Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

26 March 2014

We Just Didn’t Know

A good epitaph for all our worst Yankee foreign-policy blunders would be, “we just didn’t know!”

We just didn’t know that Vietnam had fought and won several wars with China over their long mutual history. We just didn’t know that Ho Chi Minh, North Vietnam’s leader, was a fierce Vietnamese patriot and anti-colonialist without the slightest intention of allying with China. We just didn’t know that morphing from a French colony into a Chinese vassal state was the farthest thing from his keen mind.

So the “domino theory” of Southeast Asia that our Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara dreamed up, and convinced Lyndon Johnson to follow, was sheer fiction. Not a single one of the nations of Southeast Asia—including Communist Vietnam—fell into China’s orbit as McNamara feared, even though we Yanks lost our War in Vietnam ignominiously.

And what expertise had McNamara to invent such a theory? As a former CEO of Ford Motor Company, he knew how to make cars. Lyndon Johnson was an expert on Congress. He got our modern civil rights laws passed when other “experts” said it couldn’t be done. Neither knew squat about Asia, Vietnam or China.

They just didn’t know. So we lost over 50,000 Americans, killed God knows how many Vietnamese and Cambodians, despoiled large regions of Southeast Asia with Agent Orange and land mines, and permanently besmirched our national reputation. All for what? A crazy “domino theory” dreamed up by men who not only just didn’t know, but refused to listen to the experts who did.

Iraq was similar. Saddam was no angel, but we had contained him for more than a decade inside our “No-Fly Zone,” at minimal cost and with minimal casualties. We just didn’t know that he had no nuclear weapons and no program to make them. We just didn’t know that, after deposing Saddam, we would have to govern a huge Arab nation wracked by decades of harsh rule by a hated minority. (Sounds a lot like Syria, doesn’t it? But that was and is Russia’s and Iran’s blunder.) And we just didn’t know that sending one-half the number of troops that our best generals recommended would invite disorder and civil war.

So we lost over 4,000 Americans, several hundred thousand Iraqis died, we occupied the nation for over a decade, and millions were displaced. And what do we have to show for it? We deposed Saddam. We proved there was no smoking gun. And we exacerbated the most important schism in the Middle East—the one between Shiites and Sunnis—without even the most rudimentary plan for healing it, except for hoping vainly that Muslims who’ve been at odds for over a millennium would bargain like good ‘ol pols in the US Congress.

Iran was a bit different. Our blunder there created a Little Cold War, not a hot one—at least not with us.

But the same sad story ran its course. We just didn’t know that Iran’s proud and ancient culture would resent our CIA (with the Brits) overthrowing a duly elected prime minister and installing a monarch just because Iran nationalized Western oil companies. We just didn’t know that Saudi Arabia would do precisely the same thing eight years later, or that a much later president (Dubya) would grow so close with the Saudis as to be photographed walking hand in hand with the late King Abdullah. We had no idea that Iran might resent all this, not to mention our inciting Saddam to start a war with Iran that did nothing for either side except killing an estimated half-million people.

It’s fine to have political sympathies and goals. We all do. But sympathies are not much more than second cousins to love, hate, fear, favor, greed and lust.

In order to do something, you have to know something. We Yanks fucked up royally in Vietnam, Iraq, and Iran, and maybe also in Afghanistan, because we acted before knowing or thinking. We “thought” with our wishes and didn’t listen to the experts. In many cases, we didn’t even consult them.

By the way, then-former President Harry Truman advised Ike against overthrowing Iran’s lawful Prime Minister Mossadegh and installing the Shah, just as Woodrow Wilson had advised the victorious European allies against punishing Germany collectively after World War I. Truman’s and Wilson’s advice fell on deaf ears. We Yanks, it seems, have more Cassandras in our history than chief executives whose foreign policies worked brilliantly because they thought things through.

Are we going down the same road to ruin in Ukraine? We just don’t know.

There are credible reports that Ukraine’s new government has a substantial contingent of neo-Nazis. Is that true? Is the Svoboda party reforming itself and moving toward the center, or is it hiding its true colors for a later putsch, like Hitler’s Brown Shirts? Are the Ukrainian oligarchs behind the neo-Nazism? Or are they a force for moderation? Are they willing to share economic power with Russian oligarchs for the good of all? Or do they want it all for themselves? And what political power do they really have?

We just don’t know.

Is Ukraine’s new government, despite Svoboda’s neo-Nazi leanings, going to foster a modern, pluralistic, democratic new Ukraine? Or is it going to invite further Russian intervention and perhaps even civil war by mistreating its Russian minority under the pretense of political “reform”?

We just don’t know.

What we do know is that nothing like these questions, let alone answers, has made its way into our public arena or our pols’ debate. Likely our intelligence services, which have spent the last three decades focusing on the Middle East, China, Russia and Africa (in that order) are just as clueless as our public.

PBS’ Margaret Warner had a good, short interview with new Ukrainian Prime Minister Arensiy Yatsenyuk last night. Big deal. Bashar al-Assad’s interview with Charlie Rose a few months ago came off well for Assad, too, unless you were paying careful attention to the utter psychopathy of what he said. Any modern leader without the skill to fool a TV interviewer and most of his or her audience in a half-hour interview isn’t fit to run a small province, let alone a nation.

Is Yatsenyuk a good guy or a bad guy? Does he have the brains, skill and the guts to face down the neo-Nazis and Russophobes in his own nation and make sure that Ukraine’s Russian minority is fairly treated so that Russia won’t be tempted foolishly to invade?

I just don’t know. And I don’t see how any careful person could believe he or she knows just from watching that interview. We need people on the ground who know all the players, the country and the mood in every big city.

Every mentor and teacher tells us “know and think before you act.” Even John Wayne said, “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.”

Ignoring the part about knowing and thinking (or being sure you’re right) has gotten us into our worst losing war and a whole passel of trouble. Yet people like John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and That Idiot Rumsfeld continually urge us to shoot first and ask questions later.

That’s just fine if we want to add to our list of foreign-policy disasters. If we want to succeed for a change, we are going to have to ignore our shoot-from-the-hippers and wait for our President and his advisers to think things through, as is their wont.

Information in politics is never fully complete. But clear thinking requires at least some knowledge of the most relevant facts. At this point, we simply don’t know enough to decide rationally whether Yatsenyuk’s government will become like Tunisia’s, Turkey’s, Egypt’s or even Assad’s.

So maybe we should lay off the big arms sales and the big sanctions for the time being. Among other things, waiting will give us some leverage over the bad guys in Ukraine.

Especially when war is at risk, making a good decision late is a whole lot better than making a bad one early. We’ve done the latter since we started to escalate our War in Vietnam, and our record (except for Gulf I) has been pretty uniformly terrible.

That Idiot Rumsfeld

While on this topic, I cannot refrain from commenting again (see 1, 2 and 3) on Rumsfeld’s catastrophic record as Secretary of Defense. Here’s a short list of his major blunders:

1. He said that Iraqis would welcome our invasion with flowers. They did for a short time, until the statute of Saddam fell. Then they fell to fighting us and each other. For the next decade, our troops got IEDs, not flowers.

2. Rumsfeld sent one-half the number of troops that Generals Zinni (Marines) and Shinseki (Army) recommended. He didn’t listen to the experts, but told his political bosses (Dubya and Cheney) what they wanted to hear.

3. Among other things, that single catastrophic blunder led to: (a) destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure by looters, including ordinary people who stripped power stations of copper wire (to sell to feed their families); (b) terrorists’ collection of the mounds of ordinance left behind by Saddam’s defeated troops, which found their way into suicide bombs and IEDs; (c) the inability of Iraq’s new government to maintain order and keep Sunni and Shiite extremists from killing each other, which persists today; and (d) an inability to seal Iraq’s borders, thereby inviting Al Qaeda in.

4. Rumsfeld approved purging Baathists categorically from government and military positions, without even vetting them first. This single step deprived the Iraqi military and government of their most experienced leaders and made Sunni resentment of the new government irreversible and incurable.

5. Rumsfeld projected a perpetually angry, cocksure, defensive and self-righteous image of American power to us Yanks and to the world. His puerile self-justifications—such as “Stuff happens!”—will forever stain our national image.

After he “downsized” our forces by half from what his best generals recommended, his statement that you have to fight with the army you have, not the one you might like, will go down in history with Marie Antoinette’s “Let them each cake!”

Fortunately for Rumsfeld, we don’t have guillotines any more. Instead, we have the First Amendment. So nothing prevents this utter loser—the second worst commander our Pentagon has ever had—from likening the President to a trained ape.

But Rumsfeld’s characteristic arrogance and lack of basic intelligence are, as usual, his own worst enemies. He would be well advised to follow the old adage and keep people guessing about them, rather than opening his mouth and removing all doubt. If he followed that policy religiously until the day he died, fewer of the many whose lives or loved ones his blunders destroyed would travel far just to spit on his grave.



  • At Wed Mar 26, 08:02:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Dear Jay,

    Please don't use the "F" word. I like to have my son 11 year old Ben on rare occasions read your thoughts and see your writing style but can't if he is going to see the "F" word. Please understand.

    Best Regards, Rod H. :)

  • At Sat Mar 29, 02:37:00 PM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Sorry about Ben, Rod.

    I don’t use slang or “bad language” often or at random. I thought it might be useful to emphasize the gross and obvious nature of our foreign-policy blunders with common language.

    But I take your point. This blog tries to keep analysis and argument on a high plain.

    So in the future, I'll try to limit vulgar language to quotations, like the one in which Victoria Newland used the very same word in a diplomatic context, revealing her lack of diplomacy.




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