"Conventional wisdom" too often means that otherwise smart people have stopped thinking. You can tell when it takes hold: Buzzwords get repeated. Obvious truths are denied. And the critical faculties, so essential for serious thought, are met with derision.
One sterling example of CW run amok today is the Obama administration's "reset" policy toward Russia. Just this past June, after meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev and lunching on burgers and fries in Washington, President Obama declared they had "succeeded in resetting" U.S.-Russian relations. They would expand cooperation on intelligence and counterterrorism and strengthen economic ties. Russia even got an unqualified but unprecedented plug from Mr. Obama for its accession to the World Trade Organization.
In the run-up to this summit, the administration already had made quite a few concessions, such as canceling an agreement with Poland to deploy 10 interceptors to defend against Iranian long-range missiles; restarting a terminated 123 civilian nuclear deal and delinking it from Russia's aggression in Georgia; and codifying a lopsided nuclear arms deal in New START.
What did America get from all this resetting? At the very least, you'd expect the Russians to tone down their anti-American rhetoric.
Not so. Last week, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ridiculed Mr. Obama's handling of the WikiLeaks affair with a withering: "You call that democracy?" Not to be outdone, Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, accused Mr. Obama of human rights abuses and claimed there was "no media freedom" in America.
Mere words, you say? Well, Russian actions haven't been helpful, either.
Moscow did sign another U.N. sanctions resolution on Iran's nuclear program ... after getting an exclusion for the S-300 anti-aircraft missile system it had sold to Tehran but now says it has "canceled." It built and fueled Iran's Bushehr nuclear reactor and offered to do the same for Syria, Burma, Venezuela and Turkey. It expanded missile sales to Syria, including state-of-the-art anti-ship missiles, and delivered at least 1,800 shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles to Venezuela, which imports Iranian "experts" to train its military. In the spring, it reportedly moved some of its 5,400 short-range tactical nuclear weapons to sites bordering our NATO allies, and it is cultivating diplomatic relations with Hamas, a group still on the U.S. terrorism watch list.
Why should Russia act differently? From its point of view, it is merely pursuing its own interests. Yet the Russians must be puzzled by the Obama administration's eagerness to accommodate them without asking for much in return.
One of the biggest travesties in the reset policy is the New START. To solve a problem that doesn't exist, it undercuts both our nuclear deterrent and our ability to defend ourselves against Iranian and North Korean missiles.
Russia's nuclear arsenal will get smaller with or without New START. The treaty would tie us to nuclear parity with Russia. Why do that when the real problem is a rising nuclear China and proliferating rogue states, including North Korea and Iran?
It is not only puzzling; it makes no strategic sense. The more our nuclear forces go down to please Russia, the more important China's nuclear force becomes.
Why are we even discussing our nuclear deterrent as a bargaining chip? It's one thing to shower the Russians in praise, but why cut our nuclear weapons merely to send a diplomatic signal, or worse, merely to score a political victory or burnish a president's legacy? Our nuclear weapons should be about our national security, not about satisfying Russia's seemingly bottomless well of insecurity and paranoia.
Reset and its weak sister, New START, are hopeless throwbacks to the Cold War. The future of U.S. security depends not on balancing Russia, but on preparing our nuclear and missile-defense forces to deter attacks in a world where numerous countries have nuclear weapons. All New START does is tie our security to a country whose objective is nuclear parity with us.
Think about that: We limit our options to defend ourselves in the future just so Russia feels better about itself as a world power! Perhaps if we were getting better cooperation from Russia, one could argue (albeit weakly) that it's worth it. But we are not.
Make no mistake: Neither reset nor New START is in America's interest. Just because New START pretends to solve a non-problem doesn't mean it's harmless and should be ratified. It, along with reset, emboldens Russia to become more assertive - thus creating a real problem that may not have existed otherwise, for the empty promise of Russian friendship.
Russia is not a friend. Nor is it a strategic partner. It is simply a fading nuclear power grabbing at the only thing it thinks makes it important in the world - nuclear parity with the last superpower on earth, the United States.
And we sacrifice our security in the bargain. Seldom has so much been made of so little - and so little gained for giving away so much. There is little wisdom - conventional or otherwise - in this kind of thinking.
Kim R. Holmes, a former assistant secretary of state, is a vice president at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Washington Times