Saturday, September 25, 2010

Magic and Mayhem by Derek Leebaert

The author identifies six strands of magical thinking and characteristic behavior that have influenced the course of American foreign policy from its inception but particularly, driven by its fabulous surplus of wealth and preeminent military power on the global scene, in the last seventy years. Magical thinking fills in for ignorance and substitutes for calm, critical, distanced consideration of the problems and challenges of the modern world. The results of such thinking and behavior have, for the most part, failed to live up to their promise.

Professor Leebaert discusses the first category of magical thinking under the rubric of “Emergency Men”. Of course, emergencies arise. Emergency men wouldn't flourish if periodically their proclamations of disaster didn't mesh with the ghastliness of the world at large. A crisis can always be found along with men and women who rally to the excitement of war and peace and are confident, often in a moral bullying sort of way, that something must and can be done.

John le Carre, a savvy observer with first hand experience, identifies one segment of this genre of magical thinking in way a that covers everyone. He describes emergency men as “global architects, the world-order men, political charm-sellers” who convince themselves – and often the rest of us – that the country will be safer, and the world a better place, for their manipulations. But think of Rwanda. After an overdose on emergency – Lebanon and the 1994 “Black Hawk” down debacle in Somalia for examples – Washington led the effort to evacuate most of the small international deterrent force already there. And who really knew where Rwanda might be anyway? The secretary of state, for one, pulled an atlas off his shelf midway through the slaughter to help locate this heart of darkness.

America has not always been so excitable in the world. The caution, measured tone, and quiet authority of the years of Marshall and Acheson bespeak a different epoch, though many at the time began urging rash exploits abroad.

The author examines the second type of magical thinking under the rubric of “The Mystique of American Management.” Against the backdrop of industrial achievement, Americans unsurprisingly believe that the attitudes and techniques of managerial success so effective at home can be applied to political-military problems abroad. Believing that any problem can be broken down 'by the numbers' and triumphantly reassembled convinces emergency men that they have an empirical grasp of the details. Concerns about sects or demographics or visualizing an opponent's motivations come second, or third, to emphasizing familiar business procedures. It's a comforting frame of mind, as upbeat, positive and go-getting as a Tony Robbins speech at a corporate retreat. Get the formula right and you can't lose, just know and apply the “Ten Top Rules for Managing the World”.

Of course, big, established, apparently solidly run companies self-destruct periodically amid America's cycles boom-bubble-bust. Management consultant Jim Collins has just brought out another best seller, How the Mighty Fall, which discerns among the fatal flaws 'hubris born of success” and “denial of risk and peril.” Thankfully, such illusions don't permeate American enterprise to the extent they do in the country's national security arena, nor have the deadly consequences.

The third category of magical thinking falls under the rubric of “Star Power”. In America the emphasis is always upon the doer, not upon the thing done. There are stars in all walks of American life. This disposition to create a hero for every moment is not unique to America, but Americans take it to unrivaled heights. As the most individualistic of all democracies, America embraces the stars and champions because our culture most intensely extols personal success. But casting leaders into the stratosphere of celebrity catapults them above reality. Who are we to challenge such master spirits? Those seeking stars in business or in politics tend to look for a superman waving a wand, relieving them from having to think, to learn, or to change their minds by their own efforts.

Leebaert covers the fifth category of magical thinking under the rubric the “Myths of History”, an offhand approach to the past in which far-fetched analogies time and again shape the gravest decisions. An abundance of books at Barnes and Noble on America's founding fathers, the stalwart generation that got us through World War II, and the many authoritative-sounding references to ancient Greece, Rome, the British Empire and the Cold War dot the op-ed pages and articles of policy magazines. We seek sign posts when the going gets tough and revert to the national passion for analogy-making.

The analogies that result serve more as prepackaged would-be solutions than as helpful instruction. They shape decisions through exemplary tales and moral fables. A doctrine of resemblance follows: events are cast in the light of gross similarities, rather than their telling, dangerously particular differences. Even when they appear apt, historical analogies carry psychological risks. They become mental aids or emotional crutches when the country faces disorientating events abroad. They provide false comfort by offering illusory guidance. Research into the psychology of analogical reasoning indicates that decision makers are more likely to misguide themselves when deploying analogies than when not. Vietnam, Iraq and many other wayward grand-strategic decisions offer depressing proof.

The author's sixth and final figure of the pattern of magical thinking in American foreign policy is the “We''ll Show Then the Light” phenomena, that other peoples in the world are primed and eager to adopt our ways. The latest manifestation of this idea is in the so-called new doctrine of counterinsurgency, which by definition presumes a lot of nation-building, call it what we will. Its precepts are tailored to American dispositions: the small band of individuals against enormous odds; the startling effects of meticulous organization; and most of all the surefire conviction that freedom-seeking people always side with us, eager for an extreme makeover of their customs, livelihoods, and ministries, even if they have to endure “the growing pains of Democracy.” This alluring vision can still draw the country into swamps that we have neither time, patience nor energy to drain.

“Counterinsurgency is about people,” tolls the mantra from the Joint Chiefs, as if war itself had not been cast as an extension of politics long before Clausewitz crystallized the insight. But when deconstructing the amazing litany of requirements, counterinsurgency proves to be a protean task that demands endless nuanced abilities: victory in the field, professionalizing Afghanistan's army and police; backing the private armies of the warlords yet trying to put spirit and honesty into the country's judiciary; assuring free elections; expanding and Westernizing its school system and securing Highway 1. No other nation would contemplate so godlike a venture, whatever tactics are called or however the strategy gets circumscribed (“restated”) as reality takes a bite.

America can no longer afford the expensive, dangerous learning curves that accompany each feckless foreign policy venture. Every time the geostrategic bubble bursts the more forthright of the would-be global architects admit all that they have discovered about the world: “I didn't think it would be this tough”; the “society was more complex than I anticipated; that failure, it's now realized, was “predictable in advance”. Much of the other half of national opinion would rather “mind it's own business” in the first place. The Iraq and Afghanistan nation building adventures have piled on debt unprecedented since World Wat II while America itself lags way behind other advanced countries, to pick just one indicator, in amenable mortality - that is, deaths preventable with timely and effective health care.

Magical thinking overstresses the promise of action, underestimates the grimly repetitive sacrifices that all too likely follow, and sees these quests as manageable. Then, once the promises fail – the most dangerous consequence of all- the nation, still thinking magically, marches just as facilely into an irrational despair, an unrealistic gloom, that tempts us to succumb to so circumscribed policies that we are not even capable of minding our own business.

Victory, in contrast, has been called the ability to face problems without fear. Perhaps the steadiness that makes that possible can be seen in the case-hardened, enduring qualities that the U.S. Navy brings to refueling its ships at see in a storm: “Not easy, just routine”. These are strengths of focus, of deadly seriousness about the countries inescapable needs, and of seasoned professionals who seek to work with the fewest illusions.

1 comment:

  1. Mr. Leebaert is a professor of foreign policy at Georgetown University. He recommends that the State Department, Foreign Service and Agencies of National Security be professionalized with a competent body of civil servants; end the revolving door of political appointments that infect these institutions with magical thinking.