html

THAT IS real dumb power.

And for once, the best ally, USA is going to be powerless to help in the International Court of Justice.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at January 23, 2009 11:05 AM

If you read that article, you'll note that the official coiner of that term is -

chief operating officer at Human Rights Watch!

Not sure what this means -

Posted by: erik at January 23, 2009 11:45 AM

The worst failures of the last eight years were not the intractable problems. The hard problems have been failures for every administration for as long as any of us have been alive. The worst failure is when someone fails at an easy problem.

When arrogance, bluster and tough talk are universally applied as the solution to every problem, the results for the intractable problems are the same as if you had tried to be smart. The results for the easy problems are dramatically different.

I, for one, will be happy to have an administration that even attempts to solve problems. I would estimate that for four of the last eight years, problem solving was not even one of the objectives.

Posted by: Dave at January 23, 2009 12:04 PM

"If you read that article, you'll note that the official coiner of that term is -

chief operating officer at Human Rights Watch!

Not sure what this means -"

I think it means HRW does good work most of the time , but they're also a bit closer to power than is healthy. The unintentional pun I nearly made reminds me that the same is true of Samantha Power, though in her case she's close enough to real power to greatly effect what she says.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at January 23, 2009 12:23 PM

Would it be a dangerous mistake to say that invading Iraq was a dumb thing to do?

Layer under layer and shine on polished dross, it wouldn't be wrong to say, not a mistake exactly, but there's a smartness thickening the dull-wit gleam of Bush's Mickey-Mouse-cute incompetence, skulking glamour-adroit magicians clacking like insects back behind that mediocre throne, casting long spells of perfidy woven through and into nets of intrigue.
"In terms of the stated goals of..." whom, when, and why those goals were ever even stated, then or now, except to lead complacently to sleep and inattention, within their layer under layer of transparently clear candy-colored deceit and thick parfait'd partial truth, stated as they were then, repeated with a smirk and a wink in a solemn tone - and now no one anywhere says much of anything in that regard, only "We're leaving, relatively soon."
As if it's over, whatever it was, as if there never were any goals at all, except the only one that was achieved - Babylon, broken in the dust.

Posted by: roy belmont at January 23, 2009 03:15 PM

I think roy belmont is agreeing with me, but I'm not too sure.

No, I'm sure he's agreeing with me.

Posted by: SteveB at January 23, 2009 07:32 PM

Clinton is a politician rather than a writer, of course.

To me, there's an important difference however many sanctions killed and however many died because we were too fastidious to bothered with occupations - the latter happened under our much more direct responsibility.

I'm not buying that more than a few of the Administration wanted Iraq broken. If they did, they wouldn'ta brought Gates in. There's a act-unpeacefully-overseas-for-peace wing of the GOP (kinda like those in power in Israel). but not much of it was in power. The neocons are part of the don't-waste-time-with-looking-at-works-or-being-logical wing; they were about ideology over facts as lefties and still are now as righties.

The contrast here is the Clintons were more willing to look at facts over ideology, and I believe Obama will be even more that way. Yeah, even after '06, they still had unfettered corruption like Blackwater shooting whatever Iraqis they wanted without anything happeneing, and tons of aid going into black holes without anybody caring.

Posted by: J at January 24, 2009 12:09 AM