The Corner

National Security & Defense

Self-Interest and Good Intentions

Soldiers assigned to First Battalion, 178th Infantry Regiment, Illinois Army National Guard, conduct security as part of an advise and assistance mission in southeastern Afghanistan, September 17, 2019. (Master Sergeant Alejandro Licea/US Army)

I take many of Jim’s points about how it’s not easy to wind down America’s troop commitments. But I might challenge him on a few points. He’s right that there’s not some evil deep-state conspiracy on the inside. “They’re not warmongers, they’re not ill-informed, and they’re the opposite of callous about flag draped coffins returning to Dover Air Force base,” he writes.

That’s true. But devilish hawks isn’t exactly the picture I have in mind. History is filled with well-intentioned cadres of people whose biases and blind spots — often ones given to them by the age, their education, and their personal formation — reliably generate poor judgments.

I also find it hard to look at say, The Afghanistan Papers, and endorse their innocence in an unqualified way. What’s interesting is that in those documents you find officials like Donald Rumsfeld telling his own staff that he’s uninformed. And he comes out better than most for it. There’s Douglas Lute, “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing.”  We also know from this cache of papers that sometimes senior military leaders reach their conclusions by deliberately lying to themselves about the situation on the ground. We are all familiar with how military organizations can be corrupted by the incentive for individuals to report only good news up the chain, because they suspect any contrary information will just result in punishment for those delivering it.

One of the most arresting political books of the last decade was Yanis Varoufakis’s Adults in the Room. He was the economist who teamed up with the insurgent left-leaning Syriza government in its bid to challenge the EU’s policies during the interlocking Greek and Euro-crisis.

His book is open to charges of self-interest, but what’s valuable about it is its arresting portrait of how the “adults in the room” often have an overwhelming interest to stick together on a policy they all know is doomed to fail, because breaking ranks is too costly. Breaking ranks threatens the authority and position of everyone in the room in an unpredictable way. The truth-teller will very effectively be expelled as a crank and a lunatic. This is a lesson that Larry Summers, of all people, tries to warn him about at the start of the book. For the adults in the room, it’s much better for everyone to fail together. That way no one is to blame, and everyone can say they did their best. The situation was hopeless, and the failed policies mitigated the worst outcomes, didn’t they? And then everyone can be flown at the expense of some taxpayers or endowed foundation to the next chat session ahead of the next calamity.

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