More than 50 years ago, sociologist C. Wright Mills, in his book The Causes of World War III, introduced Americans to a new socio-political concept: the crackpot realist. Crackpot realists are amoral men and women of worldly affairs who possess exceptionally banal minds. These are the "serious people" who populate government, the higher tiers of corporate America, the think tanks, the televised political talk shows, and other props of the national power structure.
What they do best is perform alchemy: they take reckless and foolish ideas and transmute them into rhetoric that is perceived as the tough, pragmatic, and common-sense wisdom of purported experts. This process is most vividly on display in matters of war and peace. Mills on the crackpot realist:
They know of no solutions to the paradoxes of the Middle East and Europe, the Far East and Africa except the landing of Marines. Being baffled, and also being very tired of being baffled, they have come to believe that there is no way out -- except war -- which would remove all the bewildering paradoxes of their tedious and now misguided attempts to construct peace. In place of these paradoxes they prefer the bright, clear problems of war...
Mills was assuredly a prophet of the American way of foreign policy, if our subsequent experiences in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan have any empirical value whatsoever. The crackpot realist mentality is best exemplified by the celebrated rhetorical question that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright posed to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell: "What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about if we can't use it?"
The benefit of crackpot realism is that the ordinary prudence of advocating avoidance of war can be depicted either as sloppy and unrealistic sentimentalism or as the irresponsible avoidance of the burdens and duties of a superpower in a dangerous world. In its refined form, crackpot realism wears the camouflage of idealism: military invasions are really aimed at humanitarian rescue, spreading democracy, or peacekeeping. In those cases, the crackpot realist can even affect a morally censorious tone: How can any serious person be in favor of letting Saddam Hussein remain president of Iraq? Or Bashir al Assad in Syria? Or whoever the Hitler du jour might be.
One might have thought the claims and pretentions of crackpot realists would have been thoroughly debunked by the eight-year long invasion and occupation of Iraq. It was a disaster premised on high-concept crackpot arguments: Iraqis will love us; sanctions aren't working; weapons inspections are useless; Saddam Hussein cannot be militarily contained; Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz's insinuation -- my favorite example -- that invasion and occupation costs might be less than those in the Balkans five years before, and could be paid for out of Iraq's oil revenues. At the pinnacle of this endeavor, of course, was President George W. Bush, the compulsive "decider," who was manfully willing to step up to the plate, make the tough decisions, and never look back or express regrets. It is much better for U.S. prestige and credibility to walk headlong into a catastrophe and keep at it than to weigh options -- that would be dithering -- or to admit a mistake and become a derided flip-flopper.
The March 19, 2013 observance of the tenth anniversary of the Iraq invasion provided abundant opportunity for somber reflection on the follies of crackpot realism in foreign policy. So much greater was the irony, then, when only two days later the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee wrote a letter to the president urging U.S. military intervention in Syria, to include airstrikes. It is no surprise that the ranking member, Senator John McCain, would be in favor of war. When has he ever not been? His feverish embrace of the Iraq "surge" of 2007 (along with its elevated casualty count) and his insistence that it was a great success, are typical of the crackpot mindset. No doubt on a narrow, tactical level the surge made "progress;" but it did not change the strategic vector of the war: a U.S. withdrawal; an ethnically-cleansed, Shia-led Iraq; and a regionally strengthened Iran. This outcome is common in warfare; the Ludendorff Offensive of 1918 achieved spectacular tactical gains, but it did not alter the fact that the Central Powers were going to lose the war. The crackpot realist may be a fair tactician, but he is always a poor strategist, and often profligate with human life.
What was surprising about the Armed Services letter was that the chairman, Senator Carl Levin, who had voted against the Authorization for Use of Force in Iraq in 2002, was now pressing for airstrikes in Syria. Poor Carl had evidently succumbed to Beltway groupthink. A few days after sending the letter, he felt compelled to explain his motives in an interview with Congressional Quarterly (subscription required). He stated that U.S. military pressure was needed to drive Syrian President Assad from power -- an action for which the Iraq invasion and the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi are exceedingly poor templates. He also expressed "concern that the United States risks being left without a role in shaping the nation's political future." The United States sacrificed 4,500 dead and over $1 trillion to determine Iraq's future, but that country stubbornly resisted being molded according to our wishes. Only last week, Secretary of State John Kerry pleaded with the Iraqi government to prohibit the Iranian right of transit through Iraq's territory to ship weapons -- to Syria! Why do our crackpot realists believe intervention in Syria will yield a different result?
Meanwhile, in the other congressional chamber, Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, asserted that "it is abundantly clear that that red line has been crossed" with respect to Syrian use of chemical weapons. This statement came despite that fact that the U.S. government has no evidence of use of chemical weapons by either side. Apparently, "red line" is one of those nonce terms one can throw about both in order to sound "in the know" as well as frighten the peasantry, meaning the American people, and stampede them into war.
To C. Wright Mills goes the last word:
Some men want war for sordid, others for idealistic, reasons; some for personal gain, others for impersonal principle. But most of those who consciously want war and accept it, and so help to create its "inevitability," want it in order to shift the locus of their problems.