November 29, 2006

How the Foreign Policy Consensus Protects Itself

Andrew Bacevich, author of the enormously valuable The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War, writes about the Iraq Study Group and its purposes:
Even as Washington waits with bated breath for the Iraq Study Group (ISG) to release its findings, the rest of us should see this gambit for what it is: an attempt to deflect attention from the larger questions raised by America's failure in Iraq and to shore up the authority of the foreign policy establishment that steered the United States into this quagmire. This ostentatiously bipartisan panel of Wise Men (and one woman) can't really be searching for truth. It is engaged in damage control.

Their purpose is twofold: first, to minimize Iraq's impact on the prevailing foreign policy consensus with its vast ambitions and penchant for armed intervention abroad; and second, to quell any inclination of ordinary citizens to intrude into matters from which they have long been excluded. The ISG is antidemocratic. Its implicit message to Americans is this: We'll handle things - now go back to holiday shopping.

The group's composition gives the game away. Chaired by James Baker, the famed political operative and former secretary of state, and Lee Hamilton, former congressman and fixture on various blue-ribbon commissions, it contains no one who could be even remotely described as entertaining unorthodox opinions or maverick tendencies.

Instead, it consists of Beltway luminaries such as retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and lobbyist Vernon Jordan. No member is now an elected official. Neither do its ranks include any Iraq war veterans, family members of soldiers killed in Iraq, or anyone identified with the antiwar movement. None possesses specialized knowledge of Islam or the Middle East.

Charging this crowd with assessing the Iraq war is like convening a committee of Roman Catholic bishops to investigate the church's clergy sex-abuse scandal. Even without explicit instructions, the group's members know which questions not to ask and which remedies not to advance. Sadly, the average Catholic's traditional deference to the church hierarchy finds its counterpart in the average American's deference to "experts" when it comes to foreign policy. The ISG exemplifies the result: a befuddled, but essentially passive-electorate looks for guidance to a small group of unelected insiders reflecting a narrow range of views and operating largely behind closed doors.


The ISG will provide cover for the Bush administration to shift course in Iraq. It will pave the way for the Democratic Congress to endorse that shift in a great show of bipartisanship. But it will hold no one responsible.

Above all, it will leave intact the assumptions, arrangements, and institutions that gave rise to Iraq in the first place. In doing so, it will ensure that the formulation of foreign policy remains the preserve of political mahatmas like Baker and Hamilton, with the American people left to pick up the tab.

In this way, the ISG will make possible - even likely - a repetition of some disaster akin to Iraq at a future date.
All of this is absolutely correct in my view, but at least two critical issues deserve some amplification.

The first issue, one whose importance cannot be overestimated, is the American public's willingness -- indeed, I would argue its eagerness -- to defer to alleged "experts" in the foreign policy field. As I have done several times before, I must turn to Barbara Tuchman's masterful work, The March of Folly, for the explanation of what is wrong with this view:
Acquiescence in Executive war, [Fulbright] wrote, comes from the belief that the government possesses secret information that gives it special insight in determining policy. Not only was this questionable, but major policy decisions turn "not upon available facts but upon judgment," with which policy-makers are no better endowed than the intelligent citizen. Congress and citizens can judge "whether the massive deployment and destruction of their men and wealth seem to serve the overall interests as a nation."


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.
I have argued this point many times over the last couple of years, and I remain utterly astonished at how resistant to this incontestable truth most people remain. The resistance can be seen even in the writings of many people who are deeply critical of our invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The source of that resistance is easy enough to understand, even though the failure to acknowledge this truth is gravely and dangerously wrong. We prefer to believe that our leaders act rationally, and that they know what they are doing. Tragically, as the overwhelming debacle of Iraq has again demonstrated, neither of these propositions corresponds to the facts. In the earlier essay, I explained this as follows:
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.
Yet the majority of people find the idea that our leaders are capable of acting in wildly irrational and destructive ways too terrifying to contemplate seriously, much less to accept. They prefer to seek relief for their anxiety in the factually indefensible notion that our leaders have understandable and largely plausible reasons for their decisions, even though history proves the contrary time and again, and even when those decisions lead to an incalculable number of deaths and immeasurable destruction. The full truth is just too frightening. While I understand and am sympathetic to that fear, we should not allow it to overcome our judgment, which should be informed by and based upon the historical record.

This brings me to the second issue, which represents the major specific means by which people attempt to allay their fears: their belief that "the government possesses secret information that gives it special insight in determining policy." The way in which this view is most commonly expressed is to say that foreign policy decisions are based on intelligence unknown to the rest of us. If a decision to go to war turns out to have been wrong in retrospect, this view holds that it is because the intelligence was wrong or mispresented.

This is mistaken in two crucial but separate ways, and it is vital to understand both. The first error is the belief that decisions of war and peace are based on intelligence at all. To excerpt myself still one more time, because of the importance of this point:
Once again, I put the major point in bold letters all by itself:
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.
The second you start arguing about intelligence, you've given the game away once again. This is a game the government and the proponents of war will always win. By now, we all surely know that if they want the intelligence to show that Country X is a "grave" and "growing" threat, they will find it or manufacture it. So once you're debating what the intelligence shows or fails to show, the debate is over. The war will inevitably begin.


To repeat: the decision to go to war is one of policy, and the intelligence -- whatever it is alleged to show -- is irrelevant. Don't argue in terms of intelligence at all. If you do, you'll lose. The administration knows that; many of its opponents still haven't figured it out, even now.
Here is a brief excerpt from Gabriel Kolko's The Age of War: The United States Confronts the World, on the same issue -- and note how Kolko's argument parallels that offered by Bacevich:
But collective illusions have characterized the leaders of most nations since time immemorial. They have substituted their desires, ambitions, and interests for accurate estimates of what may occur from their actions. At best, intelligence organizations gather data of tactical rather than strategic utility. An infrastructure of ambitious people exists to reinforce the leaders' preconceptions, in part because they too are socialized to believe what often proves to be illusion. But bearers of bad tidings are, by and large, unwelcome and prevented from reaching the higher ranks of most political orders. It is extremely difficult for nations to behave rationally, which means accepting the limits of their power, and what is called intelligence has to confront the institutional biases and inhibitions of each social system. Thus deductive, symbolic reactions become much more likely, notwithstanding the immense risks of their being wrong. The US war in Iraq and the geopolitical folly of its larger strategy in the Persian Gulf is but one recent example of it.

It is all too rare that states overcome illusions, and the United States is no more an exception than Germany, Italy, England, or France before it. 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.
This is the second common error concerning intelligence, which is the failure to understand its actual uses. As Kolko discusses, intelligence in fact is utilized "to justify a nation's illusions" -- or, in Bacevich's terms, to protect and ensure the continuation of "the prevailing foreign policy consensus with its vast ambitions and penchant for armed intervention abroad."

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 it 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 go through this exercise still one additional time because, as Bacevich points out, "the ISG will make possible - even likely - a repetition of some disaster akin to Iraq at a future date." The most likely candidate for a near-term, even more catastrophic identical error is, of course, Iran. The terms in which virtually everyone discusses the possible threat that Iran might represent reveal that none of this framework has been altered to any significant degree. I regret to note that this judgment applies to far too many liberal and progressive bloggers, as well as to the foreign policy establishment.

That basic framework is entirely false. It led to the disastrous U.S. involvement in World War I, to the debacle of Vietnam, and to the catastrophe of Iraq. It has already led to almost a century of worldwide devastation -- and it threatens to lead to still another century of death and chaos reaching around the globe. If the framework is not rejected at its foundation, the scale of devastation and death may finally overwhelm our ability to grasp and comprehend it at all.

See the true nature of the lies, name them for what they are, and refuse to accept any of them. In this manner and only in this manner, at tragically long last, peace might finally have a genuine chance.

Because of the critical nature of these interconnected errors, let me offer these links to some previous essays on this specific topic:

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