I think it was Gladstone who described his duties as prime minister of Britain as that of the guy on a raft in a rapids, using a pole to keep the raft from smashing into the rocks. That is probably history’s most honest rendering of how government actually functions.
Consider the metaphor: The ship of state is referred to as a raft--the most unmanageable of watercraft. The person in command does not use a rudder, which is how you steer a ship. He uses a pole to fend off rocks--he is reactive rather than pro-active, trying to avoid disaster rather than trying to steer a proper course. And the raft is being carried down a rapids--he has no idea where he is going but is being swept along by forces he cannot control.
There are two great fictions about life that people in government and, worse, in the media, treat as gospel. The first is that people in high-government offices all over the world know what they are doing. The second is that government officials in crises make brilliant tactical moves.
The Persian Gulf crisis offers itself as an object lesson in how history works before historians get their chance to change it.
On Aug. 2, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. One may reasonably assume that he took this action in anticipation of doubling his country’s net financial worth at minimum cost. Earlier discussions with the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, unfortunately, reinforced that view. Perhaps he had plans for a further sojourn south into Saudi Arabia, perhaps not. At the least, he anticipated that he would be able to dominate Saudi Arabia politically through the overt threat of military force on its borders, allowing him to maximize the economic benefit of his oil wealth through market control. If successful, it would have been called a master stroke.
But there aren’t many master strokes in human history. This same Saddam Hussein 10 years ago launched a war of aggression into Iran in hope of achieving a quick, cheap victory, and that war mutated into an eight-year nightmare--World War I fought with some of World War III’s weapons--that took the lives of more than a million people. And after invading Kuwait, Hussein gave back what little he had gained at the cost of between 2% and 3% of his total population; this action--called by some a brilliant maneuver--was undertaken to secure his northeastern frontier against a country that would still probably like to see his head on a pike. Any reasonable analysis will suggest that the move was one of desperation rather than brilliance.
Hussein’s subsequent moves have shown little greater perception. Taking unto himself thousands of hostages, he tried to give them back in dribs and drabs to any official or amateur agent who bothered purchasing air fare to Baghdad. He failed to consider the logic of his own action, and either got carried away and decided to give them all back, or decided that there was no further use in holding them. That is, after enraging people all over the world through kidnaping, he is seeking to garner favor by admitting his crime and returning his victims. It would have made far more sense not to have taken them, or having done so, to hold onto them.
One of the reasons given for releasing the hostages is the most laughable of all: that Hussein was encouraged by resistance among Americans and within Congress to the President’s action. One might speculate that Hussein’s ambassador in Washington--yet another perceptive individual--failed to tell his boss that the President’s drop in approval polls more probably reflected the same waffling on budget matters that hurt Republican congressional candidates (people do not compartmentalize their views on a person’s competence) and that the drop was already reversing itself anyway. And Congress will do what it always does in a time of crisis--that is, it looks concerned while taking no substantive action, like every other committee in the civilized world.
Despite all this, we are inundated by news stories--and their most dreaded companions, “news analysis” columns--telling us of the cleverness of Hussein’s political and psychological maneuvering. Those pieces are often written by the very commentators who warned for two generations of the political demise of NATO and the brilliant psychological campaigns of the Warsaw Pact (that is, preventing us from deploying theater nuclear forces), which, by the way, no longer exists, though the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is as strong as ever.
On the American side, while it is true that President Bush has done extraordinarily well in organizing world reaction against Hussein, it probably helped that geopolitical conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union has ended. As a result, there was no one else around to stoke up opposition, and with only one banner to march behind, the world marched with Bush more or less by default.
Similarly, our buildup of forces, impressive as it has been, has at all times been fully regulated by objective forces. The U.S. Merchant Marine is so depleted that we could not have deployed our heavy forces--you can’t fly tanks from place to place very efficiently--any faster regardless of the situation. We came within a whisker of chartering at least one Russian ship to help speed our deployment, which one might also call a sign of some desperation.
Meanwhile, we have the comedy of manners taking place on Capitol Hill. One U.S. senator lambasts the secretary of state for not having any decent alternatives to the use of force, but on being asked for one, admits that he doesn’t have a clue. Another senator criticizes the secretary of defense for getting our troops a little too ready for action, then admits that he once told the secretary that getting our troops ready to win was his only job. An overweening consistency, as Emerson liked to say, is the hobgoblin of little minds. One wonders if the quote might not have been flubbed by his editor.
In fairness to Congress, one need only look at history. Horace Greeley who, during the 1860 election campaign, was a firebrand for emancipation at any price, immediately after the election of Lincoln decided that letting the Southern states go in peace, while retaining their “peculiar institution,” was not so bad an idea after all.
As I said earlier, this is a most interesting case study of what actually happens before historians get a chance to change it all.
The continuing theme is reasonably clear, however. People are all the same. While still in the insurance business, I developed Clancy’s Law of Accidents: The only difference between a wise man and a fool is that a wise man makes much more serious mistakes. Privates don’t lose battles; generals do, and you have to be smart to become a general. You must also be smart to be a physician, but they kill patients all the time. It’s merely human nature. Everyone makes mistakes. One’s title or office does not make one immune. The problem is that a lot of people with titles and offices act as though they are immune, and the media contribute to this fiction.
People in all fields of life fail to think their actions through. They begin to do something about an immediate tactical problem but without examining the downstream consequences of their action. Hitler invaded Poland thinking that England and France would not honor their recent guarantee to the Poles. Johnson put troops in Vietnam without examining their mission. Reagan put Marines in Beirut without wondering what they would do there or when they might leave. The Russians tried for years to outstrip Western military spending without noticing that they vitiated their own economy in the process. The phenomenon is not merely international, of course. Domestically, we installed a welfare system that wrecked poor families and were surprised at the crime that resulted; we started federal student loans and then watched college costs outstrip inflation faster than a space-shuttle launch. And so forth. It would help if people admitted mistakes, but those with titles and offices are never very keen on that, are they--and are the rest of us any more willing?
But the media--and, later, historians with telescopic but selective hindsight--see purpose in random behavior and brilliance in befuddlement. Politicians undertake actions most often by spasm or whim, perhaps with no more thought than a motorist fighting his way home on the freeway, changing lanes to get a few yards of progress, and in the process adding to the jam rather than letting it sort itself out.
Doesn’t anybody think? The cost of not thinking is often death and misery, and if the media ever started pointing that out instead of imputing legitimacy to every random remark of political figures, maybe we could save a life or two. At the very least we might let people know what is actually going on.