February 12, 2006

Walking into the Iran Trap, Conclusion (A): Folly Marches On -- and Seeking a New Direction

[Part VI of this series, with links to the other entries, is here: Messianic Zealotry as Foreign Policy -- "Our Children Will Sing Great Songs..."]

And I can see no reason why anyone should suppose that in the future the same motifs already heard will not be sounding still ... put to use by reasonable men to reasonable ends, or by madmen to nonsense and disaster. -- Joseph Campbell, Foreword to The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, 1969
I have read, thought and written about many issues over the last several years -- about a variety of subjects including domestic policy, foreign affairs, political theory, history, sexuality, and aesthetics -- and I have increasingly been drawn back to the stories and myths we tell each other and ourselves. Those stories concern the universe, our place in it, and our conception of ourselves. They tell us where we have been -- and where we are going. They suggest courses of action, what we should think, and how we should conduct ourselves in relation to others.

The most important stories echo through history, and they still live today. Because of what I came to see as the central role these stories play both in how history unfolds and in how our individual lives shape themselves, I named this blog, Once Upon a Time. That is how the story begins. In connection with these concerns, I've been reading Joseph Campbell (and in some cases, rereading him). Our mythologies, and the countless ways in which they shape our lives, were the focus of Campbell's work. After my hiatus of several weeks, the first entry I posted here began with an anecdote that was among Campbell's favorites, one that Bill Moyers tells at the opening of his series of conversations with Campbell, The Power of Myth.

In my essays about foreign policy, I have frequently mentioned Barbara Tuchman's work, especially her indispensable The March of Folly. The first part of this series on Iran, which focused on major foreign policy decisions as ones of policy and judgment in a manner many people still fail to appreciate, featured an excerpt from Tuchman's book. In preparing this conclusion to the articles about Iran, I once again pulled The March of Folly from my shelf. I had completely forgotten that the Campbell quotation above appears on a separate page by itself at the opening of Tuchman's work.

I will thankfully and with considerable personal pleasure take it as a sign that I may be on the right track. Certain myths have already played a central role in this series: in Part III, where I discuss Chris Hedges' related concept of "mythic war," and in Part IV, where I describe certain aspects of one of our basic national myths.

The United States began its venture into overseas expansion and foreign interventionism in a major way with the Spanish-American War in 1898. This was a radical departure from the policy the United States had followed for its first century, the policy that had been endorsed and recommended by most of the founders and leading writers at the time of our nation's birth. This interventionism was greatly expanded with America's entrance into World War I. That was the primary turning point. I traced, briefly and in broad terms, the consequences of that entrance into global politics in Part II, The Folly of Intervention. The consequences of America's decision to play a central role in world events continue to reverberate throughout the world today.

If readers take away only one idea from this series, I hope it will be this incontrovertible fact: a policy of aggressive foreign interventionism does not work. There is no way to restrict the consequences of our actions in this realm only to those we intend and prefer. The unintended consequences are always more significant and longer-lasting than those we had hoped to bring about. In the case of World War II -- which directly resulted from America's role in The Great War and its aftermath -- those unintended consequences (resulting in large part from how the ensuing "peace" was shaped) spread out in all directions and encompassed the globe. And as I described in Part II of this series, the results of World War II have brought us in many ways to where we are today.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of the last century (and much longer, if one considers world history over the last several thousand years), we refuse to learn the lesson. The example of the man who is insane is overused, but it is employed so often precisely because it is so apt: we repeat the same actions over and over, expecting that this time, the result will be different. It never is -- and we still refuse to learn the lesson.

With regard to the Bush administration's foreign policy, and almost three years after the invasion of Iraq began, we now have several further incontrovertible facts. With its growing influence over Iraq and in that region of the world, the primary victor in this conflict is Iran. The likelihood of a genuine Western-style "democracy" taking hold in Iraq is close to non-existent, if not already entirely extinguished. (In fact, and as I argued before the invasion, it was virtually impossible before we ever entered Iraq. The British had tried to install a democratic form of governance in Iraq after World War I and finally gave up after 40 years, after great devastation and death.) Not a single one of the Bush administration's claims about this calamitous misadventure has proven true in the event. We were told Iraq's own oil revenues would pay for Iraq's reconstruction, or that, in the worst case, this "splendid little war" (as John Hay described the war of 1898) wouldn't cost "that much." Three years on, the Iraq war costs about $100,000 a minute or $200 million per day -- and the final cost may be in the neighborhood of two trillion dollars. The economic impact on the United States will last for decades.

We were told the war would last a matter of months, and the casualties would be minimal. We are now closing in on 2,300 U.S. military dead, and the conflict is far from being concluded. Approximately 16,000 Americans have been wounded, assuming you believe the government figures. American government and media almost never speak of Iraqi casualties, in an especially disgusting display of our national narcissism and self-absorption. For most of us, those "brown," "lesser" people don't even exist in any meaningful sense. I discussed this theme in our history in Part IV. To date, and very conservatively, approximately 30,000 Iraqi civilians are dead. God knows how many more are terribly wounded. We went to "liberate" them and give them a better life, out of our great beneficence. Instead, we have visited death and destruction on them -- and in terms of our national policy and what we are prepared to do about it (or even can do at this point, save for leaving almost immediately), we don't give a damn. If we cared to, we could try to make amends -- but forgiveness for immorality on this scale is not possible. There are other reasons for my judgment, but I term it immoral for one reason above all others: Iraq represented no serious threat to us at all, and our leaders knew it. In fact, and despite their protestations and rationalizations to the contrary, the defense of our nation did not factor into the unfolding of this catastrophe.

Most significantly in terms of what the goals of the war on Iraq were alleged to be -- and the primary goal was to lessen the terrorist threat to our country -- we have toppled a third- or fourth-rate dictator only to empower a worldwide movement determined to do us great harm. Bush claims that his greatest concern is the security of our nation and the safety of Americans -- but he could hardly have undermined those goals more disastrously if he were this country's most determined enemy.

And still, we refuse to learn the lesson. The latest chapter in our now-lengthy history of interventionism has failed in every respect. We can employ the "metrics" so beloved by Mr. Rumsfeld, and there is not one measurement that will establish the worthiness of this venture. Yet following history's tragic pattern, the Bush administration is now most likely to attempt to "solve" these failures by repeating the identical errors, and expanding them still further. All the elements are now in place for an attack on Iran. Such an attack would affect what is already a disaster in only one way: it would amplify it significantly. It could well be the beginning of a war waged in many parts of the world simultaneously. The destruction and loss of life could be horrifying to behold.

The continuation of this policy to any extent at all is indisputably counterproductive and self-defeating; to broaden it still more surely brings it entirely within Barbara Tuchman's definition of "folly." From the first chapter of her book, "Pursuit of Policy Contrary to Self-Interest":
Misgovernment is of four kinds, often in combination. They are: 1) tyranny or oppression, of which history provides so many well-known examples that they do not need citing; 2) excessive ambition, such as Athens' attempted conquest of Sicily in the Peloponnesian War, Philip II's of England via the Armada, Germany's twice-attempted rule of Europe by a self-conceived master race, Japan's bid for an empire of Asia; 3) incompetence or decadence, as in the case of the late Roman empire, the last Romanovs and the last impeial dynasty of China; and finally 4) folly or perversity. This book is concerned with the last in a specific manifestation; that is, the pursuit of policy contrary to the self-interest of the constituency or state involved. Self-interest is whatever conduces to the welfare or advantage of the body being governed; folly is a policy that in these terms is counter-productive.

To qualify as folly for this inquiry, the policy adopted must meet three criteria: it must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not merely by hindsight. This is important, because all policy is determined by the mores of its age. "Nothing is more unfair," as an English historian has well said, "than to judge men of the past by the ideas of the present. Whatever may be said of morality, political wisdom is certainly ambulatory." To avoid judging by present-day values, we must take the opinion of the time and investigate only those episodes whose injury to self-interest was recognized even by contemporaries.

Secondly a feasible alternative course of action must have been available. To remove the problem from personality, a third criterion must be that the policy in question should be that of a group, not an individual ruler, and should persist beyond any one political lifetime.
Misgovernment by a single sovereign or tyrant is too frequent and too individual to be worth a generalized inquiry. Collective government or a succession of rulers in the same office, as in the case of the Renaissance popes, raises a more significant problem.
Bush is an exceptionally terrible president in numerous ways, including his relentless attacks on individual rights and civil liberties domestically. I have no doubt that the particular combination of errors that Bush represents, and the fundamentality of the nature of those errors with regard to the principles underlying our form of government, will forever keep him among the five or ten least-regarded of American presidents (and perhaps at or near the very bottom, depending on what happens over the next few years).

But as I indicated above, in terms of his foreign policy, Bush falls firmly within a tradition that extends back for more than 100 years. The Bush administration may be close to indescribably incompetent and bumbling in its execution, but the interventionist approach is far from unique to this presidency. I discussed in Part V the extent to which Bush has revived the Wilsonian approach to intervention abroad: both presidents employed the same kinds of appeals to "ideals" and overarching moral principles. Both sought to transform the world, and both failed, except to the extent the transformation was the opposite of what they had intended. And of course, the fifth chapter of Tuchman's book is entitled, "America Betrays Herself in Vietnam" (and see Tuchman on Vietnam below). This is a policy of long duration, one that encompasses both Democratic and Republican administrations. Moreover, and I will have more to say about this when I address Iran specifically, we now have prominent national Democrats who are taking a harder line on Iran than Bush himself. This is a national tradition that has swallowed up almost all political leaders, with only a handful of exceptions. Party partisanship is no cure here; it is a central part of the problem. These errors are not confined to one part of the political spectrum; would that they were. As I have suggested in earlier parts of this series, this policy of interventionism arises in large part from the national myths that form a significant part of our country's conception of itself. All of us grow up in this cultural atmosphere, and it influences our world perspective in innumerable ways.

Continuing from Tuchman:
Wooden-headedness, the source of self-deception, is a factor that plays a remarkably large role in government. It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts. It is epitomized in a historian's statement about Philip II of Spain, the surpassing wooden-head of all sovereigns: "No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence."
And from later in her book:
Like Kennedy, Johnson believed that to lose South Vietnam would be to lose the White House. It would mean a destructive debate, he was later to say, that would "shatter my Presidency, kill my Administration, and damage our democracy." The loss of China, he said, which had led to the rise of Joe McCarthy, was "chickenshit compared with what might happen if we lost Vietnam." Robert Kennedy would be out in front telling everyone that "I was a coward, an unmanly man, a man without a spine." Worse, as soon as United States weakness was perceived by Moscow and Peking, they would move to "expand their control over the vacuum of power we would leave behind us ... and so would begin World War III." He was as sure of this "as nearly as anyone can be certain of anything." No one is so sure of his premises as the man who knows too little.

The purpose of the war was not gain or national defense. It would have been a simpler matter had it been either, for it is easier to finish a war by conquest of territory or by destruction of the enemy's forces and resources than it is to establish a principle by superior force and call it victory. America's purpose was to demonstrate her intent and her capacity to stop Communism in a framework of preserving an artificially created, inadequately motivated and not very viable state. The nature of the society we were upholding was an inherent flaw in the case, and despite all efforts at "nation-building," it did not essentially change.

In the illusion of omnipotence, American policy-makers took it for granted that on a given aim, especially in Asia, American will could be made to prevail. This assumption came from the can-do character of a self-created nation and from the sense of competence and superpower derived from World War II. If this was "arrogance of power," in Senator Fulbright's phrase, it was not so much the fatal hubris and over-extension that defeated Athens and Napoleon, and in the 20th century Germany and Japan, as it was failure to understand that problems and conflicts exist among other peoples that are not soluble by the application of American force or American techniques or even American goodwill. "Nation-building" was the most presumptuous of the illusions. Settlers of the North American continent had built a nation from Plymouth Rock to Valley Forge to the fulfilled frontier, yet failed to learn from their success that elsewhere, too, only the inhabitants can make the process work.

Wooden-headedness, the "Don't-confuse-me-with-the-facts" habit, is a universal folly never more conspicuous than at upper levels of Washington with respect to Vietnam. Its grossest fault was underestimation of North Vietnam's commitment to its goal. Enemy motivation was a missing element in American calculations, and Washington could therefore ignore all the evidence of nationalist fervor and of the passion for independence which as early as 1945 Hanoi had declared "no human force can any longer restrain." Washington could ignore General Leclerc's prediction that conquest would take half a million men and "Even then it could not be done." It could ignore the demonstration of elan and capacity that won victory over a French army with modern weapons at Dien Bien Phu, and all the continuing evidence thereafter.

American refusal to take the enemy's grim will and capacity into account has been explained by those responsible on the ground of ignorance of Vietnam's history, traditions and national character: there were "no experts available," in the words of one high-ranking official. But the longevity of Vietnamese resistance to foreign rule could have been learned from any history book on Indochina. Attentive consultation with French administrators whose official lives had been spent in Vietnam would have made up for the lack of American expertise. Even superficial American acquaintance with the area, when it began to supply reports, provided creditable information. Not ignorance, but refusal to credit the evidence and, more fundamentally, refusal to grant stature and fixed purpose to a "fourth-rate" Asiatic country were the determining factors, much as in the case of the British attitude toward the American colonies. The irony of history is inexorable.


Mental standstill or stagnation--the maintenance intact by rulers and policy-makers of the ideas they started with--is fertile ground for folly. ...

In its first stage, mental standstill fixes the principles and boundaries governing a political problem. In the second stage, when dissonances and failing function begin to appear, the initial principles rigidify. This is the period when, if wisdom were operative, re-examination and re-thinking and a change of course are possible, but they are rare as rubies in a backyard. Rigidifying leads to increase of investment and the need to protect egos; policy founded upon error multiplies, never retreats. The greater the investment and the more involved in it the sponsor's ego, the more unacceptable is disengagement. In the third stage, pursuit of failure enlarges the damages until it causes the fall of Troy, the defection from the Papacy, the loss of a trans-Atlantic empire, the classic humiliation in Vietnam.

Persistence in error is the problem. Practitioners of government continue down the wrong road as if in thrall to some Merlin with magic power to direct their steps. There are Merlins in early literature to explain human aberration, but freedom of choice does exist--unless we accept the Freudian unconscious as the new Merlin. Rulers will justify a bad or wrong decision on the ground, as a historian and partisan wrote of John F. Kennedy, that "He had no choice," but no matter how equal two alternatives may appear, there is always freedom of choice to change or desist from a counter-productive course if the policy-maker has the moral courage to exercise it. He is not a fated creature blown by the whims of Homeric gods. Yet to recognize error, to cut losses, to alter course, is the most repugnant option in government.

For a chief of state, admitting error is almost out of the question. The American misfortune in the Vietnam period was to have had Presidents who lacked the self-confidence for the grand withdrawal. We come back again to Burke: "Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom, and a great Empire and little minds go ill together." The test comes in recognizing when persistence in error has become self-damaging.
A prince, says Machiavelli, ought always to be a great asker and a patient hearer of truth about those things of which he has inquired, and he should be angry if he finds that anyone has scruples about telling him the truth. What government needs is great askers.

Refusal to draw inference from negative signs, which under the rubric "wooden-headedness" has played so large a part in these pages, was recognized in the most pessimistic work of modern times, George Orwell's 1984, as what the author called "Crimestop." "Crimestop means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments...and of being bored and repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity."
This makes clear beyond dispute the nature and persistence of the problem -- and the repeated refusal of political leaders to learn the obvious lesson. And today, it is literally as if none of this had ever happened, and as if no one with the ability to influence our nation's direction has benefitted in the smallest degree from our tragic past errors -- and so we do it all again.

For our political leaders, in terms of the methodology they bring to bear on questions of foreign policy, it is as if the United States is a country without a history. In this respect, they are like the most dangerous of nihilist revolutionaries: they believe they can make the entire world anew, writing on a blank slate. But when you completely disregard the realities of history and culture, when you set aside facts and the complexities of men and the societies they create, you will achieve only what such revolutionaries have always achieved: destruction. Tragically for all of us, and for the world, they have failed to learn that lesson as well.

(This is long enough for one installment, so I will stop here for the moment. The next part, which will indeed be the last, will address the dilemma of Iran, and what should be done. The nature of the recommendations I will offer should be clear: they will be to our past and current policies as day is to night. There is indeed "a feasible alternative course of action," to use Tuchman's phrase. But it does not fall within the confines of the last century's foreign policy tradition, so our leaders refuse to consider it -- or even to acknowledge its possibility.)

UPDATED 2/27/06: Many thanks to Digby for the very kind remarks, and for the provocative thoughts. I've been sidetracked in completing this series by, you know, news. But I will definitely finish it tomorrow or Wednesday, at the latest. My most recent post, On Responsibility: The Comedy Continues, quotes Tuchman yet again, on some related themes.