The United States is attacking Libya based on vague hopes that peace will triumph after the NATO bombing ceases. There are plenty of reasons to doubt whether a few hundred cruise missiles will beget harmony in the Libyan desert. But one of the biggest mistakes would be to assume that U.S. government policymakers understand what they are doing.
The American media have already uncorked “surprises,” such as the facts that the Libyan opposition is a ragtag mob, not an army, and that Qaddafi’s opponents include organizations formally labeled as terrorists by the U.S. government. But this is only the tip of iceberg of official idiocy.
The latest follies are part of a long bipartisan tradition. In the decades since John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, foreign-policy makers have become Washington’s leading con men. Even though Whiz Kids and Dream Teams have dragged America into one debacle after another, the media and politicians still defer to the latest batch of “Best and Brightest” professors and appointees.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq was based on little more than a few phrases backed up by almost boundless ignorance. Paul Bremer, the chief of Iraq’s Coalition Provisional Authority, admitted in his memoirs “that he didn’t know anything about Iraq when stepping down from Kissinger Associates to become America’s proconsul,” Georgetown University professor Derek Leebaert observed in his new book, Magic and Mayhem. Adam Garfinkle, who worked as a speechwriter for both Secretary of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, said in 2007, “No one in a senior position in this administration seems to have the vaguest notion of modern Middle Eastern history.”
The Pentagon’s recent record is not much better. The U.S. military floundered in Iraq and Afghanistan because, as Leebaert notes, “the army not only forgot everything it had been bloodily taught about counterinsurgency in Vietnam, but in Vietnam, it had forgotten everything it had learned about counterinsurgency in Korea as well.”
Cluelessness is a constant in U.S. foreign-policy making. In 1967, the Pentagon ordered top experts to analyze where the Vietnam War had gone wrong. The resulting study consisted of 47 volumes of material exposing the intellectual and political follies that had, at that point, already left tens of thousands of Americans dead. After the study was finished, it was distributed to the key Johnson administration players and federal agencies, by whom it was completely ignored, if not forgotten. New York Times editor Tom Wicker commented that “the people who read these documents in the Times [in 1971] were the first to study them.” Daniel Ellsberg, who wrote a portion of the papers and leaked them to the Times, noted that the papers reveal “a general failure to study history or to analyze or even to record operational experience, especially mistakes. Above all, effective pressures for optimistically false reporting at every level, for describing ‘progress’ rather than problems or failure, concealed the very need for change in approach or for learning.”
U.S. foreign-policy makers perennially talk as if the world is a clean sheet that they can mark up as they please. Shortly before Obama’s televised speech on March 28 on Libya, Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough told reporters, “We don’t get very hung up on this question of precedent. We don’t make decisions about questions like intervention based on consistency or precedent.” Rather than being a high-minded resolve, that attitude practically guarantees that the U.S. government will repeat the same mistakes in perpetuity.
Foreign policy has been a long series of blunders, in part because the American media tolerate deceits by high-ranking government officials. “Presidents have lied so much to us about foreign policy that they’ve established almost a common-law right to do so,” George Washington University history professor Leo Ribuffo observed in 1998. From John F. Kennedy’s lying about the Bay of Pigs debacle in Cuba; to Lyndon Johnson’s lying about the Gulf of Tonkin resolution; to Richard Nixon’s lying about the secret bombing of Cambodia; to Jimmy Carter’s lying about the shah of Iran’s being a progressive, enlightened ruler; to Ronald Reagan’s lying about terrorism and Iran-Contra; to George H.W. Bush’s lying about the justifications for the first Gulf War, entire generations have come of age since the ancient time when a president’s power was constrained by a duty of candor to the public.
WikiLeaks has revealed that U.S. foreign policy is far more deceptive than the Beltway portrays it. From Hillary Clinton’s machinations to heist the credit card numbers of foreign diplomats, to the U.S. government’s prodding Ethiopia to invade Somalia, to the covert supply of arms to the Yemen government, charades have come fast and furious. Much of the American political establishment has reacted as if WikiLeaks violated government’s divine right to delude the governed.
Governments routinely bury information that undermines their power grabs and war is the biggest power grab of them all. We cannot expect the Obama administration to be more prudent on Libya than the Bush administration was on Iraq, or the Clinton administration was on Kosovo, or the Kennedy-Johnson-Nixon administrations were on Vietnam. Americans cannot afford to assume that this war is smarter than it seems.