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Promise and Power: The Life and Times of Robert McNamara.

The arrival of the first comprehensive biography of Robert McNamara might have been expected to create a storm. Instead, there have been serious, almost specialist, reviews and public indifference. It is as if his name were part of a distasteful past.

But the effects of McNamara's actions and his methods are far from past. They are central to the crises which the Clinton administration and other Western countries are struggling to deal with today. It could be said, only half in jest, that McNamara is responsible for four of the six major post-war catastrophes--the nuclear arms race, the addiction of the civil economy to a gigantic conventional arms market, the dragged out Vietnam debacle, and the Third World debt crisis. The two remaining disasters--monetary disorder and the oil crisis-can probably be assigned to Nixon and Kissinger.

Deborah Shapley hasn't addressed her subject on that level. Perhaps this is because she let herself get caught in the classic conundrum of the biographer dealing with a living person. She came to know her subject personally. He granted a long series of on and off the record interviews and revealed himself more than he has ever done before. The point is not that she was seduced by his point of view; she wasn't. But she has confused his actions in power with his tendency to cry, his love for his Wife, and his distant relationship with his son. Biography is a very flawed medium for examining public policy. Great biographers drive their stories with the social or political themes of the day, thus avoiding People magazine pitfalls. The structure of most biographies, however, combines the romance novel with a boy's adventure story. In this case, we see the history of the post-World War II period through the tragic adventures of "Bob."

Perhaps this explains why so much of the book is devoted to the Vietnam story--a war can easily be described in a linear storybook manner. But while Vietnam was McNamara's most dramatic failure, it has also had far fewer long term implications than his other initiatives.

Shapley does give a reasonable account of the World Bank period, even though she tiptoes around the implications of the debt crisis. What was needed was a strong narrative drive based on the conflict between Third World realities and McNamara's abstract idea of what the Third World could become with his help. His approach was central to creating the atmosphere inside the commercial banks, as well as in the World Bank, which led to a developing world hopelessly in debt and hypnotized by the Western style of manager-driven industrial development. That idea of development indirectly encouraged social destabilization. The collapse of traditional agriculture and the swelling of urban slums came without compensating systems of food production and viable manufacturing. In other words, an idealistic and abstract program for reform has helped to create instability and suffering.

As for the statistics which seem to show an improvement in Third World standards of living, a biographer of Robert McNamara ought to know that these numbers are based upon "standards" defined by specific schools of economists and statisticians. These are essentially Western standards. Such definitions have difficulty "measuring" the standards of societies functioning outside the Western marketplace. Thus a small farmer in a barter-based village will seem to have no income and no standards, but might live reasonably well. A distraught, ill-fed, and destabilized shanty-town dweller who has entered the Western economic system can be measured as having some income. He will appear in statistics with a "standard of living."

When Shapley deals with nuclear weapons, she clarifies once and for all one of the great misunderstandings of the last three decades. The move to massive quantities of nuclear armaments began in Washington, not in Moscow. It was a Kennedy policy that successive governments accepted. Everyone chose to ignore President Eisenhower's sensible and professional advice that such a buildup was neither politically smart nor strategically necessary.

Kennedy's determination was based on the notion that the Soviets were ahead in the nuclear race--a false premise. He completely missed the frightening effect that massive nuclear armaments would have on the conservative and bureaucratic minded Communist leadership. It frightened them out of their wits and brought out the worst in their not very attractive and imaginative characters.

Shapley's interpretation of McNamara's Flexible Response Strategy is off the mark. She sees it as a move away from the risks of nuclear war and therefore counts it as a McNamara success. She has in effect simply accepted the standard Washington position and does not understand the basis of European opposition. It was McNamara himself who said that he liked Flexible Response precisely because it converted nuclear weapons into "useable military power." The whole point of the preceding strategy--Massive Response-was that the weapons couldn't be used. That also meant you didn't need large quantities of them.

President Eisenhower, President de Gaulle, the Germans, and indeed the Russians understood this. But McNamara and his literal minded efficiency experts simply couldn't grasp the indirect advantages. Nor did they know enough history to understand that the safest strategies are usually indirect. They were oblivious to the fact that Flexible Response was above all inflexible and resembled the Maginot Line approach more than anything else. Strategies which are essentially logical inevitably require large and often unlimited amounts of weaponry. In essence, you cannot be against the nuclear arms race and for Flexible Response, because it was Flexible Response which made the nuclear arms race uncontrollable.

Finally, there is the matter of the conventional arms market. My own feeling is that this was McNamara's greatest error. Shapley deals with it in about three pages--far less than the space taken to analyze "Bob's" relationship with his son "Craig." The idea that domestic weaponry could be financed and the overall trade flow balanced by selling weapons abroad was formalized in Washington and Paris in the period 1959-1961. This initial competition quickly drew in Britain, then everyone else. As Western economies collapsed in the seventies, a further step was taken. Arms production became the standard modern make-work project as well as an indirect way to print money without seeming to do so. Weapons became the principle inflationary consumer product of the late 20th century. This whole approach was very much the invention of the abstract management experts. McNamara and the Rand Corporation---Shapley very effectively lays out the cooperation between the two--are central to what is now the heaviest chain around the neck of Western economies and the most destabilizing element in international relations.

President Clinton is discreetly tiptoeing up to this problem. This is probably wise given that 25 percent of American GDP is arms-related. The most important sector in international trade is weaponry. The addiction of Western economies to the arms industry is far closer to being one of the causes of our economic crisis than is any government debt. Debt, after all, is merely an effect. If Clinton pulls the plug on the arms industry, he will provoke a full scale economic collapse. In that sense, his research and development conversion program is an intelligent small step. But it is only that.

Whatever its flaws, Shapley's book should be read. She has laid out in great detail the greatest example yet seen of the managerial mind in power. It would be a mistake to treat Robert McNamara as an historical accident or a peculiar phenomenon which has been left behind. If he and his disciples have gone from job to better job and failure to failure, it is because the contemporary principles of rational management remain unquestioned in the power structures of government and industry. We have only to look around ourselves: the airline industry's collapse, the disorder in international money markets, the self-defeating aggressivity of trade policy.

McNamara's mentality and approach is far more central to how power is used today than it was when he introduced it. The key to rational management is that its structural success is unrelated to its policy failures. That paradox is difficult for sensible people to accept. But it is the demonstrable story of how contemporary power works.
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Author:Saul, John Ralston
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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