Tipping Points

Michael Barone joins the chorus of people, mostly but not entirely on the Right, who note that President Bush’s policies seem to actually be creating the promised effects. He points to the apparently shifting tide in Lebanon, as I did here yesterday, as evidence of that. He also notes Martin Kettle’s two “Bush may be right” articles, widely cited around the blogosphere, as evidence that even Euroskeptics are grudgingly admitting that, however ill-conceived, things seem to be working–just as they did for Ronald Reagan a generation ago.

And minds are changing in the United States. On Nightline, the New York Times ‘s Thomas Friedman and, with caveats, the New Yorker ‘s Malcolm Gladwell agreed that the Iraqi election was a “tipping point” (the title of one of Gladwell’s books) and declined Ted Koppel’s invitation to say that things could easily tip back the other way. In the most recent Foreign Affairs , Yale’s John Lewis Gaddis credited George W. Bush with “the most sweeping redesign of U.S. grand strategy since the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt,” criticized Bush’s implementation of that strategy in measured tones, and called for a “renewed strategic bipartisanship.” One Democrat so inclined is the party’s most likely 2008 nominee, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. She voted for the Iraq war and has not wavered in her support–she avoided voting for the $87 billion before voting against it. She has kept clear of the Michael Moore left and its shrill denunciations of Bush and has kept her criticisms well within the bounds of normal partisan discourse. “Where we stand right now, there can be no doubt that it is not in America’s interests for the Iraqi government, the experiment in freedom and democracy, to fail,” she said on Meet the Press February 20. “So I hope that Americans understand that and that we will have as united a front as is possible in our country at this time to keep our troops safe, make sure they have everything they need, and try to support this new Iraqi government.” Moveon.org may want to keep shrieking about weapons of mass destruction, but Senator Clinton is moving on.

George W. Bush gambled that actions can change minds. So far, he’s winning.

This exchange is also the subject of Tom Friedman‘s column today. He cites recent events in Lebanon, Iraq, and Israeli-Palestinianian relations as positive signs but throws in a note of caution.

While all three of these situations would constitute tipping points by Mr. Gladwell’s definition, I would feel a lot better about all three if I thought that they were irreversible – and couldn’t tip back the wrong way.


Indeed, in the Middle East playground – as Friday’s suicide bomb in Israel reminds us – tipping points are sometimes more like teeter-totters: one moment you’re riding high and the next minute you’re slammed to the ground. Nevertheless, what’s happened in the last four weeks is not just important, it’s remarkable. And if we can keep all three tipping points tipped, it will be incredible.

I quite agree. Skepticism is the prudent reaction to signs of shifts in longstanding conflicts. That goes double–hell, tenfold–for the Middle East. Still, change never occurs without bold action. The cynics are usually right but never accomplish anything. The optimists are usually wrong but occasionally make history. Reagan managed to help create a permanent tipping point in Communist Europe, ending a forty-year-old Cold War. It remains to be seen whether Bush can accomplish something of that magnitude. Six months ago, it certainly didn’t look good. Six months from now, it may not either. Right now, though, it sure looks like he’s got a shot.

See also Ace‘s thoughts on these pieces, as well as a related one from David Brooks. He notes that a “tipping point” looks a lot like a Kuhnian “paradigm shift.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Ron Wright says:

    Freedom is on the March!

    I agree we may be witnessing a “tipping point” in the GWOT. See my comment at Roger L. Simon’s and follow the links to this story:

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    The end is near for the women hating Mad Mullahs of Iran:

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  2. Anderson says:

    Of course Gladwell sees “tipping points” everywhere. That’s how he sells books.