By Prerana Pakhrin ’13
James Mann, award winning author of The Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet (Review) and author-in-residence at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies was, for many years before, a journalist working as the columnist and chief of the Beijing Bureau of the Los Angeles Times. It is his many years of journalism and current state of being a “recovering journalist”, as he puts it, that aided his great knowledge in the field of International Studies, and in particular, the U.S. foreign policy. Mann’s lecture on the Political Parties in the United States and its foreign policy was straight-forward and comprehensive without being simplistic.
The purpose of the lecture was to introduce the differing standpoints of the two major U.S. political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, in terms of the foreign policy. Given the limitations of time and the vast nature of the topic, it is understandable that Mann did not delve into greater depths. However, there was something to be desired about Mann’s speaking skills. At places, it was confusing especially since he had retract several times for using the word “Republican” where he meant “Democrat”: a very grave mistake to make when lecturing about the fundamental differences between the two parties. Also, perhaps because he was reading out of his notes, he could not engage the audience as well as he could have.
James Mann’s lecture had a structured layout where he addressed the topic of discussion, although not thoroughly, but clearly. He discussed the long-standing differences in interests and beliefs of the two parties in matters like democracy, the role of U.S. military in American life and force, American power overseas and schools of thought regarding foreign policy. I was particularly interested over the divide on democracy.
Not only did Mann explain the differences between the Republicans and the Democrats about thoughts on democracy but he also cautioned that the respective differences not only change in context to each other but they also exchange over time. Mann illustrated this point with the example of U.S. intervention in Iran in 1979: the Shah of Iran had fallen from power as a consequence to the Iranian Revolution and there was chaos in the nation. The Carter Administration (Democrats) had previously advised the Shah to open up to democratic change. The Republicans had reprimanded the actions of the Carter Administration saying, “You cannot push a country into democracy.” Oddly enough when the precise scenario showed up 20 years later in the form of the Iraq war, the roles of the two political parties had switched places. The Bush Administration (Republicans) stressed the importance to overthrow the dictator Saddam Hussein in order to establish democracy and the Democrats opposed this view arguing that the democratic process takes a long time, especially in a country like Iraq and therefore cannot be imposed or forced.
This made me question the value of the principles that the political parties hold. Do they genuinely believe in it? Are they trying to be organic and shift according to the demand of the situation? And, as Mann himself asked, “Are political parties saying what they represent or just picking up responses that get them the result they want”. Mann termed the latter thought as “decision-result oriented” which means that instead of making decisions that lead to some results, parties may have the tendency to decide the result they want and then pick up the principles to get there. This is very much in line with the trend of “science policies”. Recently, I learnt about how political leaders, based on scientific studies, find out what the current “hot button issues” is and decide whether they want to address is or avoid it. Newsweek defines “Hot button issues” as ”something a candidate says to instantly show that his values are the voters’ values” (New York Times). Getting re-elected it seems, is more on the top of the priority list for politicians than to fully understand what their political parties stand for.