The Years of Living Stupidly

“Who can kill a general in his bed? Overthrow dictators if they’re Red? …CIA man…Who can train guerillas by the dozens? Send them out to kill their untrained cousins?…CIA man…Who can get a budget that’s so great? Who will be the 51st State?…CIA man…Who can mine the harbors Nicaragua? Out hit all the hitmen of Chicag-ua?… CIA man.” – C.I.A. Man, The Fugs.

Sixty Years of Living Stupidly

The New Year has brought what seems like old news. On January 2nd, The New York Times revealed: “Al Qaeda Threatens Falluja and Ramadi, Major Battlegrounds During Iraq War.” That’s right, The New York Times, not The Onion (see: here). To understand this development, we could turn to the Syrian civil war and its spilling over into Iraq. Yet, we might do better to also consult one of the most important articles written by the Times on Iraq, published more than seven years ago by Mark Mazzetti: “Spy Agencies Say Iraq War Worsens Terrorism Threat,” dated September 24, 2006 (see: here). The whole enterprise of the Iraq War simply aggravated the problem of terrorism.

What is going on here? One place to begin is in the 1950s, during the Eisenhower Administration. This government helped to topple democratic regimes in Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954). These successful coups set the stage for authoritarian regimes and instability. This sequence revealed a failure by military bureaucrats to understand the potential costs created by overthrowing an incumbent state. The Kennedy Administration, inherited the Eisenhower Administration’s Bay of Pigs plot to overthrow Castro, leading to a fiasco for U.S. war planners in April 1961. Cuba was supposed to be another toppled domino, like Iran and Guatemala. Instead, Castro and the Cuban military wiped out the forces behind the U.S.-backed coup attempt. This fiasco was followed by the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, a global tragedy in which the Soviet Union and the United States almost led the planet into doomsday.

From Kennedy’s side, the Crisis helped the President to consider some of the limits of a militarized foreign policy and the advantages of general and complete disarmament. This policy stream found its way into Kennedy’s American University address, which was in turn was followed by Kennedy’s assassination and the further escalation of militarism by Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon in the Vietnam (and larger Indochina) War. Yes, Kennedy aided intervention in Vietnam, although some debate his commitments the more important story is that Kennedy stated: “Our primary long range interest in Geneva, however, is general and complete disarmament, designed to take place by stages, permitting parallel political developments to build the new institutions of peace which would take the place of arms.”

In contrast, the main lesson war planners seemed to learn from the Crisis was a naïve belief that the exercise of raw military power could promote security, this despite the near miss of a nuclear war. In The Demilitarized Society, Seymour Melman wrote: “The Cuban Missile Crisis has been used as a model event by American ideologues and arms race planners to teach ‘crisis management’ and to justify escalating military budgets and reliance on arms as a primary instrument of international policy.” Of the Vietnam War, Richard Barnet wrote that the Pentagon Papers revealed that “the bureaucratic model had completely displaced reality: the hard and stubborn facts, which so many intelligence analysts were paid so much to collect, were ignored.” So, the folly behind the war in Iraq, facts denied for myths, has a long history.

The hubris and stupidity continued immediately after Johnson, Nixon and the Vietnam War. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan helped trigger regime change in Afghanistan by opposing the Soviet occupation and its war with Afghanistan (1979-1989). The dangerous world used to legitimize the military system, was partially made by that very system. In Peter L. Bergen’s book, Holy War Inc., the U.S. policy failures are described at length. He notes the observations of Brigadier Mohammad Yousaf, who ran the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence’s operations in Afghanistan during part of the 1980s:

“The CIA supported the mujahideen by spending the taxpayer’s money, billions of dollars of it over the years, on buying arms, ammunition, and equipment,” but “no Americans ever trained or had direct contact with the mujahideen.” Bergen explains that the Pakistanis “funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to anti-Western Afghan factions, which in turn trained militants who later exported jihad and terrorism around the world—including the United States.” John H. Cooley, in his book, Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism, explains how part of the Afghan policy built on the infrastructures of the Vietnam War: “Chosen Green Beret officers, many of them seasoned veterans of Vietnam, took draconian secrecy oaths and then began the secret training assignments for the Afghanistan War.” This too took place during the Carter Administration.

Under Presidents Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton, there were no major wars involving U.S. troops. Neither did much to undo the permanent war economy, however. Neither created meaningful policies to end a cycle of violence and associated fundamentalism, poverty and occupations that have globally incubated terrorists. The first President Bush appeared to demonstrate the viability of applying U.S. military power, so that Desert Storm in 1990-1991 (like the Cuban Missile Crisis) was used to legitimate military power projection and war budgets. Yet, Bush I failed to understand that his military and energy policies centered on big military and oil firms were a vast diversion from pressing economic problems at home—much less future security challenges.

By the 2003 Iraq War, George W. Bush oversaw a military apparatus that failed to protect its own headquarters or the country’s largest city. This obvious failure should have indicated that the military emperor had no clothes (see: here). Instead, this truth was passed over and the 9-11 tragedy was used to legitimate fools’ missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Bush II administration’s attack on Afghanistan was legitimated by pointing to the Taliban’s hosting of Osama Bin Laden and his terror network. Yet, the U.S. military failed to capture Bin Laden when they had the chance at Tora Bora (see: here). Thus, a war designed to eliminate Al Qaeda instead was part of a multi-billion dollar escapade that will end with negotiations with the Taliban at best or a dissolution of the present government, with neither scenario in itself leading to the end of Al Qaeda. In any event, much of the key training the 9-11 plotters received came from U.S. flight instructors in Florida, not Afghanistan. Florida was the state where poor state regulatory oversight (of elections) helped elect Bush in the first place.

In Iraq, top U.S. military planners sought to dissolve the Iraqi state, creating conditions that created a space for terrorists. Larry Diamond, in Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq, explains that Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III was partially responsible for the failures on the occupation: “Soon after he arrived, Bremer imposed three fateful decisions that collectively put the United States down a treacherous path: dissolving the Iraqi Army, purging from public office tens of thousands of Iraqis (including schoolteachers) with a level 4 or higher membership in the Baath Party, and converting the U.S. presence into a formal occupation, with no clear timetable for transferring sovereignty back to Iraqis.” In contrast, “high-ranking U.S. Army officers opposed the dissolving the Iraqi Army, correctly anticipating that it would leave a security vacuum, humiliate a strategic, well-armed segment of society, and thereby stimulate a violent backlash.”

By Syria, the Obama Administration, through a combination of Russian diplomacy, T-Party and liberal-left opposition and the President’s relative skepticism, was able to avoid a full blown disaster associated with a U.S. bombing campaign. Obama turned to diplomacy to thwart pressure to directly engage the U.S. military machine after the discovery of a chemical warfare attack blamed on the Syrian government. Yet, Seymour Hersh shows this attack was not plausibly linked to the Syrian government, despite Administration claims (see: here). Here again is further evidence that foreign policy crises based on counterfeit threats are a staple of the foreign policy bureaucracy. The Obama Administration has provided aid to insurgents trying to oppose the incumbent Syrian regime, despite the risks of empowering Al Qaeda forces opposing the Bashar Al-Assad regime. A military aid suspension can’t reverse the mess which other U.S. “allies” have made by trying to topple the incumbent government with terror-linked thugs.

Beyond the Limits of Knowledge

Why haven’t U.S. leaders learned their lesson? Why have they helped create a series of failed, terror-ridden states in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria? Can academic theories of international relations help us at all to disentangle this mess? One might turn first to realist theories which suggest the need to limit military projection to real as opposed to imagined threats. You could complement this with some related understanding of how stable states can more easily mitigate terrorism than instable ones.

The problem with this formulation, however, is twofold.

First, a state like Saddam Hussein’s while relatively stable was based on ruthless repression. This triggered resentment and fueled conflicts and mass killings. Nevertheless, the violence and probability of death dramatically increased after the end of his regime. Moreover, Hussein’s regime received extensive support from the U.S. government during the Reagan and Bush I Administrations.

Second, U.S. war planners are generating imagined threats and powerful economic, political, media and academic interests have their career and power tied to military crises and unjustified power projection. These groups exploit bankrupt security paradigms that rarely work in an era of decentralized terror networks, asymmetric warfare, and popularly-backed insurgencies. Many threats are not simply “socially constructed,” as academic social constructionists like to believe. They are also tied to real material interests in foreign policy bureaucracies, universities, defense firms, think tanks and the like which live or die by mythologies that have nothing to do with security and everything to do with a cycle of violence that maintains insecurities.

Two other approaches are more fruitful. The first is the thesis that military power is limited. It cannot always be used to achieve objectives which planners claim they can achieve. Theorists like Seymour Melman, Gabriel Kolko and—more recently—Andrew J. Bacevich, Jr. have acknowledged that military power cannot always be successfully applied. Melman noted that its use can create political and economic costs as well that hinder the ability to solve both security and other social problems, e.g. the need to address inequitable economic under development. Resources are needed to legitimate and stabilize societies by promoting their self-reliance through aid that supports indigenous economic development. Diplomacy can promote power sharing in contrast to military aid that often supports one faction at the expense of another. U.S. support for the Shiite and Kurdish factions in Iraq has led to a backlash from marginalized Sunni faction.

Another theory is simply that foreign policy is run by stupid persons or persons acting stupidly. One rarely finds this theory applied within academia, but the idea appears randomly in journalistic accounts and statements by exceptional politicians. For example, Lt Col David Kilcullen, an Australian who advises the US Secretary of State, described the Iraq war as stupid (see: here).

Barack Obama when he was about to announce his candidacy for the U.S. Senate called the Iraq War “dumb” in October 2002. It’s true that academics have invented a relatively new idea called “smart power.” But smart power is partially dumb, maintaining an unquestioned faith in hard power, even if backed by soft power (diplomacy, foreign aid, non-military power). Smart power is stupid when it comes to appreciating the logic of disarmament, the historic problems associated with U.S. power projection or even the existence of a military industrial complex (the domestic origins of militarism).

More formally, we can say that knowledgeable critics of wars have lacked power, and those persons with the most power in the foreign policy bureaucracy often lack relevant knowledge. This divide is sustained by militarist careerists who are usually rewarded for promoting militarized foreign policy and not peaceful solutions (as Richard Barnet discussed in the book, Roots of War). The divide is part of an academic discussion related to the crisis of intellectuals and the division of labor.

Edward Said once wrote: “There is no question in my mind that the intellectual belongs on the same side with the weak and unrepresented.” In contrast, in her classic essay “Lying in Politics,” Hannah Arendt noted how politicians regularly lie: “Truthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues, and lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings. Whoever reflects on these matters can only be surprised by how little attention has been paid, in our tradition of philosophical and political thought to their significance, on the one hand for the nature of action and, on the other, for the nature of our ability to deny in thought and word whatever happens to be the case.”

Nevertheless, the truth teller can be a marginal, if not maligned figure. The greatest legitimacy is usually bestowed upon individuals who appear “rational,” “sober,” and “pragmatic.” The problem is foreign policy elites are often irrational, drunk with power, and as far from any pragmatic solution as one could imagine. In December of last year, Daniel L. Bryman gave a detailed analysis of “The Resurgence of al Qaeda in Iraq,” before the House of Representatives (see: here). Unfortunately, his narrative fails to account for the decades-long trajectory of mismanagement, disinformation and self-delusion that has mired the foreign policy establishment. Bryman largely believes in the myth of military power and counter-insurgency which has failed the U.S.

In contrast, one might do better to consult a classic counter-culture melody, “CIA Man,” by the Fugs which mockingly relates a government military that lacks any values, except mafia-like hubris and guilt free assassination (see: here). Ironically, spy agencies and the CIA have at times challenged the most stupid notions of the military planners (describing the terrorism impact of the Iraqi war and challenging Israeli government assessments of Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities). Nevertheless, various presidents from Bush to Obama have tried to limit the counter-narratives by elevating militarist types as CIA heads and gutting critics.

A workable solution to the perpetual foreign policy crisis requires a new economy and civil society institutions that provide a political fund to promote demilitarized politicians, supported by an alternative ethos of diplomacy, foreign aid, and non-militarized soft power. Social movements might explore how universities contribute to the cycle of violence by marginalizing discourses related to disarmament, alternative security and an ecologically-rooted conversion of big oil, auto and defense firms. Otherwise, expect another several years of
dismal headlines in newspapers chronicling blow back, terror states, and meaningless violence.

Jonathan Michael Feldman is part of the Global Teach-In network and can be reached @globalteachin on Twitter. 

Jonathan M. Feldman is a founder of the Global Teach-In ( and can be reached at @globalteachin on Twitter.