Back to The Future Reality?

The Retreat from Empiricism and Ron Suskind’s Intellectual Scoop

Even realism has an obligation to be realistic. –George Packer.

The only piece of political journalism ever to make me cry was Ron Suskind’s article, Without a Doubt, published in the New York Times Magazine shortly before the 2004 election. It was in that article that the famous passage appeared quoting a senior administration official on the myopia of the “reality-based community” when it came to understanding the government of George W. Bush.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about that article because the “realist” school in foreign policy is thought to be back in charge. The release of the Iraq Study Group’s report on December 6th and the re-emergence of James Baker, famous for being pragmatist, a realist, and a fixer, were the triggers for this observation. The Guardian’s report was typical: “This is a return to the realist policy of Mr. Bush’s father.”

Dan Froomkin said the report and reactions to it “marked a restoration of reality in Washington.”

Realist, a classic term in foreign policy debates, and reality-based, which is not a classic term but more of an instant classic, are quite different ideas. We shouldn’t fuzz them up. The press is capable of doing that–fuzzing things up–because it never came to terms with what Suskind reported in 2004. Of course, neither did the political system. Or the Republican party, or its sensible wing– the elders, the responsible people.

I think they all regret it now. But they’re happy with this month’s theme, “realists are back.” It sounds almost… normal.


The idea that accuracy improves credibility is comforting. The more accurate you are, the more credible you will be, right? But in extreme situations — and invading Iraq with no particular and specific idea of what to do once there is an extreme situation — an accurate description is likely to be rejected, and the describer treated as in-credible. Reporters and editors are, I believe, intimately aware of this. Bob Woodward, as I have said elsewhere, wrote Plan of Attack because at the time it was a more credible book, even though Attack Without a Plan would have been more accurate.

Read the rest, including comments from readers, here.

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