The Trump administration is on the brink of making decision on another ‘surge” in Afghanistan. A significant increase in American forces along with a mandate to engage directly in combat has been strongly pressed by National Security Advisor (General) H.R. McMaster, Secretary of Defense (General) James Mattis, and the Pentagon brass.
Yet, there is still no clear statement of aim or measure of (unlikely) success. Is this another senseless gesture in the endless “war on terror?” What is the underlying logic? This latest attempt to fashion a Taliban-free Afghanistan raises the question of how rational is American foreign policy. Sending more troops to Afghanistan when you’ve failed miserably to achieve your (undefined) objective over the past 15 years with much larger contingents seems to defy reason.
Several explanations, not excuses, come to mind.
One is that there exists an implicit logic that is not acknowledged but salient for the person(s) involved. The Pentagon brass may well be less concerned about “winning” in Afghanistan, whatever that means, than they are living with the intolerable perception that they “lost.” No general cum security policy-maker wants to be saddled with the label of “loser.” That sensitivity can become institutionally generalized; Generals Mattis and McMaster are in little danger of being blamed personally for failure in Afghanistan. What seems to count is that they do not want the U.S. military to be stigmatized as a failure. They are acutely aware of how much the image of the uniformed military suffered as a result of America losing its first war in Vietnam. It follows that they might hope against hope that the outcome can be fudged enough so as to escape that fate.**
There is a practical side to this concern, too. Failure, as perceived in the public eye, could tarnish the resplendent image so successfully cultivated during the “war on terror” era. That could translate into less support for bigger budgets, less lucrative consultancies after retirement, and less acclaim. And a weaker voice in policy debates.
If one were to postulate that these are cardinal objectives, then campaigning to send several thousand more troops on a strategically pointless mission is logical – and the plan’s promoters not as obtuse as they appear. What of senior policy-makers in and around the White House who do not share those particular interests?
A second reality to keep in mind is that governments are plural nouns – or, pronouns with multiple antecedents. The numerous organizations, bureaucracies and individuals involved in decision-making typically lead to a convoluted process wherein it is easy to lose track of purposes, priorities and coordination. Where little discipline is imposed by the chief, the greater the chances that the result will be contradictory, disjointed, sub-optimal and often poorly executed policies. That’s why the White House cried havoc about North Korea’s threat while the presumed coercive instrument sailed blissfully in the opposite direction heading for an extended shore leave.
Finally, we should recognize that rigorous thinking is far from the norm - at the highest levels of government as well as in everyday life. It takes a combination of education/training, intellectual integrity, a cultivated sense of responsibility, discomfort with deciding on the basis of skimpy or suspect information, and an ingrained preference for knowing why you’re doing something instead of flying by the seat of your pants. True, when practiced and reinforced, rigorous thinking can become habitual – just like other modes of human behavior. There are multiple influences, though, that militate against that habit taking root and being sustained. They include the lure of celebrity, time pressures due to an excess of travel and/or summonses to mind-numbing TV interviews, long-tedious-inconclusive meetings (such as those presided over by Susan Rice which drove Chuck Hagel out of government), endless bureaucratic games-playing, distracted Chief Executives who demand ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers to complex issues. Altogether, the tumult can soften the toughest mind. Weaker minds simply latch onto whatever conventional wisdom and catch phrases are floating around in order to remain minimally functional in the kaleidoscopic setting of most administrations.
All of these patterns with attendant adverse consequences are more likely to crystallize into stupid acts when the man nominally in charge lacks the intelligence, emotional stability, self-awareness and/or advisors to recognize either the requirements for sound policy-making or for implementation. A stubborn unwillingness to accept responsibility and to be held accountable exacerbates matters.
A business career such as Trump’s is not the desired preparation. Not only is that world fundamentally different from the world of public affairs (and especially foreign policy) Further, Trump partially compensated for his flaws through coercion, cheating, and duplicity. And at the end of the day, he could rig the books. That modus operandi doesn’t fly in the Middle East or in dealing with the likes of Vladimir Putin or Xia Jinping.
“Willful ignorance,” or “studied ignorance,” is an increasingly familiar phenomenon. Not just in Washington but among heads of large organizations of all stripes. The inclination to avoid acquiring knowledge about a matter either at hand or looming is not necessarily a sign of stupidity. Here, too, there may be hidden considerations at play. American foreign policymakers may wish to mask the Kabul government’s faltering popular support because doing so means a fundamental rethink of aims- an agonizing reappraisal for which they are unprepared intellectually, politically, and diplomatically.
Vietnam is the central reference point for McMaster’s strategic perspective. He wrote his doctoral dissertation at the University of North Carolina on the topic – the work that has given him the reputation of being the best mind in the Army – the embodiment of the “soldier-scholar.” The book’s thesis is that the uniformed military’s leaders failed in their duty by not remonstrating against Lyndon Johnson’s misrepresentations of conditions in Vietnam. The premise is that they had an accurate, unbiased understanding while Johnson was a chronic liar who had his political image foremost in mind. This is a very dubious proposition. The top United States’ commanders in Vietnam were as blind to realities as were the civilians in Washington. Their lying about capabilities (theirs and the Communists), the battlefield picture, and what was going down politically became proverbial. The daily briefing at command headquarters in Saigon was universally called the “5 O’clock Follies” by the press corps.**
The commander of U.S. forces, General William Westmoreland, was notorious for his upbeat testimony to Congress and other public statements which bore only the faintest connection to reality. The conventional soldier epitomized, Westmoreland never understood what he was up against. He did not help his reputation by suppressing Intelligence estimates regarding the size of the forces confronting him.
Has McMaster observed the lessons that he drew from his study of the military’s Vietnam experience? If so, he would be stressing to the President and his associates the following: there is no way to topple Assad other than to intervene with several hundred thousand American troops; persisting in the attempt to set up a Sunni protectorate under American auspices in the Syrian-Iraqi desert is a fool’s errand with no strategic rationale; continual Turkish sustenance for ISIS (as well as al-Nusra) greatly exacerbates the challenge of suppressing it; permanent bases (or toll roads manned by Blackwater-like thugs) in Syria and/or Iraq will worsen threats to American security while providing little tangible advantage; the choices in Afghanistan are between withdrawing now with mission unaccomplished or withdrawing later with mission unaccomplished at far greater cost; Russia does not pose a military threat to its European neighbors in terms of its security interests, capabilities, intent or deterrence calculations. On all of these matters, McMaster – like Secretary of Defense General James Mattis – has rendered quite the opposite advice (as far as we know) while publicly fostering a fantasy view of them.
In so doing, they are perpetuating the set of American policies (in the Greater Middle East) pursued since the “war on terror’s” initiation in 2001. That exercise calls to mind the WW II submarine hunter who innovated by drilling a hole in the bottom of his boat to better track his prey – the main difference being that the U-boat hunter knew how to swim.
How to characterize this behavior? It certainly is short-sighted. We can say that the policies have not been fully thought through; that they are misguided in not crisply defining objectives, not setting priorities, and not rigorously linking means to ends. It is negligent rather than outright ‘dumb’. That is to say, officials had the mental capacity to get these logical connections right; but they were inclined not to use it in choosing the course of least effort and least resistance.
Is this ignorance? No. Is it willful ignorance cum sublimation – yes, in part. Is acting in this manner ‘dumb’? Strategically, yes. In careerist, political and organizational terms? – perhaps not. It is simply dishonest and runs the risk of self brain-washing. Is it ‘dumb’ to take that risk? Yes. At that stage in the flight from rationality, being lauded as “the best brain in the Army” promises no salvation. Quite the opposite. Your policies – if not you individually – are doomed.
This pattern has something to do with uncritical commitment to an inheritance of established national goals which have taken on the aura of self-evident – if not gospel - truth. Those goals may well be unrealistic. Is that itself an indication of obtuseness? No – just bad judgment. However, the efforts to reach those goals deserve the designation of ‘dumb’ when: 1) the resources requisite for success are clearly absent; 2) the odds on achieving success have been skewed so as to obscure how improbable the outcome sought actually is; and/or 3) flawed logic is used in relating means to the stated end. Think of Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iran, Ukraine.
Bad judgment itself may stem from adherence to a rigid doctrine or ideology. (Goal: secure U.S. strategic hegemony globally; doctrine: full spectrum military dominance in every region; priority policy objective: access to an archipelago of bases). The act of adhesion can be seen as signaling ignorance or lack of perception – but not low IQ intelligence.