In the 1960s, Gelb worked for Senator Jacob Javits, Republican of New York, and then in the Johnson administration’s Pentagon, where he oversaw the large collection of government documents and analytical essays on the Vietnam War known as the Pentagon Papers. In the ’70s and ’80s (with an interlude as Jimmy Carter’s top arms-control official), he reported, edited, and opined for The New York Times. In the ’90s, he led the Council on Foreign Relations. You can’t get more establishment than Gelb’s résumé, but he remained something of an outsider his whole life, as if the memory of the store never left him.
“Foreign policy makes no sense”: This was one of Gelb’s sharp and brutal wisecracks, and it came from a man who spent his entire career as a practitioner and an observer. He meant that our leaders, even ones he respected, often don’t know what they’re doing. They have to make decisions with large but unknowable consequences in ignorance, thinking wishfully, perhaps under the sway of some irrelevant ideology, or the American politics of the moment, or the onrush of events in distant places. Then they spend their careers justifying decisions that they never understood in the first place.
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Gelb’s three books all cast a cold eye on American foreign policy, from the vantage point of a deeply knowledgeable and sympathetic skeptic. In The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked, which he published in 1979, he argued brilliantly that the war didn’t result from a failure or perversion of the policy process—Vietnam followed logically from false assumptions about the Cold War that remained constant through six American administrations. He often talked about his generation of policy makers, those who entered government during Vietnam, as forever damaged by the war—a generation of failed promise, lacking the talent and confidence of the original Wise Men. Five years later, Our Own Worst Enemy, which he co-wrote with Anthony Lake and I. M. Destler, described the deterioration of post-Vietnam foreign-policy making into ideological warfare and careerism. Power Rules was a primer in realism, written in 2009 in the aftermath of the Iraq disaster, a war that Gelb saw as a prime example of the flawed mentality of the foreign-policy elite, and that he keenly regretted supporting. He was a critic, but a responsible one—he never stopped asking himself what practical steps a foreign crisis or puzzle might require.
Gelb described himself as lazy and sedentary. He liked to sit around his Manhattan apartment in sweatpants and a T-shirt, stroking his beloved cats, on whom he lavished unusually sentimental affection. From this perch, in the last 15 years of his life he became a generous mentor to a generation of young people who were pursuing careers in diplomacy, the military, and journalism, and who took the elevator up to the Gelb apartment for counsel. His acolytes could be found across the Obama administration, from the White House to the Pentagon to the State Department.