A quick look at American foreign policy shows how few in the State Department pay any attention to the past. We should have known, for example, that the victory in Iraq was nothing of the sort; and that old sectarian rivalries, released from Saddam’s brutal secular rule, would have emerged and dominated the post-war landscape.
We chose not to regard the events of the former Yugoslavia as relevant, not even when the equally authoritarian Marshal Tito forced ethnic hatreds and suspicions underground. Just like in post-Saddam Iraq, the former Yugoslavian states of Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, and Kosovo went to war. Ethnic and religious allegiances and competitions in both countries might have been forced out of sight, but they had no means disappeared. If anything hostile tensions festered, and when they were finally released, the violence was brutal.
Why did we not see that the Taliban had already won one war against a superpower – the Soviet Union – in Afghanistan, and that they could once again be a formidable enemy? Why was their resurgence and likely return to power a surprise? The State Department and CIA obviously misread, misunderstood, and totally underestimated the Taliban, their absolute political conviction and religious resolution. They should not have. The War in Vietnam had obvious parallels.
There was no one in LBJ’s or Nixon’s brain trust (except Clark Clifford) who gave Ho Chi Minh or the Viet Cong any due. They misread the North’s resolve, their passionate nationalism, Ho’s strategic brilliance, and their courage in the face of overwhelming firepower. The State Department and Pentagon could simply not imagine how a small country with a poorly-armed, poorly-fed, and outgunned enemy could possibly defeat the might of the United States. Even Francis Ford Coppola knew it when his character Captain Willard says in Apocalypse Now:
Charlie didn't get much USO. He was dug in too deep or moving too fast. His idea of great R&R was cold rice and a little rat meat. He had only two ways home: death, or victory.The United States also never learned the lesson of staying power, and how the North Vietnamese could be willing to lose so many thousands of lives and keep fighting in the face of a militarily superior enemy.
“Don’t these bastards ever give up?” is another line from Apocalypse Now spoken by the leader of the American helicopter squadron attacking a Viet Cong village. We could have used this lesson in Afghanistan where once again, a small, seemingly raggedy band of ‘insurgents’ moved slowly, through advances and retreats, but inexorably back to power. Time and casualties were of no importance and never are when political will, nationalism, and religion are involved.
The United States was convinced that the second war in Iraq would be a short one; that we would be welcomed with open arms as liberators; and that the country would soon be transformed into a liberal democracy.
The complete misjudgment of Iraq and a total ignorance of history ruled American decisions. Based on their erroneous assumptions, Americans were unwilling to lay down a strict if not brutal martial law and to prepare to stay for the decades obviously required to transform a tribal, ethnically-riven, and undemocratic country into some semblance of liberalism.
The Romans among other imperial powers understood that conquering a territory was only the first step in victory; and that years of Roman military rule and administration would be necessary before enemies could be turned into loyal provinces.
Apologists for the United States point to Germany and Japan, and how post-war military rule was only temporary; and that through foreign aid and good example truth and enlightenment would prevail. They forget that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were totally destroyed, Japan was unconditionally defeated, broken, penniless, and destitute. Hitler in the last months of the war sent young boys to slaughter because his armies had been totally annihilated by the Allied forces.
The US march to victory was no-holds-barred. The nuclear incineration of two major cities was nothing if it could hasten the end of the war. Firebombing Dresden and its innocent inhabitants was nothing compared to the evil dictator Hitler who did far worse to the Jews and to his foreign enemies.
In other words, MacArthur was able to make an early exit from Occupied Japan because there was no fight left, no resolve, no more commitment to cause or Emperor. Japan was finished. Not so in Iraq or Afghanistan.
How was it that the US so misinterpreted the ‘Arab Spring’ and confused the same release from dictatorial control as a sign of liberal democratic sentiments? How could we possibly have underestimated the power of Islamic fundamentalism when there were festering signs of religious radicalism all over the Middle East after 9/11 if not before? It should have come as no surprise that the entire region would break apart along ethnic and religious lines. Why were we the last to realize that trust in liberal democracy was eroding; that the concept of the nation-state was disappearing behind the advances of Russia and ISIS; and that European Muslims were rejecting traditional secular values?
There are more immediate and familiar lessons from history so common that they have become nostrums: 1) philanderers are always caught; 2) there is trouble in all families; 3) love quickly turns sour; 3) everyone acts out of self-interest; 4) inequality is a fact of life; 5) lying never pays; 6) bureaucracies always get bigger and less efficient.
These obviously are only a few and selected at random from thousands of others. Yet they are illustrative. Men who cheat never think they will get caught, always are, and have to pay the same predictable consequences. Politicians lie all the time, but whether they are Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, John Edwards, or Eric Weiner they always get caught with their pants down. High-and-mighty televangelists and Catholic priests get outed for sexual depravity. Wall Street icons like the Enron crowd or Bernie Madoff are always caught for their immoral depredations of the market. International corporations like Volkswagen go for years thinking they have put one over on the public, but get their comeuppance.
The best marriages are riven by doubt, jealousy, and intra-family spite and vendetta. Over half of all American marriages end in divorce; but there are few young couples who ever assume that theirs will end up in the dust bin. Everyone else who has been married for a few years knows – without even reading Albee, Williams, O’Neill, Hellman, or Shakespeare – that marriage is a necessary social construct, but one which is as fragile as a house of balsa.
Shakespeare understood that the same ineluctable human nature which is responsible for all our less charitable qualities– self-interest, territorialism, greed, rivalry, and fiercely militant loyalties – produces some of the most fascinating characters, Richard III, Volumnia, Tamora, Edmund, and Iago to name only a few. The happy marriages at the end of all his Comedies were nothing of the kind, and most viewers assume that if today’s mores could be retrofitted to the 16th century, most of them would end in divorce. The matches were bad ones.
None of this evidence of historical blindness answers the question, “Why?”
Yet the answer is quite simple. Another one of Shakespeare’s favorite bits of human nature – arrogance – is the one trait that always seems to get in the way of a clear view of the past.
The NeoCons who got us into Iraq were not dumb. They simply chose to ignore history because of an irrational belief in ‘American exceptionalism’. Liberal democracy, civil rights, and individual liberties, they said, are not just temporal concepts, but absolutes in nature. Human civilization has been waiting for a moral, political, and economic liberator; and the United States is that Messiah.
When intellectual arrogance is combined by messianic belief, the results are always disastrous. Not only were the NeoCons arrogant to a man, they had a religious, almost spiritual belief in the rightness and eternal wisdom of their political views.
LBJ’s advisors were so arrogant that they could not even conceive of an enemy who could defeat the United States. Their understanding of victory was so naively tied to military might that they ignored Ho Chi Minh’s strategy. The will and resolve of an enemy must be assessed along with his cannons and warships. Ho knew that he and his people had such will and resolve and that the Americans did not. Eventually they would give up. Johnson and his men were oblivious to this factor, especially how the will of the American people was eroding; and how the effects of that erosion would be felt in Hue.
Amazing as it may seem, President Obama, no different from LBJ, George W. Bush, or Paul Wolfowitz, assumed that liberal democracy was an anointed gift from God and that once the heathens of the Middle East saw the divine light brought to them by His messenger, divisive sectarianism would end.
Arrogance leads all deceivers, cheaters, and philanderers to their downfall. Whether it’s Bernie Madoff or Joe Shmoe, the fact remains the same. The more you are convinced that you will not get caught, the quicker you are.
It is unlikely that we will ever change. As a nation, America is still far too wedded to the idea of exceptionalism that any judgment must be biased and unrealistic. Since politicians and political leaders are seemingly more arrogant, confident of their abilities, and dismissive of others than the rest of us, the heady, nasty mix of self-serving will, religious revivalism, and ignorant patriotism won’t disappear for a long, long time.
Despite lessons learned, we will all continue to lie, cheat, tomcat, steal, fabricate, embellish, twist, and posture to get what we think we want. “Not me. Never me”; but in the end, “Always me.”