March 04, 2007

The Many Failures of John Edwards (I): The Lie at the Heart of Government War Propaganda

With regard to what follows, I urge you to keep one background fact in mind at all times. John Edwards has been preparing for and thinking about his current run for the Democratic presidential nomination for several years. He has had a very substantial length of time to speak to various experts on foreign policy, to consult with numerous people who have served in government, to study these issues, to read about history, including the century-long history of endless U.S. interventions overseas, and to consider the numerous interrelated questions and factors on his own schedule -- without the day-to-day pressures of active government service or in the midst of a campaign, both of which appear to make thoughtful, informed judgments all but impossible to virtually everyone.

In this particular setting, we can justifiably conclude that Edwards' recent pronouncements on foreign policy represent the best thinking of which he is capable. As we shall see, this necessitates an especially harsh judgment about Edwards' analytic capabilities and his general knowledge and understanding of these issues -- and it also raises what I submit ought to be regarded as insurmountable objections to his candidacy.

My title indicates that Edwards' statements offer so many points requiring commentary that I cannot cover them all in one post. Thus, this series will require two installments, and possibly three. I wouldn't spend this much time on Edwards, but for the fact that his views are also those of the foreign policy establishment in general. Edwards' overall perspective, and the basic assumptions underlying his more specific prescriptions, are those that have driven U.S. foreign policy for the last century. As I am documenting in the "Dominion Over the World" series, this perspective and these assumptions are shared by Democrats and Republicans alike. I emphasize once more that Bush is an unusually blatant and crude embodiment of these views -- but, with regard to the most fundamental issues, Bush's overall objectives and his primary justifications have been and are shared by any number of Democrats, including Edwards himself. We shall see this on a number of specific points in what follows.

Edwards' views are significant for another reason, too. In reading many blog entries and much commentary about Edwards' recent foreign policy statements, I have come across only a few that address what I consider most significant about what Edwards has said. Almost without exception, what is most troubling about Edwards' views has gone entirely unremarked. This leads to a further conclusion: either these commentators are similarly uninformed about what Edwards' views actually indicate, or they understand the perspective out of which Edwards operates -- and they agree with it. In many cases, I think the two factors combine in varying ways. I will be providing some more notable examples of these failures of analysis in subsequent parts of this series.

In this first installment, I must restrict myself to just a single issue, because it is one of unique importance in the field of foreign policy. It is a lie that serves many purposes, and one purpose above all others: it is the lie that has enabled many past wars, and it is the lie that guarantees there will be many future wars, possibly beginning with an attack on Iran.

Edwards appeared on Meet the Press on February 4. This exchange began the program:
MR. RUSSERT: A few weeks ago, Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts was on this program, and he said that, in his entire career in the United States Senate, spanning 40 years, the vote he cast on the war in—on—in Iraq was the most important. Do agree with it was the most important vote you cast?


MR. RUSSERT: And, in your mind, you got it wrong.

Russert then played part of a speech Edwards gave during the week in October 2002 when the Senate debated the coming war. In part, Edwards said:
My position is very clear. The time has come for decisive action to eliminate the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. I'm a co-sponsor of the bipartisan resolution that is presently under consideration in the Senate. Saddam Hussein's regime is a grave threat to America and our allies. We know that he has chemical and biological weapons today, that he's used them in the past, and that he's doing everything he can to build more. Every day he gets closer to his long-term goal of nuclear capability.
And then this exchange occurred:
MR. RUSSERT: Why were you so wrong?

SEN. EDWARDS: For the same reason a lot of people were wrong. You know, we—the intelligence information that we got was wrong. I mean, tragically wrong. On top of that I'd—beyond that, I went back to former Clinton administration officials who gave me sort of independent information about what they believed about what was happening with Saddam's weapon—weapons programs. They were also wrong. And, based on that, I made the wrong judgment. I, I, I want to go another step, though, because I think this is more than just weapons of mass destruction. I mean, I—at the—I remember vividly what I was thinking about at the time. It was, first, I was convinced he had weapons of mass destruction. That's turned out to be completely wrong and false. I had internal conflict because I was worried about what George Bush would do. I didn't have—I didn't have confidence about him doing the work that needed to be done with the international community, the lead-up to a potential invasion in Iraq. I didn't know, in fairness, that he would be as incompetent as he's been in the administration of the war. But I had—there were at least two things going on. It wasn't just the weapons of mass destruction I was wrong about. It's become absolutely clear—and I'm very critical of myself for this—become absolutely clear, looking back, that I should not have given this president this authority.
Note the second point that Edwards makes. In essence, Edwards contends that, if the invasion and occupation of Iraq had been handled "competently" and if, for example, Bush had done "the work that needed to be done with the international community," then all would have been well, assuming the intelligence had been correct about the danger Saddam Hussein represented. I'll return to this issue in the next part of this series.

But please note carefully exactly what Edwards is saying about the supposed intelligence failures. As he purportedly accepts responsibility for having been "wrong" -- and "wrong" on "the most important vote" he had cast in the Senate -- Edwards also says it actually wasn't his fault at all. Yes, Edwards admits he was wrong, but he was wrong: "For the same reason a lot of people were wrong. You know, we—the intelligence information that we got was wrong. I mean, tragically wrong." He was only wrong because others were wrong. In this sense, he denies all personal responsibility for having been wrong at all.

Please remember that this is the exact defense offered by Bush: "Well, everybody thought Hussein had WMD and was a threat that couldn't be tolerated any longer, especially after 9/11. How was I to know that the intelligence was so completely wrong?"

On this occasion (as on others), Edwards was unable to leave bad enough alone. A few minutes later, he added the following:
I accept my responsibility. I'm not defending what I did. Because what happened was the information that we got on the intelligence committee was, was relatively consistent with what I was getting from former Clinton administration officials. I told you a few minutes ago I was concerned about giving this president the authority, and I turned out to be wrong about that.
Edwards says he's "not defending what [he] did" -- which is precisely what he goes on to do: "Because what happened was the information that we got..." etc. In other words: "I accept responsibility, but it wasn't my fault!" This is the kind of "excuse" offered by a notably stubborn six-year-old -- and this is what passes for "serious" foreign policy analysis in our national discussion.

In all the reading I've done over the last month, I haven't seen even one person who self-identifies as a Democrat (or a liberal or a progressive) identify the meaning of what Edwards said, or explain why it is completely invalid (as well as being deeply objectionable in moral terms). Nor have I seen any commentary that recognizes that Edwards' "defense" is that employed by Bush himself. I leave you to conclude for yourselves why certain writers would prefer to avoid this subject altogether.

I have written a number of essays about the serious misunderstandings and abuses of "intelligence" that prevail in all our debates about foreign policy. Some of those major essays are listed at the conclusion of this post. To my considerable astonishment, people remain completely resistant to the rather simple truths I have identified, with many citations to several well-known authors on this subject and numerous examples from history. I will briefly review here the major points, but I refer you to the earlier essays for the fuller explanations.

Let me start with my own formulation of the central principle involved:
Intelligence is completely irrelevant to major policy decisions. Such decisions are matters of judgment, and knowledgeable, ordinary citizens are just as capable of making these determinations as political leaders allegedly in possession of "secret information." Such "secret information" is almost always wrong -- and major decisions, including those pertaining to war and peace, are made entirely apart from such information in any case.
Here is Gabriel Kolko on the same point:
The function of intelligence anywhere is far less to encourage rational behavior--although sometimes that occurs--than to justify a nation's illusions, and it is the false expectations that conventional wisdom encourages that make wars more likely, a pattern that has only increased since the early twentieth century. By and large, US, Soviet, and British strategic intelligence since 1945 has been inaccurate and often misleading, and although it accumulated pieces of information that were useful, the leaders of these nations failed to grasp the inherent dangers of their overall policies. When accurate, such intelligence has been ignored most of the time if there were overriding preconceptions or bureaucratic reasons for doing so.
And here is Barbara Tuchman:
The belief that government knows best was voiced just at this time by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who said on resumption of the bombing, "We ought to all support the President. He is the man who has all the information and knowledge of what we are up against." This is a comforting assumption that relieves people from taking a stand. It is usually invalid, especially in foreign affairs. "Foreign policy decisions," concluded Gunnar Myrdal after two decades of study, "are in general much more influenced by irrational motives" than are domestic ones.
In an earlier article, I identified some of the reasons for the widespread, unshakable resistance to these truths:
It may indeed be comforting to think that decisions of war and peace are made on the basis of facts, cold, clear logic, and "secret information" (information that is accurate, I hasten to add) -- but history, including our most recent history, does not support that view. We might think that is the correct method that should be utilized in pondering the fates of many thousands of soldiers and innocent civilians -- and indeed, it is the right procedure, if leaders were amenable to being directed solely by facts and what is in their nations' best long-term interests. But if leaders were ultimately moved by such factors, World War I would not have witnessed years of endless slaughter, it would not have lasted as long as it did, and it might not have begun at all. And if our own political and military leaders focused on those factors that ought to serve as their lodestar to the exclusion of all else, we would not have had the nightmare of Vietnam then -- or the nightmare of Iraq now.
In my essay, "How the Foreign Policy Consensus Protects Itself," I also mentioned another manifestation of this underlying failure: "the American public's willingness -- indeed, I would argue its eagerness -- to defer to alleged 'experts' in the foreign policy field." This is another result of the childlike approach to which most Americans willingly and enthusiastically consign themselves: rather than accept full responsibility for behaving and thinking like adults, they prefer to make themselves subservient to those in government and to various "experts," those individuals who allegedly have information denied to the average citizen. Only these superior beings have "all the information and knowledge of what we are up against" -- and only they should carry the weight of momentous decisions of war and peace. As one, most Americans say: "Oh, don't bother us with such matters. We don't have all the information, and we don't want it. We want to watch TV."

You would think that if the catastrophe of Iraq had done nothing else, it certainly ought to have disabused every single American of the notion that knowledgeable "experts" are ideally situated to make decisions such as that to go to war. Of course, it has done nothing of the kind -- as the debate about Iran continues to prove, and as remarks like those from Edwards demonstrate still one more time. The prevailing consensus framework within which all foreign policy debates are conducted appears to be virtually indestructible. This is one of the reasons I have repeatedly noted that, of all the horrifying results of the Iraq calamity, the worst may be that we have learned absolutely nothing.

It is crucial that you appreciate a further implication of Edwards' remarks. Just as he simultaneously accepts and rejects responsibility for his "wrong" vote on Iraq in the past, his recourse to the "bad intelligence" excuse exonerates him prospectively. If a President Edwards launches what turns out to be a disastrous "war of choice," he has already informed us what his explanation will be: "The intelligence made me do it! You can't blame me for the fact that the intelligence was completely wrong. Everyone said [Country X] was a grave threat. You all believed it! It's not my fault!"

It wasn't true with Iraq, and it won't be true in the future. There are only two possibilities here, and both of them render Edwards entirely unfit for the presidency: either he understands none of this, or he understands it all too well -- and he knows that this lie is a notably successful one and is fully prepared to use it again, whenever circumstances make it the most convenient lie.

This brings me to the final point about the abuses of intelligence for our purposes here. As I expressed it before:
Intelligence is misused is still another way. Although the Establishment tries to convince the public that its preparations for war came after the relevant intelligence assessments, this reverses the actual order of events. The decision to go to war comes first, and the intelligence that provides supposed justification for the imminent devastation and death comes second. This is, once again, a truth which is far too uncomfortable for most people to acknowledge. As I summarized this issue once before:
To put the point another way: of course the administration "cooked" the intelligence. The intelligence was the propaganda justification for the war, used to sell it to the American public and to the world, which is almost always how intelligence is used (I'm tempted to simply say "always," which is probably the truth) -- and the intelligence was used to justify a decision that had already been made, entirely apart from the intelligence.
I note again that either Edwards hasn't grasped any of this -- or he understands perfectly how this deadly game is played, and intends to play it himself. If either explanation makes him suitable presidential material in your view, I wish you good luck. You'll need it very badly -- as will all of us, as will the world.

There are many additional failures in Edwards' recent statements to be noted. I'll address some of them in the next part of this series.

Here are some of my earlier essays about the role of intelligence in general, and concerning related issues:

How the Foreign Policy Consensus Protects Itself

Trapped in the Wrong Paradigm: Three Handy Rules (See Rule 2, in particular.)

The Paradigm that Will Not Die

Undying Myths, and Sullivan's Lies on the Path of Penance

Walking into the Iran Trap: A Decision of Policy -- and the Intelligence Won't Matter

The Irrelevance of Intelligence Again, and Collective Illusions

And Still One More Time: Stop Helping the Warmongers