On the Thought of Leslie H. Gelb

06/10/2010 11:02 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

For over forty years Leslie Gelb has been at the very epicenter of the American foreign policy establishment: he has been a high official in both the Defense and State Departments; a diplomatic and national security correspondent, foreign policy columnist and Op-ed page editor of the New York Times; and from 1993-2005 the president of the innermost elite foreign policy institution outside of the government itself, the Council of Foreign Relations. In 1956 C. Wright Mills published a famous book, The Power Elite, which argued that there was an interlocking inner elite that dominated the making of American foreign policy. If Mills were alive to update his analysis, he might well list Leslie Gelb as the head of the Power Elite.

That's a pretty scary thought, for Leslie Gelb is not a great thinker. It's not just that his position on major issues is so often wrong-headed, but that he makes such startlingly obvious analytical mistakes. What follows are three examples.

The Vietnam War

In 1981 Gelb was the principle author of a book called The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked. The book made a big splash when it came out, for until then there was a widespread consensus that Vietnam had been a disastrous failure. Not so, Gelb argued. In three crucial ways the "system" had really worked: the policy process was democratic, the policy itself was rational, and it was actually successful (!)

Democratic? The U.S. "system" is based upon the Constitution, on checks and balances, and on the premise that government policies will emerge from a process of open and honest debate. This system was violated at every turn, beginning with the lies Lyndon Johnson told about the Gulf of Tonkin "incident," the alleged North Vietnamese attack on U.S. ships peacefully minding their own business off the coast of North Vietnam -- lies he had to tell to convince Congress to give him a blank check to take the nation into war. Despite Gelb's rather odd defense of presidential leadership during the war -- presidents did not get their way "principally by lying to Congress and the American people," he wrote (emphasis added) -- in fact Johnson and Nixon routinely ignored, deceived, demagogued, and manipulated public opinion and Congress, which until the very end could not summon the political courage to meet its responsibilities, especially its war-making powers, under the Constitution. And the Supreme Court refused to hear any cases challenging the war as illegal, thus abdicating its most important responsibility: to ensure the constitutionality of government policies.

Rational? During the Vietnam War Gelb was the Director of Policy Planning in the Defense Department; he and other members of the foreign policy establishment somehow became convinced that the outcome of an internal conflict in a tiny country thousands of miles away was crucial to our own national security, justifying a long and devastating war. The explanation for this monumental blunder -- one of the most irrational policies in U.S. history -- was the domino theory. The domino "theory" wasn't a theory at all, but simply a dumb metaphor that had little or no bearing on the real world of international politics: In the child's game of dominoes, if you knock over the first one the others must also fall -- but why should that apply to entire countries? (I have examined the domino theory here.)

Of course, we now know that after we lost the war the domino theory was proven wrong, but there was never any reason to think that if South Vietnam "fell" to communism one country after another must -- must -- also fall, including all of Southeast Asia at a minimum, and in many versions of the "theory," well beyond that. "If we don't fight them over there, we'll just have to fight them at home," the saying went -- evidently such a trenchant analysis that it has been updated and applied in Iraq and Afghanistan today.

Successful? Gelb wrote: "American leaders were convinced that they had to prevent the loss of Vietnam to communism, and until May 1975 they succeeded in doing just that....the commitment was made and kept for twenty-five years." It is true that the U.S. did succeed in preventing the collapse of the South Vietnamese government until 1975, but it was hardly our intention to pay so great a price for this success. Nor was the objective to succeed only until 1975; it was to succeed indefinitely. The collapse of 1975 reflected the fact that American policy had been in a continuous process of failing for twenty-five years, just managing to stave off collapse on a number of occasions by resorting to a variety of unlawful, reckless, and eventually unsuccessful escalations.

Adolph Hitler was convinced he could conquer Europe, and until May 1945 he succeeded in doing just that.

The Israel Lobby

Gelb wrote a critical review of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt's The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. In denying that the Israeli lobby has anything like the power attributed to it by Mearsheimer and Walt, he wrote that "the record clearly shows that when Israel crosses certain important lines, as when it expanded Jewish settlements....Washington usually expresses its displeasure in public and, even more so, in private." And on the issue of the creation of a Palestinian state, Gelb writes that "Washington has quietly sided with the Palestinians for a long time." (emphases added). Moreover, Gelb admits that "It's true...that the lobby has made America's longstanding $3 billion annual aid program to Israel untouchable and indiscussible."

What? There are legitimate criticisms to be made of the Mearsheimer/Walt argument, in particular that they understate the degree to which U.S. policies are a function of the genuine support of American officials for Israeli policies, rather than of the coercive power of the Israel lobby. I made that argument myself, here). However, if Gelb is right, he has knocked the props out from under that argument: if U.S. officials privately oppose certain Israeli policies but are afraid to publicly oppose them, let alone to even contemplate the use of our most important means of leverage to bring about changes in those policies, that constitutes dramatic evidence that goes a long way to confirming the Israel Lobby argument, not refuting it.

The Israeli Attack on the Gaza Flotilla

Gelb now blogs on the Daily Beast. On May 31 he wrote a widely-quoted column that conceded the Israeli action was "badly mishandled," but which defended Israel's right to blockade Gaza. He has two arguments. First, "Israel had every right under international law to stop and board ships bound for the Gaza war zone," the proof being that "the United States and Britain were at war with Germany and Japan and blockaded them... [and] I can't remember international lawyers saying those blockades were illegal." Thus, the legality of the Israeli blockade is perfectly obvious, according to Gelb: "Only knee-jerk left-wingers and the usual legion of poseurs around the world would dispute this."

Gee, I don't know. A blockade is an act of war, so surely its "legality" is related to the legality of the war itself. If that were not so, then Nazi Germany's submarine warfare against Britain in World War II -- effectively, a blockade -- would have been no less legal than the US/British blockade of Nazi Germany, despite the fact that Germany was engaged in a war of aggression and the British in a war of survival.

Israel's blockade of Gaza goes far beyond the importation of weaponry: it prevents the entry into Gaza of thousands of non-military products and is designed to make the lives of the civilian population miserable, thereby crushing or intimidating all opposition to its continuing occupation and brutal repression. Common sense tells you that's a different matter -- morally even more than legally -- than the allied blockade of Nazi Germany. Anyway, we don't have to rely merely on common sense or accepted moral standards: the United Nations, the most important source of current international law, has repeatedly declared that Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories is illegal.

Gelb's second argument is this: "It is pretty clear that this 'humanitarian' flotilla....aimed to provoke a confrontation with Israel....The organizers have let it slip that their intention was every bit as much 'to break' Israel's blockade of Gaza as to deliver the relief goods." I can't improve upon M.J. Rosenberg's response to that argument:

"The activists were like the civil rights demonstrators who sat down at segregated lunch counters throughout the South and refused to leave until they were served. Their goal was not really to get breakfast. It was to end segregation. That fact is so obvious that it is hard to believe that the "pro-Israel" lobby is using it as an indictment. Of course the goal of the flotilla was to break the blockade. Of course Martin Luther King provoked the civil authorities of the South to break segregation."

Such are the foreign policy analyses and moral thought of Leslie Gelb, for over forty years one of the most powerful men in the foreign policy establishment. It's enough to make you weep for the future of this great nation.


Leslie Gelb