Why do politicians make disastrous decisions
with the consistency of iron filings obeying a magnet? Decisions that in retrospect
(and frequently in prospect) seem doomed to failure? After 9/11, did it make
any sense when, after coming close to the point of capturing Osama bin Laden,
the U.S. government began pulling troops, materiel, and intelligence assets away from
the hunt in order to invade a country that had nothing to do with Osama?
After invading that country (Iraq), what was the set of policy options that
faced our brilliant and esteemed leaders? They could have maintained most of
the preexisting organizations and institutions in the country and co-opted
them to maintain order and a functioning civil society. This was a policy followed
very successfully by Gen. MacArthur during the occupation of Japan. Of course
they followed the polar opposite policy of firing all the Ba'athist administrators
and disbanding the army, thus ensuring that the insurgency would benefit from
a reserve army of the unemployed and disaffected.
The Democrats are also are no strangers to this tropism. The FISA telecom
immunity fiasco is a perfect example: key provisions in the underlying statute
had been expired for months and, contrary to the fearmongering lies of President
Bush and CIA Director Hayden, what happened was – nothing. So
there was no need to be panicked into enacting new legislation indemnifying
the telecoms against their own illegal behavior. The public overall didn't
seem to care one way or the other, but the Democratic base was vehemently against immunity.
And there was no way to immunize the telecoms unless Congress affirmatively
acted. Since it requires the speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader
to move legislation, the Democrats could have simply run out the clock on the
Of course, we know how this farce ended: Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader
Reid brought up telecom immunity legislation and gave the president what he
wanted without even so much as a quid pro quo. What the Democrats
achieved by this move was substantively bad legislation, a horrible precedent
for future statutory indemnifications of illegality, a victory for the president
they profess to oppose, and a (more) disillusioned voter base.
In the last couple of days we have seen this scenario play out again with
the selection of Joseph R. Biden Jr. as the vice presidential nominee of the
Democratic Party. However this selection plays out in the political horse race,
it is substantively an extremely poor choice that will increase the probability
that a Democratic foreign policy (should Barack Obama win) will simply be Bush
Lite: more interventions, more insane levels of defense spending, more foreign
aid giveaways to scoundrels like Mikheil Saakashvili.
The canned media critique is that Biden is a rhetorical blowhard who does
not know when to shut up but that he has immense foreign policy experience.
The first characterization is true: one recalls his opening statement during
Samuel Alito's Supreme Court confirmation hearing. Biden's statement rambled,
heaved, bloviated, and oozed like treacle, without point or substance, neither
endorsing nor critiquing Alito's substantive qualifications. He chewed up so
much valuable time not making any of the points that Democrats
were presumably at pains to make that the C-SPAN camera briefly showed his
colleague Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) burying his head in his hands in despair at
Biden's interminable performance.
The second characterization is also largely true; Biden has immense foreign
policy experience. But it is precisely the wrong kind of experience if the
Democrats want to contrast themselves with the disastrous policies of the last
eight years. He has long been a pliant tool of the War Party, favoring humanitarian
intervention as the principal tool for meddling overseas. In a previous
essay we alluded to John McCain's introduction of a "let's invade Serbia"
resolution in 1999 as evidence of the Arizona Senator's maniacal bellicosity. McCain's
chief cosponsor for this legislation was Biden.
Biden was Capitol Hill's main cheerleader for Bill Clinton when the latter
unleashed his idiotic 100-hour bombing campaign against Iraq in order to divert
attention from his impeachment. When Scott Ritter, a U.S. member of the UN
arms inspection team in Iraq, began saying that the inspections were effective
(which Washington didn't want to hear), and that the United States was inserting
intelligence operatives into the team to target Saddam Hussein (thus giving
Saddam legitimate grounds to expel the whole operation), Biden patronizingly
excoriated Ritter during the latter's congressional testimony, referring to
him as "Scotty Boy." The passage of time has vindicated Ritter far more than
Biden is one of the immense tribe of Washington savants who were gung-ho for
the invasion of Iraq but who edged away from their support once it became less
popular. Of course, the opposition is not based on any belated appreciation
of the invasion's illegality, immorality, ruinous cost, or geopolitical imbecility.
The default "opposition mode" is to criticize the invasion because there weren't
enough troops. Morally, this argument is cretinous, like condemning Operation
Barbarossa solely because the Wehrmacht didn't go in heavy
enough. It is illogical as well: the American public is bombarded daily with
pronouncements about how the U.S. military is "stretched to the breaking point,"
and how there is an upper limit to the number of troops that can be maintained
in Iraq. So how would those extra troops have been conjured out of thin air?
It is revealing that as late as the fall of 2005 Biden
gushed over a speech given by Bush to the National Endowment of Democracy
(a coven of "ex"-Trotskyite neoconservatives who specialize in spending taxpayer
dollars to rig elections abroad). Bush's speech was the usual malignant drivel
about exporting democracy to the heathens at gunpoint; in praising it, Biden
was endorsing the mindset that gave rise to the Iraq debacle in the first place.
Biden's trip to Georgia as Obama's emissary is just the latest example of
his foreign policy judgment. The principal result of this journey was Biden's
pronunciamento that taxpayers should fork over $1 billion to the Saakashvili
regime. This amounts to indemnifying Saakashvili for his criminal stupidity.
No doubt once Congress gets finished with such an aid package the price tag
will be $5 billion.
Biden is fond of saying that because the DOD budget is so big there is a budgetary
disproportion to what the State Department gets. Ergo, this automatically
means in Biden's mind that because DOD gets so much, State's budget ought to
be increased. Of course, it never occurs to him that it is just as logical
to conclude one could cure the disproportion by decreasing DOD's
budget rather than by increasing State's.
In point of fact, the foreign aid budget, just like DOD's, is a riot of waste,
fraud, abuse, and bribes to regimes even more corrupt and odious than our own.
One could rationalize temporary humanitarian aid to places hit with natural
disasters or the like. But permanent, country-based aid (the vast bulk of the
foreign aid budget) is simply a waste of money. One can imagine that in an
administration in which Biden had influence such potlatch would greatly increase.
So why did Obama pick him? The standard answer is that Democrats don't want
to appear "weak" (a term that now essentially means "less trigger-happy") on
national security policy. But that raises the question of why this dynamic
exists in the first place. Why did Obama choose the most bellicose of potential
vice presidential candidates precisely when the public is fed up with the results
of earlier bellicosity?
Libertarian writer Justin Raimondo facetiously propounded the theory that
when hijacked airliners hit the World Trade Center towers on 9/11 they ripped
a hole in the fabric of the space-time continuum and the country entered a
"Bizarro World" where up was down, black was white, and stupidity was wisdom.
There is some attractiveness to that argument – after 9/11 stupidity became
almost a mandatory component of good citizenship – but it does not explain
why there were many manifestations of this phenomenon prior to 9/11. The extremely
serious consequences of intervening in the Balkans, for instance, are only
now coming to light with Russia's long-delayed response to it in Georgia.
To explain why the American political class invades the wrong countries, indemnifies
criminals, picks people like Joe Biden for responsible positions, and engages
in so many other destructive acts, we modestly propose Werther's Law, or the
Iron Law of Adverse Political Selection: in decadent political systems
the most damaging policy option tends to be the one chosen.
To explain how Werther's Law works, we need reference to another political
rule of thumb, the Iron
Law of Oligarchy, which states that all organizations tend to develop
into hierarchies with oligarchs at the top. We submit that those oligarchies
over time tend to become inbred, either literally (think Bush family), or because
they select members based on obedience to hierarchy, a groupthink mentality,
and ability to self-censor. The rewards for correct behavior are lucrative:
not only the thrill of wielding power when in office but a virtual ironclad
guarantee of well-remunerated lifetime employment as a lobbyist, a board member
of a defense contractor, or a holder of an endowed chair at a foundation.
Making serious mistakes, or even pursuing disastrous policies, are no impediment
to one's career moving onward and upward. "Failing upward" (known cynically
in Washington as "f*ck up and move up") is an occurrence as frequent in Washington
as the common cold. How else to explain Paul Wolfowitz's horrific tenure at
the Department of Defense being rewarded with a plum job as president of the
World Bank, where he could make further business contacts that would keep him
well-paid even after he failed in that job? It is no sin to
be incompetent; it is a sin to be competent and diligent in
one's job if it involves blowing the whistle on malfeasance in one's organization.
The fate of whistleblowers in the Bush administration is abundant evidence
of this. No one with a mortgage likes to be demoted, fired, or blackballed
from future employment.
As the oligarchy metastasizes, it penetrates and transforms other governmental
and non-governmental organizations, including those intended to serve as watchdogs.
Congress ceases to oversee military spending, because every weapon system is
built in somebody's district. The media hires "news analysts" straight out
of the White House and "military analysts" whose explicit understanding of
their jobs is to present wars in the best possible light.
The public becomes less and less able to affect the issues. The American people
are not noted for their driving intellectual curiosity in the first place,
but should public indignation lead to protest it is quickly channeled into
electoral politics, where the protest is drained of life. Elections themselves
are characterized by personality contests, horse-race trivia, and strenuous
efforts to avoid real issues. The opposing candidates, chosen by political
hierarchies, afford the voter the choice between Coke and Diet Coke even if
he desperately wants Bordeaux.
The oligarchy, and the political system that radiates outward from it, becomes
an interlocking and self-reinforcing web of interests. Success becomes what
serves the interest of the oligarchy (including the financial interest of individual
members thereof); failure is whatever does not serve its interest. The system
is inwardly focused, self-referential, and hostile to new ideas. The illusion
of free debate is maintained by allowing marginal, process-oriented criticism
("not enough troops"). Those who reject the rules of the game and fundamentally
critique the system, like Ron Paul or Dennis Kucinich, are simply quarantined,
ridiculed by the bought media, and often face primary challenges organized
by the party hierarchy.
Such a system is either notably incurious about the world outside its own
power structure or else it seeks to interpret that world in ways that complement
its own flattering self-image. Left to mature long enough the system becomes
delusional. Hence all the crowing in the past 20 years about indispensable
nations, hyperpowers, and so forth. Given that war is incredibly remunerative
to the oligarchy (hundreds of thousands of people within a 50-mile radius of
the Capitol make a really, really good living off it) even as it drains the
resources of the public at large, it is no wonder that Washington habitually
resorts to the sword. The fact that it provides an overseas scapegoat doesn't
hurt, either, in terms of keeping the home folks in line.
Small and weak countries that habitually engage in this warlike behavior quickly
end up in the dustbin of history, like Somalia. But the United States, like
Rome, is a vast country with huge (though not infinite) resources and can delude
itself for decades that this kind of behavior is benign. And it is benign,
at least for the short- and even medium-term interests of the oligarchy. The
perverse incentives of the process ensure that the oligarchy is stabilized
and personally enriched even as national strength gradually ebbs.
Although we have used war-making as the prime example of oligarchy enhancement,
the same principle applies in other fields. Why did the government encourage
the decline of manufacturing and the financialization of the economy, thereby
authorizing the creation of financial transactions that were little better
than Ponzi schemes? A close examination of Fannie Mae's and Freddie Mac's political
contributions to the oligarchy reveals the answer: it was incredibly lucrative.
Given the powerful set of career and monetary incentives that allow the American
oligarchy to define failure as success, it will be very hard to break the feedback
loop of rewards and punishments that create disastrous policies. But, as noted
before, financial resources are not infinite. It is unlikely (though not unthinkable)
that the American oligarchy could lurch into some crisis that gets everyone
killed. But it is more than likely that, like the Soviet Union, Britain, Holland,
Spain, and Rome before it, the American empire will follow Werther's Law and
stumble over the ensuing decades from quagmire to quagmire, depleting its funds
till outsiders shake their heads over the pathetic comedown of the erstwhile
hyperpower. Joe Biden may be an extensive footnote in the history of that decline.