The Washington Foreign Policy Elite’s Unspoken Assumptions and Norms

In a column for Foreign Policy, James Traub writes

The Powell Doctrine became received wisdom at precisely the moment it was being superseded by events, for the end of the Cold War produced a set of “complex emergencies” in Somalia, Haiti, Kurdistan, and the Balkans that required a combination of force and large-scale civilian presence.

In a better world, the editor of this piece would demand, amid all this “becoming” and “being superseded by” and “producing” and “requiring,” some sort of agency.  Active voice!  Is it really true that the Powell Doctrine “became received wisdom”?  By whom?  Is it actually the case that “events” “superseded” the doctrine?  Why?  How, exactly, did the fact that the Cold War ended produce “complex emergencies” in Somalia, Haiti, or Kurdistan?  Why was it that these complex emergencies “required” anything?

The piece has other problems, namely that the author uses the anecdote of the U.S. deploying 500 civilian teachers to support its brutal occupation of the Philippines to make the case for building American nation-building capacity today.  (After all, the teachers “offered the most benevolent possible face to America’s colonial enterprise”!)  But probably the biggest problem is that the above jumble of slogans and rhetoric is being asked to do a lot of heavy lifting in the piece without offering any clear analysis.