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Magic and Mayhem: The Delusions of American Foreign Policy From Korea to Afghanistan Hardcover – Import, 7 Sep 2010
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About the Author
Derek Leebaert has taught foreign policy at Georgetown University since 1996, is a partner in the management consulting firm MAP AG
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Leebaert focuses on the evolution of US foreign policy since the Korean War. He criticizes decision makers for their superficial analysis of problems and inability to look for alternatives. Often doing nothing might have been the best option. However, the US has plenty of what Leebaert calls "emergency men." These are "the clever, energetic, self-assured, well-schooled people who take advantage of the opportunities intrinsic to the American political system to trifle with enormous risk." Emergency men are eager to "do something" and they tend to carry the day in Washington. Those that urge caution are often dismissed as too negative or defeatist and are usually beaten into submission.
Emergency men include McGeorge Bundy, John F. Kennedy, Henry Kissinger, and Paul Wolfowitz. These men often plunge into situations without adequate research or an exit strategy. Later reflection indicates that what they recommended was doomed to fail. However, the emergency men are supremely self-confident, notwithstanding their all-too-frequent lack of any real basis for such confidence.
The Iraq War presents an example of the emergency men in action. Leebaert calls Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney and Paul Bremmer "masters of mayhem." Dick Cheney promised that "the (Iraqi) people will be so happy with their freedoms (after a US invasion) that we'll probably back ourselves out of there within a month or two." This proved to be completely wrong. Leebaert complains that Americans often don't bother to learn about countries whose histories, cultures and traditions have little in common with their own. None of the architects of the Iraq war spoke Arabic or had lived in the Middle East. Paul Bremmer, who disbanded the Iraqi Army and banned the secular Ba'ath Party, admitted he knew nothing about Iraq before his arrival in the country. 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 US has found in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan that the rest of the world does not always share American values. The Taliban did not want to live in a liberal democracy. Rather than seeing the world as it is, America's foreign policy experts see it as they believe it ought to be. In Iraq, the United Sates appointed Maliki as president. He was a man the White House thought it could do business with. But Maliki had his own agenda and would not stick to the US script. He excluded the Sunnis and the Kurds from the government and created the environment for civil war. America did not grasp that Maliki was a disaster until it was too late.
The US exit strategy in Iraq was predicated on training a local army. We have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan that newly minted armies may not be successful. In Iraq, nothing worked out as planned. With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps it was naïve to assume that the US could turn Iraq into a loyal US ally which embraced secularism, democracy, and capitalism.
Leebaert believes that the military has similar issues. The US has too much firepower for any future adversary to try and take it on in a conventional conflict. The reality is that the US continues to get drawn into small messy wars with enemies who don't have tanks and fighter aircraft. The US military is still preparing to fight big set-piece battles just like it did in World War 2, but future opponents are more likely to use guerilla tactics. The truth appears to be that the Pentagon dislikes fighting insurgencies. As Leebaert points out: "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."
Leebaert gives the impression that arrogance and cluelessness are perhaps the greatest constants in US foreign policy. This book is a fun read.
What then are the warts on U.S. decision making? Leebaert examines six different aspects of the magical thinking he claims has led the U.S. to its current dilemmas, both internal and external:
Emergency Men: these are persons who step to the fore in hard times, partly informed on the issues at hand, who are telegenic and glib enough to garner the trust of governmental administrators and citizens.
The Mystique of Management: this is the tendency of administrators to impose management on what is unmanageable, particularly in foreign policy.
Star Power: this is the obsession Americans have with self-identified experts, who elbow their way into the national spotlight. Such persons are long on personality, invariably short on the expertise thev're laid claim to.
Expectations of Wondrous Results from Nominal Effort: To paraphrase, Americans seek easy answers to complex problems. When self-styled experts rise to prominence, promising some catch-all solution to complexity, we're all too willing to accept it over a slower, incremental approach.
History: We often misread history or accept the implications of history only in part.
The World Wants To Be Like Us: we're so enamored of our nation's history, of its rise to power, its particular path to economic well-being, that we assume (in error) that the rest of the world would evolve into international versions of our history, or success as a society, if only they had the chance.
Leebaert, while teetering on the precipice of rant, does provide incisive views into our decision-making history and the draining effect this history is now having on our dynamism and creativity. Identifying problems, however is always much easier and showier than providing solutions, particularly when the complexities of modern societies are brought to bear. But the author does attempt to provide the first nibbles at solution here. Some involve re-organization and re-management of government to emphasize true professionals, not political snake oil salesmen. This, however, places a greater burden on citizens to ferret out these emergency men, these stars, and to demand that reason be imposed on those who step to the fore. But this has always been the project of the Enlightenment: to provide a society in which citizens may overcome historical emotional baggage through education and understanding.
As with any complexity, Leebaert's suggestions are only a start.