Prisoners of our own delusion

by Chuck Spinney

A recent article by Thomas Powers in the New York Review of Books is a very good analysis of why Mr. Bush’s impulse to attack Iran before he leaves office is sheer madness. And at a deeper level, it well illustrates how perverted the militarization of US grand strategy has become at the dawn of the 21st Century.

But … Powers ignores the deeper forces behind America’s dangerous evolution toward the knee-jerk use of military force. Instead, he seems to attribute the roots of this perversion to the Republicans and neocons. This kind of omission is particularly unfortunate in a landmark election year, where the intelligentsia is scrambling especially hard to capture the mind and thinking of the Presidential candidates, especially that of Barak Obama, who must seem to possess a most inviting tabla rasa on which to imprint a theory of military and foreign policy.

To be sure, blaming the Bushies and neocons for the substitution of force for diplomacy is not without a lot of merit … as the past eight years of madness have shown. But this madness did not come about in a vacuum.

To assume otherwise misses the fundamental point that the militarization of grand strategy is deeply rooted in our political culture. The embedding operation evolved during the entire period of the Cold War. Looking back to the origins of the Cold War, for example, did not George Kennan, the father of the Containment Policy, complain later that the militarization of foreign policy warped containment theory into feeding an arms race that greatly intensified the Cold War? And, oh by the way, long before the Cold War ended, did not President Eisenhower warn us in his farewell speech to the American people about the dangers of excessive political influence posed by the military-industrial complex?

It is especially important to appreciate how the propensity to militarize grand strategy fed back on and magnified itself after we erroneously convinced ourselves that this strategy was responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union. Indeed, in the 1990s, during the Clinton Administration, this impulse to militarize foreign policy became evident in a particularly pernicious synthesis: a fusing of the theory of coercive diplomacy with the delusional hubristic belief that precision guided weapons could be wired together with an all seeing, all knowing surveillance, decision-making, and targeting system. This system would enable the United States to build a precisely controlled coercion machine, where minutely regulated diplomatic pressure, coupled with precision missile/bombing strikes, could bring about desired political outcomes cleanly, neatly, quickly, and at low cost.

Who can forget how Madeline Albight referred implicitly to this coercion machine when she made the complaint to the effect that “What was the point of having this magnificent military if you are not going to use it?” during early stages of the Yugoslavian crisis in the early 1990s. In the late 1990s, did not the US negotiators insert a poison pill into Rambouillet negotiations, so that Serbia’s refusal to agree to our excessively onerous demands would justify our strategic bombing campaign of Serbia over the Kosovo issue, in the mistaken belief that only two or three days of precision bombing would compel Serbia to acquiesce? (After 79 days of brutal bombing, Russia withdrew its support of Serbia and forced the Serbs to agree the terms they already agreed to before we inserted the poison pill.)

My point is not to criticize Powers’ analysis per se, which is excellent and important, so far as it goes. But to point out that there are deeper forces at work in this very dangerous state of affairs. I believe these deeper causes are rooted in the bipartisan political struggle to maintain and expand the political economy of the military-industrial-congressional complex (MICC), as opposed to being a phenomenon of which political party is in power. These may be forces that the Bushies have exploited to hilt, but he and his henchmen did not create them.

If we are to come to grips with the deeper causes of America’s militarization of grand strategy and the loss of our moral stature in the world, we must deal with the internal issues of our domestic political economy. After all, as Powers says so accurately in his opening line, “At a moment of serious challenge, battered by two wars, ballooning debt, and a faltering economy, the United States appears to have lost its capacity to think clearly.”

No more fitting epitaph for the MICC can be written.

Be Sociable, Share!

Filed in Uncategorized | 5 responses so far

5 Responses to “Prisoners of our own delusion”

  1. gracaton 05 Jul 2008 at 9:21 am 1

    Eisenhower and Kennan’s cautions remind me how terribly short sighted the government and the people can be. David Hackworth used to call it the DRSS. “Don’t Remember Shit Syndrome”.

    Lessons learned are politicized and/or forgotten! I understand the Army has a new 720 page history of the Iraq War out. I know I will not be able to read it but I am sure it is not as helpful as it could be.

    Lastly. We went through a BAD oil crisis twice in the seventies. No lessons learned? I mentioned this to some of my co-workers 20-50 year olds. They knew not of what I spoke.

    Good to hear from Chuck Spinney. A man who, I am sure, is enjoying his boat and retirement.

    [CR: From all signs, this appears to be the case.]

  2. Maxon 05 Jul 2008 at 10:04 am 2

    “this madness did not come about in a vacuum.”

    A though and rigorous introspection by Charles,
    himself a patron saint of this following.

    Charles who at this stage dosn’t owe anybody,
    or the country anything, and having done well more than his share, or could be reasonably expected of anyone.

    I’m reminded of a segment in the movie Documentary “Why We Fight” in which Charles
    himself figures prominantly.

    The passage, and I find this most disturbing,
    in relation to this discussion comes from one
    Richard Pearl, at the epicenter of

    Sadly this dovetails with Spinney’s message here today.

    And if Pearl is right about this, if little else,
    I don’t see much promise.

    It’s difficult to judge, I don’t know anyone personely who’s particularly satisfied or impressed with the direction the country has taken the last many years.

    However, as Charles says it’s reasonable to say that most of the confidence in the American pepole to make sound decisions, is at this stage been demonstrated to be highly questionable.

    let’s be honest, it’s now come to the point where the choices have been religated to Dumb, and Dumber.

    You can blame the system,
    the media, the political parties, the military ind. complex, but to do so to some degree abrigates the responsibilty at the individual level. The last sentence might serve as the epitath for the American dream.

    Here’s what Pearl had to say, and in as much as
    we’re inspired, recognize, admire, and respect Spinney’s motives and perspectives being the polar opposite, the statements dovetail in a most disturbing parallel.

    I’m doing this from memory so I hope I get it exactly right.

    “One of the sillier notions, and you hear this all the time, is that US foreign policy has somehow been hijacked by a handful of people.”

    “And once their gone, we’ll go back to the way things were (Pre-911). Nothing could be further from the truth, the world’s changed, and we’ve changed as a people, and we’re not going back.”


    [CR: Charles? Don’t think I’ve ever heard him called that before.]

  3. EmeryNelsonon 05 Jul 2008 at 7:44 pm 3

    Good to see Chuck Back. He’s missed.

    I remember Republican friends bitching about Kosovo and how questionable it was, yet stating that it was a “precedent”. No one should be at all surprised at how this turned out. Listen to Barack Obama on the subject of intervention and apparently he’s got some pet invasions of his own he’d like to undertake. We’re doomed to eventually overreach German style.

  4. loggie20on 06 Jul 2008 at 12:24 pm 4

    I, too, see no threat to the MICC from Obama.

    The issue will be critical as the effects of squandering nearly 4% of GDP for the past half century effect the ability to service debt to Japan and China as well as meet the needs of a demographic shift to more retirees, the needy aged.

    The MICC’ political influence will be paid in some shape or another.

    Over reach, US is already there.

    Our infratsructure is neglected while the US has the most expensive (profitable) over kill weapons imaginable.

  5. Duncan Kinderon 06 Jul 2008 at 5:42 pm 5

    Over reach, US is already there.

    The parallels between the United States today and Hapsburg Spain are striking.