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Tyranny of Consensus

Discourse and Dissent in American National Security Policy

By Janne E. Nolan

Why does the most highly advanced industrial country, commanding unparalleled access to vast sources of global intelligence and information, seem to so often miscalculate the realities and risks of its foreign interventions? In light of current difficulties the United States faces in extricating from its recent interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in dealing—or not dealing—with the tumultuous and complicated events of the Arab Spring, one has to ask what can possibly account for so little apparent evolution.

In Tyranny of Consensus, Janne E. Nolan examines three cases—the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the proxy war with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa—to find the limitations of American policymakers in understanding some of the important developments around the world. Assisted by a working group of senior practitioners and policy experts, Nolan finds that it is often the impulse to protect the already arrived at policy consensus that is to blame for failure. Without access to informed discourse or a functioning “marketplace of ideas,” policymakers can find themselves unable or unwilling to seriously consider possible correctives even to obviously flawed strategies.

“This book goes well beyond what was wrong with key U.S. policies over the years to why the policies came out wrong. Janne Nolan’s analysis tells well how the unhappy stews of Afghanistan, Iraq, and other places were cooked. Tyranny of Consensus is a key step toward fixing ourselves.”—Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and former New York Times columnist

“Janne Nolan asks a critical question about America’s national security policymaking process: why has the quality of policy not been better at critical times in our history? She then proceeds to answer the question, beginning with the suggestive title of her book, Tyranny of Consensus. The author is skilled at the use of case material, and so her well-constructed historical chapters are a pleasure to read…. Nolan’s important book should be read and re-read because the lessons she so clearly lays out need to be learned anew with each administration intent on imposing its own coherent framework on events, not withstanding ample evidence that the fit is poor indeed”.—Robert L. Gallucci, president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

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