The Plank

How Mitt Romney Is Like Robert Mcnamara


There was a time during the presidential primaries that I thought Mitt Romney might make a good foreign-policy president. Where John McCain was impulsive and pugilistic--willing to make grave decisions about the fate of the country with little reflection, or for purely tactical reasons--Romney seemed more moderate, less reactive. I hoped that Romney's penchant for strategic analysis, and the problem-solving skills he picked up as a management consultant at Bain & Company, would make him a more thoughtful commander-in-chief. That kind of approach would certainly be a relief after the instinctive Bush years.

Now, I'm beginning to rethink my view of Romney. This June, he gave a national security address that essentially accepted all the premises of George W. Bush's foreign policy and coated them with a sheen of hyper-rationality. I use the phrase "hyper-rational" very deliberately, because it's been applied to another brilliant business generalist, one who foundered at shaping and executing American foreign policy: Robert McNamara.

As Benjamin Wallace-Wells explains in the new issue of TNR, McNamara's great failures didn't come simply because he was an arrogant member of "the best and the brightest." They also flowed from the attempt to apply his particular skill set  to foreign affairs (he was famous for using statistical methods to reorder the operations of Ford Motor Company--which is essentially what consultants do):

Part of [David] Halberstam's sketch of the defense secretary is familiar: McNamara was optimistic, witheringly logical, and, in Vietnam, fixated on finding the numbers that might neatly describe a messy conflict. He was irreducibly American. ("Every quantitative measurement we have shows that we're winning this war," he said in 1962.) For Halberstam, McNamara symbolized the idea that the Kennedy administration could "control events, in an intelligent, rational way." This description is part of what has given The Best and the Brightest its power; to many, McNamara has seemed an example of an enduring national flaw.

But there is another side to Halberstam's McNamara. The secretary was surpassingly smart and empirical, but he was, in military policy, close to an amateur, unprepared for the gig, with no experience in politics, diplomacy, or military administration. He "knew nothing about Asia, about poverty, about people, about American domestic politics," Halberstam writes. McNamara lacked the experience to query the sources of the military's optimism and hawkishness--so, in the words of one of his colleagues, Chester Bowles, he became "an easy target for military-CIA-paramilitary type answers," and, in the end, a conveyance for their views.

Although he has more political experience than McNamara, this critique could easily apply to Romney. As Nicholas Lemann once wrote in a New Yorker piece about the consulting business, the "metrics" and methods used by companies like Bain endow their employees with the sense that they can solve any problem, no matter how shallow their understanding of the industry they're working in: "[This skill set] is more a simulacrum of intellectual mastery than intellectual mastery itself, but what's more important is how it feels. It feels as if you'd been given a key that opens up everything." That's an almost perfect description of the process behind Romney's foreign policy speech, in which he transmuted absolute gobbledygook about international politics into a set of rationalistic axioms.

The problem with this approach, of course, is that it undermines the most important rationale for Romney's candidacy: the idea that he has a special capacity to assess America's problems and develop reasonable solutions to them. If Romney is superficially competent, but unable to question the underlying premises of the position papers he receives from the Joint Chiefs, the Heritage Foundation, and his own advisers, then like McNamara he will end up applying his efficient mental machinery in the service of absurd, even disastrous assumptions. As one critic of McNamara's put it, he'll fall prey to "the most basic flaw of systems analysis: garbage in, garbage out."

--Barron YoungSmith

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