Advice to the Prince

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Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at the Sultan Hassan Mosque, Cairo, June 4, 2009

“Force projection” in the Middle East is the largest legacy Barack Obama inherits from the administration of George W. Bush; and the main question asked about Obama in his first months in office has been how far he intends to continue Bush’s policy. The answer in December 2008 seemed to be an expansion of the war in Afghanistan and a careful withdrawal from Iraq, with no clear signal on Iran, Israel, and Palestine. All this changed with Obama’s speech in Cairo on June 4. But the events of the last year were the climate in which Leslie Gelb wrote Power Rules— a book modeled on The Prince, whose “main addressee” the author declares to be “you, Mr. President.”

Gelb has had a distinguished career as a policymaker and commentator, and his book is offered as the autumnal wisdom of a distinguished public man. He supervised the writing of the Pentagon Papers. Later, he served in the Carter administration, as assistant secretary of state for politico-military affairs under Cyrus Vance; but he grew increasingly dissatisfied with Carter’s foreign policy, and (he tells us) ended up voting for Reagan. He went on to edit the New York Times Op-Ed page and to serve as president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Between the council, the Times, and the advisory work for more than one administration and party, Gelb might fairly be called a triple pillar of the foreign policy establishment.

He divides the world of nations into a plain hierarchy that is determined by what he calls “the pyramid of power.” The United States is on top as the “paramount” power, but it can seldom “prevail on its own.” In the second tier are the “Eight Principals”: China, Japan, India, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, “and just barely Brazil.” Below them, says Gelb, are the “Oil and Gas Pumpers.” Further down, in a fourth tier, may be found such “Regional Players” as Mexico, South Africa, and South Korea. Beneath the Principals, Pumpers, and Players stand the harmless “Responsibles” (Switzerland, Norway, Singapore, others)—Gelb’s naming and ranking of this group may express a shade of contempt. Finally there are the “Bottom Dwellers”: Sudan, Congo, and Bosnia figure here but also, curiously, Nicaragua.

If there is an overriding thesis in the book, it is that American power needs a world to work in, and the world needs American power. This comes out pungently in Gelb’s description of America “exiting Vietnam in the early 1970s amid wails the world over for the passing of the American era.” The outcry over Vietnam, as Gelb heard it, did not have to do with carpet bombing or defoliation and the napalming of Vietnamese hamlets, but rather the cessation of these things. American power, for Gelb, is good as no other power…

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