Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, March 4, 2014
They Said It:
Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans — born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage — and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty. This much we pledge – and more . . .
To those peoples in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required — not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.
President John F., Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961.
MIRROR-IMAGING WITH A SHATTERED LOOKING GLASS.
Last week, you may recall, we argued that one of the critical problems facing the United States in the 21st century is the lack of creative thinking among its foreign policy elites. We stated that the ruling class – including the intelligence community – knows what it knows and knows very little else. And when an event transcends their narrow bounds of knowledge, these elites appear entirely lost, incapable of adequate and thoughtful response, regardless of the speed required, but especially if they need to move quickly.
This week, of course, we are witnessing the ramifications of this deficiency. The entire Western world, it seems, is in a panic over the Russian invasion of the Crimean province of Ukraine and the build-up of Russian military in what appears to be the run-up to greater action there. No one in Washington was prepared for Vladimir Putin to move as quickly as he did. Indeed, it seems that all of the West’s greatest foreign policy minds presumed that Russia would be cautious and contemplative about Ukraine’s future, largely because the West is cautious and contemplative about Ukraine’s future. And it’s hard to imagine rational people thinking otherwise. Over the weekend, Walter Russell Mead described this conventional wisdom as follows:
Through the rose tinted lenses of a media community deeply convinced that President Obama and his dovish team are the masters of foreign relations, nothing poor Putin did could possibly derail the stately progress of our genius president. There were, we were told, lots of reasons not to worry about Ukraine. War is too costly for Russia’s weak economy. Trade would suffer, the ruble would take a hit. The 2008 war with Georgia is a bad historical comparison, as Ukraine’s territory, population and military are much larger. Invasion would harm Russia’s international standing. Putin doesn’t want to spoil his upcoming G8 summit, or his good press from Sochi. Putin would rather let the new government in Kiev humiliate itself with incompetence than give it an enemy to rally against. Crimea’s Tartars and other anti-Russian ethnic minorities wouldn’t stand for it. Headlines like “Why Russia Won’t Invade Ukraine,” “No, Russia Will Not Intervene in Ukraine,” and “5 Reasons for Everyone to Calm Down About Crimea” weren’t hard to find in our most eminent publications.
We should note here that this is hardly the first time that our establishment class has completely and utterly misread the geopolitical situation and was thus caught off guard. As Sarah Palin is rather playfully noting these days, official Washington totally missed the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 and then brutally mocked her for suggesting that Ukraine could very well be next. More recently, of course, the ruling class’s intelligence community has blown its evaluations of al Qaeda, of the Muslim Brotherhood, of the Arab Spring, of the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad, of Iran’s nuclear program, etc. etc., ad infinitum.
Last week, the aforementioned Walter Russell Mead predicted, with frightening accuracy, how the Ukraine situation would play out. He noted that Ukraine is critically important to Russia and to Putin. He noted that Putin’s preference is to move boldly and strike quickly, thereby catching his adversaries off guard. He noted that control of at least Eastern Ukraine, including Crimea, was, in Putin’s calculus, better than nothing. And lastly, he noted that the revolution in Kiev suggested that the Russians were likely to make a bold move against Ukraine and to make it quickly, lest they end up with just that, nothing. In short, Mead saw it coming, while the professional intelligence analysts did not. And he’s just an interested academic who writes a few blog posts a week.
Which leaves us with a series of “whys.” Why did no one who gets paid by the taxpayers to do this sort of thing evaluate the situation half as well as did Mead? Why is it that our purported leaders are so incapable of understanding what is going on in the world and how it might affect the well-being of both the United States and its global markets? Why do our intelligence services not follow developments as well as random analysts working in the private sector?
Or, conversely, does the American ruling class have a different agenda altogether, one that merely looks like cluelessness to the uninitiated?
As it turns out, the best and easiest explanation for the current ineffectiveness of our ruling class has a great deal to do with its essential homogeneity and, perhaps more importantly, of their homogeneous and largely deficient advanced education. They are, after all, cut from the same cloth. They think the same, went to the same schools, had the same professors, and reflect the same groupthink.
The roots of their shared prejudices are deep. They extend back to the mid-1950s when two strands of elitist thought began to dominate American foreign policy circles. The first was what we might call “soft-Leftist.” This was the by-product of the Roosevelt administration and its affiliation with and domination by countless socialists of one variety or another. Many historians argue that the Roosevelt-Truman post-war globalist agenda was one dedicated specifically to halting the spread of Leftist doctrines through “containment.” This is true, but only to a point. In reality, the American Left was merely trying to contain the Soviet Left, in order that it’s kinder, gentler, more utopian version of Leftist thought could dominate the post-war world. Containment was designed to halt Communism, it’s true. But it was not designed to favor capitalism or free markets or anything else antithetical to Leftist thought. It was merely an Americanized version of the same Socialist/social welfare spirit that swept Europe in the wake of the war.
The other school of thought was one which might accurately be called “Hard-Leftist,” but which became known as “post-modern” – or “critical theory” or “post-colonialism,” to name just two of its countless additional names.
As we have discussed before in these pages and as scholars of post-modernist thought have explained, by the early 1950s, the evidence of Communism’s failures was mounting. The hard-Left had failed to bring about the economic benefits it had promised and had as well descended into mass murder and terrorism. These “truths” were largely undeniable in a conventional sense. And so the hard-Left proposed examining them in an unconventional sense, which is to say in epistemological fashion that denied the very existence of truth and argued that concepts such as truth and language were mere tools of oppression used by dominant (read: white, Western) powers to subjugate and oppress the non-Western world.
Between the two strands of thought, an uneasy intellectual consensus was forged, becoming the conventional wisdom in the wake of the Vietnam War. This consensus/conventional wisdom tended to see the United States and its Western progenitors as less than noble actors when acting on their own accord. The power of the Western world, and the United States in particular, was legitimate only when it was put to use facilitating interests other than American interests. Human rights, the “right to self-determination,” “freedom from want,” all became the watchwords and the clichés of the foreign policy establishment in the 1970s. America could be good, it was agreed, but only if it knew its place.
In his long essay written in 1986 on the work of Team B, from which we quoted extensively last week, the historian Richard Pipes explained that such conformity has long been the case in foreign relations; that it is indeed one of the key shortcomings of intelligence-community analysis. He argued that this was especially true with respect to the Washington consensus in the 1970s, particularly as it developed regarding the relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States. He wrote as follows:
Now he who speculates on the motives of others can proceed in one of two ways. He can ask himself: (1) given what I know of these people, what can be on their mind?; or (2) if I were in their shoes, why would I do what I observe them doing? Clearly, the first of these approaches is preferable. It is also the more difficult because it requires knowledge of alien cultures and psychologies, not to speak of an effort of the imagination. If we add to this difficulty the fact that the scientists and engineers entrusted with responsibility for preparing these estimates tend to belittle the influence of cultural factors on human behavior, it is hardly surprising that the U.S. intelligence community, in assessing Soviet strategic programs, has relied heavily on the second approach, popularly known as “mirror-imaging.” This practice attributes to others one’s own motives and intentions on the unspoken assumption that these alone are “normal” or “rational.” “Mirror-imaging” is the very antithesis of the scientific method which seeks to eliminate personal and subjective factors from the process of observation and analysis. Yet, paradoxically, it is precisely how scientists are likely to proceed once they leave the realm of the exact sciences.
A Nation’s intelligence community reflects the habits of thought of its educated elite from whose ranks it is recruited and on whom it depends for intellectual sustenance. The CIA is no exception. Its analytic staff, filled with American Ph.D.’s in the natural and social sciences along with engineers, inevitably shares the outlook of U.S. academe, with its penchant for philosophical positivism, cultural agnosticism, and political liberalism. The special knowledge which it derives from classified sources is mainly technical; the rest of its knowledge, as well as the intellectual equipment which it brings to bear on the evidence, comes from academia.
Some years later, our old friend Angelo Codevilla noted that this situation had not changed and was likely not to change in the immediate future. In the Spring, 1994 issue of The National Interest, he put it this way: “They came through the government’s front door from Hotchkiss, Harvard, and Yale, and enjoyed the best patronage government can give, under Republican and Democratic administrations alike.” He then he noted that “it would be easier for the proverbial camel to pass through the needle’s eye than for someone to enter the senior ranks at State, Defense, or NSC who favored a U.S. victory in Vietnam, who had cheered Ronald Reagan’s call in 1982 to cast communism on the scrap heap of history, or who had favored building an antimissile defense for the United States.”
Unfortunately for everyone, the problem appears to have grown even worse over the last several decades, as the children of the 1960s – the children of the great consensus – have gained increased power, while their traditional adversaries have been either relegated to the back benches or have disappeared entirely.
Think, for example of John Kerry. In the mid-1970s, when the Team B project was being put together, he was a noisy little schlemiel, a friend of Jane Fonda, a law student who ran around the country attacking his fellow soldiers and mispronouncing the names of famous warriors. Yes, he was part of the foreign policy debate, for sure. But he was a minimal part. All of which is to say that his and his ilk’s influence was not enough to overrule more senior people, like, for example, the Director of Central Intelligence George H.W. Bush, the man who ordered the Team B experiment.
Today, by contrast, the consensus-Left dominates virtually all of the major positions in the foreign policy apparatus. Indeed, John Kerry is now the Secretary of State, the nation’s chief diplomat, and, as such, the administration’s point man on foreign policy. His ideas matter. His experiences matter. His judgment matters. And that’s troubling.
Kerry was elected to the U. S. Senate as a candidate of the post-Vietnam conventional wisdom. He declared that “[The] biggest defense buildup since World War II has not given us a better defense. Americans feel more threatened by the prospect of war, not less so.” When it came to policy, Kerry aggressively and repeatedly did everything he could to thwart Reagan’s Soviet strategy and thus to undermine this country’s eventual Cold War victory, insisting that “the Reagan administration is repeating the mistakes we made in Vietnam.” He introduced a nuclear arms freeze bill. He advocated defense cuts. He described the Strategic Defense Initiative as a “cancer” on the country. In nearly every way, John Kerry represented the status quo/Washington insider consensus. And unfortunately, his leftist, conventional-wisdom-inspired policy foolishness was hardly limited to Soviet policy. As we noted last year, upon his confirmation as the Secretary of State, Kerry has been wrong about almost everything from Day One:
There is also the simple matter of Kerry’s positions on the major foreign policy debates of his lifetime. And on every one of those debates, he’s been wrong. And not just a little wrong, but flabbergastingly, idiotically wrong. From Vietnam to the decency of the American military; from Nicaragua to El Salvador to Grenada; from the Soviet threat to the need for American cruise missiles; from Gulf War I to Gulf War II; from the Iraqi surge to the Arab Spring: the guy has missed on them all, and missed widely. Not that he’ll admit that. Not that he even knows it. Kerry is a prickly, hypersensitive, supercilious half-wit who mistakenly believes that “breeding” and another man’s money make him qualified to look down his nose at almost everyone with whom he comes into contact.
What all of this means, then, according to this theory is that the groupthink cited by Richard Pipes and Codevilla as a problem in the 1970s has been compounded in more recent years by the snowballing influence and acceptance of post-modern, post-colonial, post-Western notions of foreign affairs, as well as by the collective stain of intellectual dishonestly made necessary by having to explain away the absolute failure of these ideas in the real world.
In short, our Ivy-League-educated ruling class has been increasingly mis-educated over the last four-plus decades, which means that they have almost nothing constructive to offer by way of forecasting or analysis. They are well schooled but poorly educated, highly credentialed automatons who are convinced that everyone in the world thinks exactly as they do, which is to say that they think everyone agrees that their interests are the only possible rational interests. Or as Walter Russell Mead put it in his essay over the weekend:
We blame this in part on the absence of true intellectual and ideological diversity in so much of the academy, the policy world and the mainstream media. Most college kids at good schools today know many more people from different races and cultural groups than their grandparents did, but they are much less exposed to people who think outside the left-liberal box. How many faithful New York Times readers have no idea what American conservatives think, much less how Russian oligarchs do? Well bred and well read Americans live in an ideological and cultural cocoon and this makes them fatally slow to understand the very different motivations that animate actors ranging from the Tea Party to the Kremlin to, dare we say it, the Supreme Leader and Guide of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Interestingly, in his follow up to this essay, Mead argues that Obama and the Washington ruling class are not necessarily behaving stupidly in the case of Putin’s invasion of Crimea. It’s just that they are a little confused about the divergence between the means and ends. Mead gives Obama et al. the benefit of the doubt and argues that they are merely trying to construct a Wilsonian-Jeffersonian fusion that allows for the promotion of democracy (the ends) but does so with a minimum of foreign adventurism (the means). Specifically, he writes:
Ukraine is a particularly tough problem for President Obama because it points to one of the weak spots in the Wilsonian-Jeffersonian foreign policy synthesis he seeks to build. As a Wilsonian, Obama wants to change the world. He wants international relations to be built on the foundation of international law. He wants nuclear weapons first controlled, then reduced and finally abolished. He wants human rights to be observed around the world. But as a Jeffersonian, he believes, deeply, that excessive American commitments and activism beyond our frontiers endanger both the peace of the world and our freedoms at home. He wants to cut back, he wants to avoid war, and he wants America to meddle less and pay less.
He wants, in other words, to pay less into the international system, and take more out.
There is nothing wrong with this as a goal. It is a perfectly rational thing to desire. But the pursuit of it can lead to some strange places, and President Obama is in one of them today.
This is, we think, an exceptionally generous interpretation of Washington’s behavior over the last five years and specifically in the case of Ukraine. What we think Mead overlooks, or at least discounts, is the fact that Obama and his coterie don’t want really want to “change the world,” in a Wilsonian fashion. They want the world to change itself, without Americans pulling the strings. In turn, this means that the desire to keep America out of the business of democracy-building is not a Jeffersonian impulse, but a post-modern one, a desire to allow indigenous movements to reach the proper end point with being corrupted by American neo-imperialism.
What’s interesting about all of this is that it strikes us that the Left seems to have won its battle to disassociate the United States from the woes of the world but doesn’t yet know it. By convincing the likes of Walter Russell Mead that his retreat from the world is purely Jeffersonian and thus nobly inspired, Obama has made the moral case, at least in the short term, for that retreat. That this retreat runs in the face of leftist hero Jack Kennedy’s pledge to “break the bonds of mass misery” and of Roosevelt’s and Truman’s determination to spread America’s brand of Leftist ideology across the globe appears largely inconsequential. Obama has essentially abandoned the post-war consensus and replaced it with the post-modern consensus, thereby shifting Washington status quo indefinitely.
The irony here is that while Leftists may not yet realize that they have won, the rest of the world does. Obama may not have intended to convince the world that it cannot and should not rely on American friendship and support, but that is precisely what he has done. The American retreat from the global stage may not yet be complete, but it is far enough along that “those peoples in the huts and villages across the globe” appear to have received the message. And, like it or not, this changes the way the world works.
Fortunately for the near term, Ukraine is perhaps the least important foreign policy “crisis” we could imagine. As countless others have noted, it is a “country” in name only; an economic basket case with both per capita annual income and foreign debt comparable to Egypt’s. Which means that whatever side “wins” the right to Ukraine will also win the obligation to dump billions of dollars in aid and loan guarantees down a bottomless pit.
Given this, there can be little doubt that the Obama administration’s tough talk will end up being precisely that, talk. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find anyone outside of John McCain’s or Lindsey Graham’s offices who thinks that the United States should or will lift even a finger to keep Putin from taking Crimea or the entire Ukraine if he wants it. The American retreat is now established fact across the globe. And over the weekend, Buzzfeed ran a fascinating story, datelined Kiev, which put in stark relief precisely why this is the case. Mike Giglio, a Buzzfeed reporter, noted the following:
Some Syrians have a simple message for Ukrainians waiting for a response from the U.S. and the West as the crisis in Crimea unfolds: Don’t get your hopes up.
The Syrian uprising grinds into its third year this month, and many in the opposition see a long string of broken promises from an international community that voiced support for their fight to overthrow their Russia-backed president, Bashar al-Assad.
With Russia now sending its forces to the Ukrainian region of Crimea, and with worries that it might invade the mainland, western leaders have been swift with recriminations. President Barack Obama warned Russia on Friday that there would be “costs” for its aggression.
But Syrian rebels and activists reiterated one piece of advice for the Ukrainians whose protest movement toppled the country’s president, a Russian ally, last week. “Make sure that you achieve whatever you’re aiming for with your own hands,” Abdullah Ismail, a rebel coordinator based on the Turkish border, told BuzzFeed. “That’s the only way to avoid relying on promises.”
The bottom line on this is that the world is about to become a less pleasant and more complicated place. More than that, it is about to become a far less free and far less successful place as well. The Western elites believe that their retreat from global leadership is, in part, a byproduct of the fact that Western leadership is nasty, racist, oppressive, and cruel. And while some domestic observers may give the retreat a more noble coat of polish, the Ukrainians – or the Syrians, or the Iraqis, or . . . well . . . whoever – will have little choice but to concur with the more jaded and honest assessment.
Two weeks ago, the Obama administration – in the person of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel – announced that it intends to cut the armed services of the country to pre-World War II levels. Obama intends not only to have the United States retreat from the world, but to ensure that his successors are trapped by the retreat, even in the unlikely event that they have other thoughts about the wisdom and morality of American nation-building. The members of the American ruling class talk and talk and talk about the need for “nation-building at home” and the need for indigenous movements to find their own way to liberal democracy. And yet they feign surprise, when the world takes them at their word.
One of two things is, we think, taking place here. Either the ruling class really is clueless, or it actually quite clever and is simulating cluelessness for domestic consumption. We suspect it’s the latter, but we certainly can’t say for sure.
As it turns out, the contemporary version of Richard Pipes’ mirror-imaging, conventional-wisdom-crafting ruling class is hobbled not just by an inability to see beyond the end of its own nose, but by one of two the equally debilitating and aggravating factors as well. Either it doesn’t really take itself seriously and then is shocked when the “global community” follows suit. Or it doesn’t want to be taken seriously, given its concerns about American power. In either case, this is a significant shift, the opening of a brave new world.
In conclusion, we have one final thought.
What all of this means is that the contemporary version of the ruling class is either completely dissociated from reality or it is fantastically and convincingly dishonest.
Over the weekend, Bloomberg News published an interview that reporter Jeffrey Goldberg did with President Obama. The President’s view of himself and of the world, as recounted by Goldberg, are almost beyond belief. To wit:
During the interview, which took place a day before the Russian military incursion into Ukraine, Obama argued that American adversaries, such as Iran, Syria and Russia itself, still believe that he is capable of using force to advance American interests, despite his reluctance to strike Syria last year after President Bashar al-Assad crossed Obama’s chemical-weapons red line.
“We’ve now seen 15 to 20 percent of those chemical weapons on their way out of Syria with a very concrete schedule to get rid of the rest,” Obama told me. “That would not have happened had the Iranians said, ‘Obama’s bluffing, he’s not actually really willing to take a strike.’ If the Russians had said, ‘Ehh, don’t worry about it, all those submarines that are floating around your coastline, that’s all just for show.’ Of course they took it seriously! That’s why they engaged in the policy they did.”
I returned to this particularly sensitive subject. “Just to be clear,” I asked, “You don’t believe the Iranian leadership now thinks that your ‘all options are on the table’ threat as it relates to their nuclear program — you don’t think that they have stopped taking that seriously?”
Obama answered: “I know they take it seriously.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is nuts. Either that or it’s incredibly and daringly mendacious. If the problem with the ruling class in the 1970s was that they spent too much time and effort “mirror-imaging,” at least they had an intact mirror. Barack Obama’s, by contrast, is cracked. Whether he knows that it’s cracked or indeed cracked himself, we can’t say. But in either case, the distorted reflection will dominate the facts on the ground going forward.
Unlike most of the conservatives who have chimed in on the great Ukraine debacle over the last week, we don’t think that Putin’s invasion of Crimea is the result of Barack Obama exhibiting weakness. That’s just too simple an explanation and one that is largely at odds with the facts. A somewhat better one can be found in, of all places, The New York Times, which reported the other day that “Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany told Mr. Obama by telephone on Sunday that after speaking with Mr. Putin she was not sure he was in touch with reality, people briefed on the call said. ‘In another world,’ she said.”
Unfortunately, Putin is not the only one “in another world.” Barack Obama likely is too, only where he is concerned, it is not a case of individual lunacy, but a more general mass psychosis, the madness of the foreign-policy crowd, you might say.