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From The economist :

But its objectives were often self defeating: an exercise in making pursuit of dramatic, unachievable progress the enemy of a more modest open ended and sustainable effort.

How to parse the bold text? How is it related to the preceding noun phrase?

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  • An exercise in making an unrealistic goal the enemy of a realistic goal. Perfectly understandable. May 9, 2021 at 10:44

3 Answers 3

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There is a saying: "The perfect is the enemy of the good," meaning someone can try so hard to make a thing absolutely perfectly correct that they never actually complete the project and never release a "good" (but not perfect) version. This is sometimes stated as an imperative: "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good" or "Don't make the perfect the enemy of the good."

The writer here is trying to do something similar, but made specific to the field of diplomacy. "The perfect" in this case is dramatic—but ultimately unachievable—progress, and the pursuit of that progress makes "the good" impossible, which in this case an open-ended but sustainable effort.

The construction is a little forced, and I would not hold it up as an example of high-quality writing.

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But its objectives were often self defeating: an exercise in making pursuit of dramatic, unachievable progress the enemy of a more modest open ended and sustainable effort.

pursuit of dramatic, unachievable progress and a more modest open ended and sustainable effort have clear opposing meanings, and it is understood. The intention of the passage in stating this fact is hence unclear.

I suspect there to be a missing comma; if we insert a comma before the enemy, the passage will be clear.

Clarification

With the comma, it will be clear that the enemy of a more modest open ended and sustainable effort is an appositive of dramatic, unachievable progress.

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  • The passage itself is not written very well, but I think the intention is clear to someone who is aware of the phrase "The perfect is the enemy of the good," as I explain in my answer. Inserting a comma after "progress" would not help at all.
    – randomhead
    May 9, 2021 at 3:54
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In its most basic form, the sentence is:

Its objectives were an exercise in making this (into) that.

The this is "pursuit of dramatic, unachievable progress."

The that is "the enemy of a more modest open ended and sustainable effort."

It's saying that its often-self-defeating objectives were making a performance out of pursuing sensational but unachievable progress into the enemy of less sensational but sustainable effort.

Frankly, because of numerous grammatical errors, I'm finding it doubtful that this was in The Economist or that you quoted it correctly, especially since it seems to flip the this and the *that around. What it appears to mean is that sustainable effort's enemy was unachievable progress, which it probably was, but in the context, it clearly means that the self-defeating efforts were making unachievable progress's enemy was sustainable effort. It's a criticism, so it's saying that the objectives were self-defeating because their pursuit of progress that was unachievable was destroying effort that was open-endedly ongoing and that was sustainable. It's saying that the objectives were self-defeating because they pursued what was impossible at the expense of not just what was possible but what was actually coming to pass. Yet how the statement is put, it flips that backwards, which makes no sense.

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    it's most basic form? May 9, 2021 at 10:30
  • The text is indeed in the linked Economist article, exactly as quoted, as you could have easily confirmed. May 9, 2021 at 10:42
  • "numerous grammatical errors" - I cannot see a single one in the text quoted. May 9, 2021 at 10:45
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    @Michael "self-defeating" and "open-ended" need to be hyphenated and I would prefer a "the" before "pursuit."
    – randomhead
    May 9, 2021 at 13:40
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    @Michael not using a hyphen when a hyphen is necessary is absolutely a grammar issue in my book. The "the" is a style question, true.
    – randomhead
    May 10, 2021 at 14:54

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