From January 2011, my American Conservative review of Derek Leebaert’s Magic and Mayhem.
Worst and Brightest
Review of Magic and Mayhem: The Delusions of American Foreign Policy From Korea to Afghanistan, Derek Leebaert, Simon & Schuster, 336 pages
By James Bovard
In the decades since John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, foreign-policy experts have become Washington’s leading con men. Even though Wiz Kids and Dream Teams have dragged America into one bloodbath and debacle after another, politicians and the media still kowtow to the “Best and Brightest.”
Derek Leebaert’s Magic and Mayhem seeks to explain how such experts get power and why their influence is so pernicious. Leebaert, a Georgetown University professor, derides the influence of “magical thinking” in foreign policy: “Shrewd, levelheaded people are so frequently bewitched into substituting passion, sloganeering, and haste for reflection, homework, and reasonable objectives.”
Regardless of policymakers’ Ivy League pedigrees, U.S. foreign and defense policy routinely operates on a village-idiot level of information. Leebaert notes that “FDR remarked that most of what he knew about the world came from his stamp collection.” (Perhaps some charming old Russian stamps filled Roosevelt with affection for Uncle Joe.) Similarly, Leebaert observes, Paul Bremer, chief of Iraq’s Coalition Provisional Authority, admitted in his memoirs “that he didn’t know anything about Iraq when stepping down from Kissinger Associates to become America’s proconsul.” Adam Garfinkle, who worked as a speechwriter for Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, said in 2007, “No one in a senior position in this administration seems to have the vaguest notion of modern Middle Eastern history.”
The Pentagon matches the White House and State Department bonehead for bonehead. The U.S. military floundered in Iraq and Afghanistan because, as Leebaert writes, “the Army not only forgot everything it had been bloodily taught about counterinsurgency in Vietnam, but in Vietnam, it had forgotten everything it had learned about counterinsurgency in Korea as well.”
Cluelessness is perhaps the greatest constant in our foreign policy. In 1967, the Pentagon ordered top experts to analyze where the Vietnam War had gone wrong. The resulting study contained 47 volumes of material exposing the follies that had at that point already left tens of thousands of Americans dead. After the study was finished, it was distributed to the key Johnson administration players and federal agencies, where it was completely ignored, if not forgotten. New York Times editor Tom Wicker commented that “the people who read these documents in the Times [in 1971] were the first to study them.” Daniel Ellsberg, who wrote a portion of the papers and leaked them to the newspaper, noted that the documents reveal “a general failure to study history or to analyze or even to record operational experience, especially mistakes. Above all, effective pressures for optimistically false reporting at every level, for describing ‘progress’ rather than problems or failure, concealed the very need for change in approach or for learning.”
The political system routinely buries information that undermines power-grabs—and war is the biggest power-grab of them all. Neoconservatives who had Bush’s ear encouraged the president to believe he was making his decisions “by gut.” But, as Leebaert says, “To be a ‘gut player,’ as he called himself, rarely enables one to digest information that gives stomachaches.”
Leebaert deftly demolishes Henry Kissinger’s record and reputation. Kissinger, like other “Emergency Men,” sometimes showed boundless condescension towards the American public. He warned Nixon that “withdrawal of U.S. troops [from Vietnam] will become like salted peanuts to the American public; the more U.S. troops come home, the more will be demanded.” Indeed, Kissinger was even colder than he appears in Leebaert’s discussion. According to a December 21, 1970 entry in the diary of Nixon chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, Kissinger “told me he does not favor [Nixon’s peace plan]. He thinks that any pullout next year would be a serious mistake because the adverse reaction to it could set in well before the ’72 elections. He favors instead a continued winding down and then a pullout right at the fall of ’72 so that if any bad results follow they will be too late to affect the election.”
Magic and Mayhem’s discussion of the Korean War is one of the book’s strongest suits. The Pentagon had plenty of warning that the Chinese would intervene if the U.S. Army pushed too close to the Chinese border. But the euphoria that erupted after MacArthur’s Inchon landing blew away all common sense and drowned out the military voices who warned of a catastrophe. Though the Chinese attack resulted in the longest retreat in the history of America’s armed forces, and though the Korean War was more unpopular than the Vietnam War ever was, intellectuals and foreign-policy experts succeeded in redefining the Korean conflict as an American victory. Leebaert notes, “A magician’s wand has swept away the extent that the war turned out to be a hideously taxing minimization of disaster… . It took almost two years to establish our lines securely where they had been a month after Inchon.” “Spinning” the Korean War paved the way for escalation in Vietnam.
Leebaert is at no risk of receiving one of the Agency Seal Medals that the CIA bestows on people—especially congressmen—who serve the agency’s interests. The CIA “has long embodied the insular, turf-obsessed office culture of a savings bank in Buffalo,” he writes. “The CIA has been excellent at keeping all accountability at arm’s length, which virtually guarantees poor thinking.”
The spy agency has failed America more often than politicians or CIA-fed journalists admit. Prior to 9/11, the CIA’s Map Library possessed “maps of the caves, tunnels and dugouts that Bin Laden had helped to engineer at Tora Bora long before, passed on fifteen years earlier by the Afghan guerillas America was then backing.” But by the time the U.S. began its own Afghan campaign in 2001, agency staffers had forgotten they possessed this key to al-Qaeda’s hideouts.
The torture scandals of the Bush years resulted in part from the CIA’s reliance on self-proclaimed experts who knew almost nothing of interrogation. Magic and Mayhem urges the appointment of a “truth commission” to get to the bottom of the post-9/11 torture regime. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has chosen to put its muscle on keeping the lid on the outrages. Naturally, the foreign-policy wise men cheer his cover-up decision. But as Churchill declared, “The purpose of recriminating about the past is to enforce action in the future.” Obama is helping to create a war crimes “get out of jail free” card he might need himself one day.
Leebaert actually understates the U.S. debacle rate abroad. He hails the American-led NATO bombing of Serbia: “The 1999 eleven weeks’ war over Kosovo was undertaken by a coalition of Western governments, preceded by two months of negotiation that legitimized and clarified its objectives, then followed by a UN peacekeeping mission. The presence of overwhelming backup forces nearby as well as American military leadership resting on political good sense and seasoned diplomacy further increased the chances of success.”
What success? After NATO planes killed hundreds if not thousands of Serb and ethnic Albanian civilians, Bill Clinton could pirouette as a savior. Once the bombing ended, many of the Serbs remaining in Kosovo were slaughtered and their churches burned to the ground. NATO’s “peace” produced a quarter-million Serbian, Jewish, and Gypsy refugees. At least the Serbs were not murdering people for their body parts, as the Council of Europe recently accused the Kosovo Liberation Army of doing to Serb prisoners in recent years. (“When the transplant surgeons were confirmed to be in position and ready to operate, the [Serbian] captives were … summarily executed by a KLA gunman, and their corpses transported swiftly to the operating clinic,” where their kidneys were harvested for sale.)
Perhaps even worse, Clinton’s unprovoked attack on Serbia set a precedent for “humanitarian” warring that was invoked by supporters of Bush’s unprovoked attack on Iraq.
Leebaert regrets the American “penchant for dreaming up conspiracies” and the “steadily mounting overall mistrust of government since the late 1960s.” But the notion that rulers are owed trust is the most expensive entitlement program of them all. Blind trust in government has resulted in far more carnage than has distrust of government
Magic and Mayhem scants the role of brazen deceit in U.S. foreign policy. The phrase “damn rascal” does not appear once in the book. “Presidents have lied so much to us about foreign policy that they’ve established almost a common-law right to do so,” George Washington University history professor Leo Ribuffo observed in 1998. From John F. Kennedy lying about the Bay of Pigs debacle in Cuba; to Johnson lying about the Gulf of Tonkin resolution; to Richard Nixon lying about the secret bombing of Cambodia; to Jimmy Carter lying about the Shah of Iran being a progressive, enlightened ruler; to Ronald Reagan lying about terrorism and Iran-Contra; to George H.W. Bush lying about the justifications for the first Gulf War, entire generations have come of age since the ancient time when a president’s power was constrained by a duty of candor to the public.
The standards for decorum in discussing foreign policy practically guarantee that brazen liars will receive a pass, regardless of how many people perish as a result of their perfidy. Kissinger is now a columnist for the Washington Post editorial page—one of the few non-Fox venues that denies George W. Bush deceived the nation into the Iraq War. It is nonsense to presume good faith in experts who continually make declarations that any 12-year-old with a DSL line could disprove in two minutes.
WikiLeaks has revealed that U.S. foreign policy is far more venal and dishonest than the Beltway portrays it as being. From Hillary Clinton’s machinations to steal the credit-card numbers of foreign diplomats to the U.S. government’s spurring Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia and covertly providing arms to boost attacks in Yemen, as well as twisting arms and pulling strings across Europe to block investigations of U.S. torture, the scams have come fast and furious. Most of the American establishment has been indignant about the leaks—as if they violated government’s divine right to delude the governed.
Instead of relying on purported foreign-policy masterminds, Americans should remember Emerson’s maxim that “character is higher than intellect.” Washington is full of intellectuals more devoted to power than to truth. Professors hungry for influence are no more trustworthy than a second-term Arkansas congressman seeking a seat on the House Appropriations Committee.
But even if Americans properly discount the pretensions of the next deluge of foreign policy sages, it is unlikely that the government will begin learning from its mistakes. The only surefire way to avoid past follies is to reduce vastly U.S. interventions abroad. The second best solution is somehow to assure that it will be the pro-war experts, congressmen, and political appointees whose blood is shed in the conflicts they start.
James Bovard is the author of Attention Deficit Democracy, Freedom in Chains, Lost Rights, and six other books