The Fine Art of Failing to Learn From Experience

Does the fact that our nation's capital was built in a swamp explain our government's tendency to mire itself in policies with a rich tradition of failure? The Bush administration, while not unique in this practice, seems to have a special aptitude for it. Any strategy that has never worked in the past seems to get an automatic nod from the Bush cabinet. For example:

(1) Every single country involved in World War I thought they would win it easily in a few weeks. When that didn't happen -- when troops were getting slaughtered by the thousands and neither side was gaining any ground -- every general said that if he just had more troops victory would be assured. Johnson and Nixon made the same mistake when they escalated the Vietnam War. And now we have the 'surge,' which will bring about the same result in Iraq: more deaths, more mutilations, more shattered lives.

(2) In 1920, the United States embarked on its 12-year experiment with Prohibition. The result: a sharp increase in crime, gangs, and racketeering, and our prisons overloaded with entrepreneurs trying to meet consumer demand. Decades later, the War on Drugs was instituted, leading to crime, gangs, racketeering, and prisons overloaded with consumers and entrepreneurs trying to meet consumer demand. As with Prohibition, consumption did not decrease.

(3) For years the Berlin Wall stood as a symbol of the stupidity, the bovine lack of imagination of the East German regime. It was a 10th Century solution to a 20th century problem. Today the Bush administration stolidly mimics the East German mentality. Faced with an immigration problem? Build a wall on the border. Faced with Civil War in Iraq? Build a wall between neighborhoods.

Walls are obsolete. Boundaries are obsolete. Europeans have learned this. They have to cope with terrorists -- have for years. They catch them. They don't build walls or curtail freedoms or create ridiculous hurdles for visitors to jump over. They have immigration problems but they know walls aren't going to solve them.

There's a lesson as well as a rich irony in the fact that the Immigration Reform and Control Act actually increased the number of illegal immigrants in the United States. Before the IRCA was passed the number of illegal immigrants coming to the U.S. was balanced by the number returning to Mexico. It was a rotating system -- enter, make money, return. But when the Border Patrol made it harder to get in, the undocumented workers who made it across the border decided to stay, knowing they might not make it next time around. That's when the undocumented immigrant population began to balloon. The wall will further heighten this effect.

The wall building in Iraq was abandoned after complaints from Iraqi government leaders, who at least had the wit to realize that relations between Sunnis and Shiites wouldn't be improved by building a wall between them.

(4) In the sixties the United States invaded Vietnam in order to subvert the desire of 80% of its people to have Ho Chi Minh as their leader. We couldn't hold that country despite our overwhelming military superiority. In the 1980s the Russians made the same mistake in Afghanistan. The days of military conquest and rule are over. We are now in the era of secessionist movements. The Soviet Union dissolved. Yugoslavia dissolved. Slovakia and the Czech republic separated. Quebec wants to secede from Canada, Scotland from England. China is in constant fear of the same thing happening there. Being a small country is no longer a necessary disadvantage in the global economy, as Ireland has discovered.

Yet the Bush administration is still thinking in 19th century terms of empire and domination.

(5) In 2003 Bush manufactured phony tales about WMDs to get people to accept the idea of invading a small nation who had not attacked us. Of course that strategy worked in the short term, although ultimately it lost him Congress. Now that Iraq is in ruins and in a state of violent anarchy, and there are six times as many terrorists as there were before, the mad frat boy is trying to whip up support for attacking Iran, using the same strategy -- allegations of ultra-sophisticated weapons being smuggled to insurgents. How dumb does he think we are? Most terrorist support comes from our 'allies,' Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

Lately Bush has been going around saying it's unconstitutional for Congress to interfere with his boneheaded conduct of the war. I seem to recall the Constitution saying only Congress has the power to declare war. Will it be circumvented, as it has so often in the past, by a loose cannon president making a pre-emptive attack without bothering to declare anything?