Hubris takes them all down: This is why every president makes the same dumb mistakes

We fight on both sides of wars. We think we can identify good terrorists and moderate rebels. We are always wrong

By Mike Lofgren
January 10, 2016 3:59PM (UTC)
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(AP/Charles Dharapak/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

From DEEP STATE: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government

ISIS: Iraq War 3.0

The national security sector of the Deep State achieved a zenith of incoherence in June 2014, during the advance toward Baghdad of the insurgent group ISIS. Having already committed advisers and drones to shore up the corrupt and incompetent Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki, the Obama administration announced on June 26, 2014, that it was asking Congress to appropriate half a billion dollars to arm and train rebels fighting Syrian dictator Bashir al Assad.


The request meant that the United States government would be giving lethal support to Syrian rebels, the most effective military element of which was ISIS—a group we were bombing just across the border in Iraq. Put bluntly, the operatives of the Deep State committed the American people to supporting both sides of a transnational Sunni-Shi’a religious war. Accompanying the request were the predictable useless assurances that we would be able to distinguish between armed factions in a sectarian conflict whose origins most of the so-called national security experts in Washington patently do not understand.

Obama, like his predecessors, had fallen prey to the hubristic theory— disproven in venues as widely separated as the mountains of Afghanistan and the jungles of Central America—that he and his advisers possessed the intelligence and the moral sensitivity to select between “good” and “bad” terrorists. Thus, having already been burned by a near-intervention in Syria the year before, Obama was ready to place his hand on the red-hot stove once more. He hinted to the press that he was taking the step reluctantly, which raised the larger question of whether Obama was really in charge of the national security functions he nominally commanded, or whether he was a mere chairman of the board who ratified the prevailing consensus. To crown this masterpiece of confused thinking, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council released a statement full of Orwellian doublethink, which justified sending a huge quantity of arms into a war zone while insisting that “we continue to believe there is no military solution to this crisis. . . .”

In the following months Obama pulled back slightly from his position, emphasizing the difficulty of distinguishing nascent democrats from jihadists among the Syrian rebels—a fair point, because it happened to be true. Such is the Alice in Wonderland nature of Washington, though, that Obama was attacked by Republicans, op-ed columnists, and his own former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, for not being sufficiently hawkish either in Syria or Iraq. The mainstream media, as usual, failed to note that ISIS, however horrible its rampages, was an outgrowth of al-Qaeda in Iraq—a group that itself had arisen as a direct consequence of the U.S. occupation of Iraq a decade earlier. The media, therefore, gave strategic cover to the whole crowd of American know-nothings, from John McCain and Dick Cheney to Hillary Clinton, to revive their habitual war advocacy as if the previous decade’s events had not discredited them. Sounding a shrill note of unmanly hysteria, Lindsey Graham even insisted we act militarily “before we all get killed here at home.”


Obama soon shifted positions once again, committing the country to a prolonged air campaign in Iraq and Syria. He cobbled together a coalition of convenience which included dubious regimes like Saudi Arabia that had funded and encouraged ISIS in the first place. The rote and reactive nature of the national security establishment’s response to events in the Middle East calls to mind the words of journalist Edward Peter Garrett, written more than sixty years ago: “We are no longer able to choose between peace and war. We have embraced perpetual war. We are no longer able to choose the time, the circumstances or the battlefield.”

Every Problem Looks Like a Nail

Why do people in high positions behave in such a manner? For years, journalist Carlotta Gall investigated the Pakistani government’s covert role in manipulating terrorist groups within Pakistan and across the border in Afghanistan for her book The Wrong Enemy. She says that Pakistan’s military and intelligence services have been at this shadowy and duplicitous activity for decades. Even though attempting to stage-manage such dangerous groups as the Taliban has brought ordinary Pakistanis nothing but grief, Pakistan’s security services persist in the effort because it is basically all they know how to do—to a man who has only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. And since Pakistan’s senior military officers and intelligence officials personally benefit from these activities with increased power, money, and influence, they have every reason to continue, even if doing so wrecks the society they lead. Because of this kind of pervasive dysfunction, the Fund for Peace consistently ranks Pakistan very high in its Failed States Index.*


Our national security elites seem little different from the Pakistani military: it is only that our vastly bigger tax and resource base means the mischief can go on longer before a day of reckoning arrives. They are slowly sawing off the limb on which they sit and refuse to change their behavior. Psychologists call stubborn and irrational persistence in repeating an act or behavior “perseveration,” defined as the attempt to overcome past failures by trying again at the same task. Our elites have become as accomplished at this in domestic as in foreign policy: despite thirty years of empirical evidence that tax cuts neither pay for themselves nor have any measurable effect on economic growth, large numbers of our political leaders keep on proposing the same policy and hoping for a different result.

Possibly the most discouraging result of this syndrome, however, is in foreign policy, as the irrational panic over ISIS has made painfully clear. More than a decade of war in the Middle East had discredited the authors of the Iraq invasion, disillusioned the public, and made further foreign adventurism thoroughly unpopular. The American people and their representatives in Congress were growing increasingly suspicious of the post-9/11 surveillance regime. Yet all that was required was for a terrorist group to bait us deliberately, just as Osama bin Laden had baited us years before, into reacting militarily as a tactic to aid their own jihadist recruiting. It is probable that Iraq and Syria will consume the rest of Barack Obama’s presidency, consign his cherished domestic agenda to the back burner, and create a long-term burden that Obama will hand down to his successor.


The Deep State Has Unleashed Irrational Cultural Forces

Another problem the Deep State faces, although it is not yet an imminent threat, is the contradiction between the means of its survival and the cultural forces it has either unleashed or played a part in amplifying. At bottom, the military-industrial complex, Silicon Valley, and Wall Street are what Max Weber would have described as components of the process of modernization and rationalization of life: systematizing, quantifying, and bureaucratizing the spheres that they control. They are all dependent on the progress of science and technology, whether for the next generation of smart weapon, the virtual-reality glasses that Silicon Valley needs to obtain even more commercial data from the consumer, or the next financial algorithm (and the computers that can use it) in order to extract rents from a stream of investment capital. They are all creatures of science and technology, as well as the scientific method of rational inquiry that underlies them.

The cultural forces that help politically sustain both the militaristic and the corporate functions of the Deep State, however, are growing more irrational and antiscience. A military tradition that glories in force and appeals to self-sacrifice is the polar opposite of the Enlightenment heritage of rationality, the search for peace, and a belief in the common destiny of mankind. The warrior-leader, like the witch doctor, ultimately appeals to irrational emotionalism; and the cultural psychology that produces the bravest and most loyal warriors is a mind-set that is usually hostile to the sort of free inquiry on which scientific progress depends. This dynamic is observable in Afghanistan: no outside power has been able to conquer and pacify that society for millennia because of the tenacity of its warrior spirit; yet the country has one of the highest illiteracy rates on earth and is barely out of the Bronze Age in social development.


A similar paradox is observable in the relations between the business elites and the political movements they have funded. Rich corporations and their executives have spent decades egging on the foot soldiers of the conservative coalition to get the electoral results they desire: low marginal income tax rates on the wealthy, even lower tax rates on capital, and antiregulatory and antilabor governance. Along with the laissez-faire economic agenda that the oligarchy wants, however, the contemporary conservative coalition has brought a cultural agenda the CEOs may sniff at as retrograde and silly, and that incidentally has the potential to undermine the rationalist foundations of the society they command.

Will Anti-Intellectualism Undermine the Deep State?

The Deep State’s own cynical political calculations have stirred up and sustained political movements that reflexively oppose, on ideological principle, the modern findings of many fields of science, such as evolutionary biology, geology, and climate science. Just as Islamic fundamentalist fanatics in Pakistan and Nigeria oppose polio vaccinations, a 2012 GOP presidential primary candidate, Michele Bachmann, attacked an opponent, Governor Rick Perry, for mandating that some of his state’s public school pupils receive vaccinations against human papillomavirus. Conspiracy theorizing about vaccines has recently become a favorite topic of America’s influential kooks from the mansions of Beverly Hills to the halls of Congress.


It is also unlikely that any other country in the developed world would have a sufficient base of anti-science sentiment to support institutions like the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, which depicts human beings and dinosaurs coexisting in time, or the well-funded Discovery Institute in Seattle, Washington, which exists solely to advocate the pseudoscience of “intelligent design.” The Creation Museum recently put on display dinosaur remains which, it claims, prove that Noah’s flood occurred 4,500 years ago and that dinosaurs lived till then. Radiometric dating, according to sources like the National Park Service and Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History, puts the age of the remains at about 145 million to 155 million years. The Creation Museum is run by Ken Ham, who is also the president and founder of the organization Answers in Genesis.

It would also appear that Ham is the inventor of a whole new form of mental illness: on the forty-fifth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, Ham wrote that NASA should abandon space exploration—first, because it is a conscious rebuke to God, and second, because if NASA somehow found extraterrestrial life, it wouldn’t matter anyway because those creatures are going to hell. Efforts like these to undermine science, whether they are the outcome of some obscure psychological trauma, or whether they stem from con artistry that preys on the gullible and uneducated, have not been without consequence. A study by the journal Science polled on public attitudes about evolution in the United States, thirty-two European countries, Turkey, and Japan; the only country where acceptance of evolution was lower than in the United States was Islamic Turkey.

The United States now has the most prestigious institutions of scientific higher learning in the world. It also produces the greatest number of Nobel prize winners in science of any country. Both conditions have obtained ever since Germany, which had a comfortable lead in scientific research during the first three decades of the twentieth century, succumbed to political irrationalism and started condemning relativistic physics as Jewish science. As a result, scientists emigrated and Germany lost its position on the cutting edge of research.

This degeneration has occurred in historical civilizations as well. During its golden age from the eighth to the thirteenth centuries, the Islamic world was the world leader in science, mathematics, medicine, and philosophy, and far outstripped contemporary Europe in these fields. But by the thirteenth century, the Islamic world was already beginning to run out of intellectual energy. There was no single cause for this stagnation and decline, but antirationalist movements began to challenge scientific cosmopolitanism. The Islamic world became more and more opposed to scholarship and scientific inquiry that did not directly aid in the religious ordering of life. During the succeeding centuries, according to the noted Islamic history scholar Bernard Lewis, “The Renaissance, the Reformation, even the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, passed unnoticed in the Muslim world.”


Recent outbursts of know-nothingism on the American Right are not confined to marginal issues in the conservative movement—they affect basic matters of national security. The largest single constituency of the Republican coalition is made up of self-identified evangelical Christians, a large percentage of whom believe in the rapture, a doctrine invented during the last two centuries by religious fundamentalists. This dogma holds that true Christians will be wafted into heaven when a cataclysmic battle in the Holy Land occurs, heralding Christ’s return to earth. Proponents of this belief magnify the worst instincts of Republican policy makers, whose naturally aggressive military plans for the Middle East receive additional encouragement from a significant portion of their political base, which believes war in that region will trigger the fulfillment of a (fictitious) biblical prophecy. In a sense, the apocalypse is the right-wing fundamentalist’s equivalent of the Muslim extremist’s caliphate: a rule of the righteous, preceded by rivers of blood.

Fundamentalist preachers such as John Hagee of Texas, who claims almost two million followers, advocate the most extreme hard line in the Middle East; Hagee has called for a preemptive nuclear attack on Iran. GOP political figures such as Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee publicly avow end times mythology, and in April 2015, Michele Bachmann claimed that the rapture was coming and Obama was responsible—which would presumably make him the Antichrist. Some may suggest that lunatic-fringe politicians like these are unlikely to affect national security policy, but such thinking may already have influenced the decision to invade Iraq. According to a French journalist, then-president Jacques Chirac was “stupefied” when George W. Bush told him a reason for the 2003 invasion: “This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people’s enemies before a New Age begins.” Afterward, poor Chirac supposedly sought counsel from a professor of theology at the University of Lausanne as to what Bush possibly could have meant.

Such intellectual obscurantism can also impair understanding of the technical details of vital national security issues. One additional reason for Republicans’ adamant opposition to the Iran agreement may be that it touches on scientific issues and requires a passing familiarity with nuclear physics. How can a senator grasp the agreement’s details about uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing if his ideology commands him to dispute the scientific age of the earth, a fact well established by (among other things) an understanding of nuclear physics based on the rate of decay of radioactive isotopes?

On May 22, 2014, on a near-party line vote, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives agreed to an amendment to the defense authorization bill that would ban the Department of Defense from participating in climate research. This vote came despite the department’s own judgment in its most recent strategy document, the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, that disruptive climate change effects can produce new global instability and complicate the department’s missions. The ban is similar to past edicts that prohibit government-funded institutions like the National Institutes of Health from studying the public health impacts of violence involving firearms.


As obscurantist as these initiatives are, there is probably worse to come at the state level, where school curricula are established (if you think the House of Representatives is bad, that institution resembles the National Academy of Sciences compared to some state legislatures). Already, Louisiana has a law on the books encouraging teachers to teach the (imaginary) controversy about evolution, and several other state legislatures have followed with similar bills. Some other advanced democracies such as the United Kingdom forbid teaching creationism in schools, even private ones, because to them it is not a matter of religious or academic freedom, but rather consumer fraud: they believe it should be illegal to harm minors by systematically impairing their education. Should the type of driving intellectual curiosity that has characterized Tea Party Republicans and their fellow travelers become any more widespread in American society, we can look forward to the sort of rigid, epistemic closure that bans heretical ideas in the same way that Catholic prelates placed an interdict upon Galileo Galilei for teaching the heliocentric model of the solar system.

The Deep State: Evolving Toward Extinction?

The mortal danger of wildfire to a herd of deer is what a half century of disastrous involvement in the Middle East ought to represent to American policy makers. But it does not. Being in favor of the Iraq War may have been objectively wrong, but it was an astute career move for many government operatives and contractors. Wall Street CEOs failed to understand that leveraging their portfolios with derivatives contracts was the equivalent of giving a child a loaded pistol, but with the exception of a handful of people like Richard Fuld, the main Wall Street players are still in their jobs, leveraging up for the next financial bubble.

Nature provides numerous examples of species whose traits have evolved such that they become maladapted to their environments. The extinct Irish elk’s outsized antlers became more of a hindrance to its survival than a benefit: during periods of peak antler growth, the animal experienced osteoporosis. In a similar fashion, the military-industrial complex’s pampered, privileged position in society and its cost-is-no-object mentality, along with its rigid and bureaucratized hierarchy, have made it a less effective force in accomplishing its overriding purpose: fighting and winning wars. That goal has become subsidiary to mastering Washington politics, maintaining the cash flow to contractors, and offering senior personnel second careers in industry. These maladaptations affect the quality both of personnel and equipment. This lengthy catalog of dysfunctions in our governing institutions both public and private, and in the elites that control them, points to a system that is not sustainable in the long term. It is also not that unusual in light of history. The normal way mature power structures try to maintain themselves is by redefining their vices as virtues and their mistakes as harmless mulligans that should not be counted on the scorecard. Disasters like Vietnam and Iraq no more undermine the legitimacy of the elites who engineered them, at least in their own eyes, than the sinking of the Spanish Armada undermined Philip II’s unshakable belief that he was on the throne by the grace of God. It is the strategy of deny and move on. But it cannot go on.


From DEEP STATE: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government by Mike Lofgren, published on Jan. 5 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright (c) 2016 by Mike Lofgren.

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