Readers of this blog know that I have serious doubts about the US ability to maintain its position in the Middle East and across the globe. While I usually explain this “management crisis” in the context of the “collapse” of the Soviet Union, it is important to remember that when it comes to public affairs, resource allocation is almost never logical or rational because it is largely reactive (e.g, the Pentagon is the largest band-aid dispenser in the world and US immigration policy is largely a response to what happened 11 years ago). In truth, the private business world is most often the same (boo hoo to any free market know-nothings out there), but I want to pause here and let you consider a particular manifestation of this problem.
Critics of the US administration, especially US Democrats, like to argue that the Bush White House has prized loyalty over competence (see: the continuing Alberto Gonzales saga). This, to my mind, is wishful thinking in the extreme. The simple fact of the matter is that nature and structure of US politics (both at the elite and mass levels) lack sufficient incentives to identify and pursue quote, unquote national interests. See this:
Patrick Lang told a hilarious story the other night, for example, about a job interview he had with Douglas Feith, a key architect of the invasion of Iraq.
It was at the beginning of the first Bush term. Lang had been in charge of the Middle East, South Asia and terrorism for the Defense Intelligence Agency in the 1990s. Later he ran the Pentagon’s worldwide spying operations.
In early 2001, his name was put forward as somebody who would be good at running the Pentagon’s office of special operations and low-intensity warfare, i.e., counterinsurgency. Lang had also been a Green Beret, with three tours in South Vietnam.
One of the people he had to impress was Feith, the Defense Department’s number three official and a leading player in the clique of neoconservatives who had taken over the government’s national security apparatus.
Lang went to see him, he recalled during a May 7 panel discussion at the University of the District of Columbia.
“He was sitting there munching a sandwich while he was talking to me,” Lang recalled, “ which I thought was remarkable in itself, but he also had these briefing papers — they always had briefing papers, you know — about me.
“He’s looking at this stuff, and he says, ‘I’ve heard of you. I heard of you.’
“He says, ‘Is it really true that you really know the Arabs this well, and that you speak Arabic this well? Is that really true? Is that really true?’
“And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s really true.’
‘That’s too bad,” Feith said. The audience howled.
“That was the end of the interview,” Lang said. “I’m not quite sure what he meant, but you can work it out.”
For the record, I disagree with many things Colonel Lang has to say about “Arabs,” but it is impossible to imagine the US military producing someone more astute or informed as to the issues of the region (disagree with him at your own peril). So yes, it is true that guys like Lang do seem, at times, to suffer from a small Lawrence of Arabia complex, but this says less about their intelligence than it does about the mental dexterity of the dimwitted troglodytes they have to deal with back at home. I should pause here, however, and offer a small caveat. However, idiotic Feith may be (Tommy Franks thought him
to be “the fucking stupidest guy on the face of the earth,”), it is not for nothing that he reached to No. 3 spot at the Pentagon, whose annual spending tops
“the combined GDP of all 47 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, including South Africa and oil giants Nigeria and Angola, in 2005, according to the World Bank.” One might very much to say that the current neoconservatives in the US represent the classic spoiled child syndome, in which ease at home breeds difficulties further afield.
Now, of course, the Americans are a particular concern for Lebanon watchers, but explaining the American role poses signficant analytical difficulties. There is perhaps no better illustration of these difficulties than the work of Sy Hersh
. The national security state, established at the end of WWII, poses real challenges for any journalist seeking to elucidate some of its more hidden operations. Hersh and others and the quality of their work are almost entirely dependent on the reliability of their sources, because they simply do not have access to the information required to verify what their sources tell them. I would add here that even the sources, especially the more honest ones, will admit to a similar information deficit. Anyone who knows how governments process information and the role of bureaucratic boundaries in the flow of information would accept this as nothing less than a truism. And when we are talking about issues and policies that cross national boundaries, things only get messier.
Having laid out some of the basic difficulties, let me turn to the eternal question: what is to be done? Well, I would argue that Hersh is to be read, but read carefully. His work is positively invaluable, but not because I agree with his particular narratives on international events or believe that he captures the full reality of any particular situation. No, instead, I believe it is invaluable because it speaks directly to some portion of the policy and political debates over a particular issue. [To be continued … ]