On War #285: If Wishes Were Horses…

By William S. Lind
December 8, 2008

Panglissading through reality, the New York Times recently offered the sort of thoughtlessness sunny picture of the Obama administration’s security policy that lulls children to sleep but leaves adults restlessly wakeful. In a front-page story on December 1, “A Handpicked Team for a Foreign Policy Shift” by David Sanger, the Times reported that the new administration’s key national security policy appointees

were selected in large part because they have embraced a sweeping shift of resources in the national security arena.

The shift, which would come partly out of the military’s huge budget, would create a greatly expanded corps of diplomats and aid workers that, in the vision of the coming Obama administration, would be engaged in projects around the world aimed at preventing conflicts and rebuilding failed states.

Whether they can make the change…”will be the great foreign policy experiment of the Obama presidency,” one of his senior advisors said recently.

In the best Christmas spirit of my old friend Mr. Scrooge, I will spoil the story by spilling the ending up front. The “great foreign policy experiment” will fail.

It will fail for two reasons, one practical and one theoretical. The practical reason is that, no matter how much money you give them, out State Department and other civilian agencies cannot produce a product.

Over the years, I have heard one ambassador after another say, “I had to turn to the military because they are the only people who can get anything done.” If you give the U.S. military an order, something usually happens. It may happen late, clumsily, and expensively, but still, something happens.

In contrast, with State and other agencies, most of the time nothing happens. That is true even when budgets are ample. Why? Because the internal culture of our civilian agencies is so rigid, bureaucratic, risk-averse and rule-bound that they cannot act.

Often, the people at the working level are quite talented. They want to do the assigned job. But the internal focus of their agency is so strong they cannot, at least without risking their careers. A single broken rule or bent regulation, undotted i or uncrossed t, and they quickly learn to follow the regs and forget about the product. So nothing happens.

The Obama administration may wish this were not the case. Worse, it may pretend it is not the case, and learn only by failure. But if it is serious about its “one great foreign policy experiment,” it must start by reforming the internal culture of the State department and all related agencies. That is a long-term and difficult undertaking. As to wishes, well, if wishes were horses, we would all get rich collecting golden road apples.

The second reason the great experiment will fail is that it represents a failure in strategic theory. In effect, it says that the Bush administration’s debacle was a result of not of mistaken ends, only of mistaken means.

America will start to endeavor to govern the world, “preventing conflicts and rebuilding failed states.” We will insert ourselves everywhere, exporting “democracy” and “human rights,” aka Brave New World. We will re-make other societies in our own image, whether they want us to or not (no one does). This time, it will work, because instead of Marines, we will storm the beaches with brave State Department lads, armored with blue suits and armed with briefing papers and bottles of sherry.

In fact, our offensive grand strategy is itself the root of our failures. We cannot re-make societies in our own image, regardless of the means employed. Attempts to do so are doomed to failure, and so long as we insist on undertaking them, we are doomed to imperial overreach, with its inevitable consequences of decay and decline.

Some so-called “conservatives” may object to the Obama administration’s great experiment because it will take money away from the Pentagon. That merely shows the right’s usual instinct for the capillaries. We would take half the defense budget, pile it in heaps, set it on fire and roast marshmallows over it and gain no less from it than we do now. The real issue is whether America’s grand strategy should be offensive or defensive. From President Washington to Senator Robert A. Taft, conservatives knew it should be the latter. That should be the critique conservatives offer, and it is one to which the Obama administration should pay thoughtful attention.

William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.

To interview Mr. Lind, please contact (no e-mail available):

Mr. William S. Lind
Free Congress Foundation
1423 Powhatan Street, # 2
Alexandria, Virginia 22314
Direct line: 703 837-0483

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Filed in Uncategorized | 7 responses so far

7 Responses to “On War #285: If Wishes Were Horses…”

  1. Maxon 11 Dec 2008 at 1:56 pm 1

    Bill nailed that one.

    Or if you prefer, hit it right out of the ballpark.


    Now this,


    And this,




    If you think the last 7 years couldn’t get much worse.
    Ask yourself how come Chet and several of his smartest
    friends are meeting and talking about basicaly grass roots survival,
    on a local community if not practicaly an individual level ?


  2. JRBehrmanon 11 Dec 2008 at 4:37 pm 2

    Bill LIND is looking back and seeing … what I see.

    But, looking ahead is not necessarily limited to Dr. Pangloss.

    The Obama administration may look to something that John NAGL has in mind, something reminiscent of what Roger HILSMAN once envisioned. Now, HILSMAN failed, as may NAGL. But, there is an opportunity to create something different from experience with the combination of State, AID, and Blackwater in Iraq or with some of the Civil Affairs teams embedded in crack infantry or dismounted cavalry units recently.

    If so, will this end up just a sprinkled all over the world?

    If so, that would not be change. We already have Special Forces in about 150 different locations. No, if we are going to deploy something different, we are going to need to do it one place that works, understand why it worked there, and learn why it might not work elsewhere.

    This administration is going to have to do a lot of that learning and adaptation.

    If they can, there will be alternatives to “Bah, Humbug!” or “It’s All Good!” These entail well informed and sustained trial and error. The question, then, will be whether Obama can delegate any military/diplomatic matters at all.

    So far, all the Obama we have experienced is the primary and general campaigns. I have been heavily engaged in both at the ground level. That is where, for instance, you get shelled by your own artillery and run over by your own tanks, figuratively. I have been. It smarts. But, I have seen learning and adaptation.

    I am optimistic.

  3. EmeryNelsonon 11 Dec 2008 at 4:53 pm 3

    “If you think the last 7 years couldn’t get much worse.
    Ask yourself how come Chet and several of his smartest
    friends are meeting and talking about basicaly grass roots survival, on a local community if not practicaly an individual level ?”

    As most of us our aware, “practically” it’s only a matter of time until the end of this once great nations. That’s where the smart money is. Unfavorable winds are moving so fast that there’s no penalty for guessing wrong (because things will never be the same) and a big reward for guessing right. It’s sad times for me when Bill Lind, someone who I respect, can’t even draw me to care about his articles. I become inpatient. “Is the end in sight, yet?”

    What’s going on in Washington, regardless of political affiliation, reminds me very much of a play, a boring drama if you will, in which we the audience watch buffoons try and convey seriousness and vision where none exists. We’ve gone from a Moron to a Poser, and there’s a fair chance we’ll all be missing the Moron soon enough. We hear pronouncements and think, “I hope they’re not getting paid for such bad acting?” The plot seems tired and contrived, not at all sustainable in real life. And that’s the center of gravity. It’s not sustainable.

    I have spent most of my time looking at the past and the present seems familiar in relation to historical bad outcomes. The future gets the majority of my time out of necessity.

  4. John Seileron 11 Dec 2008 at 10:28 pm 4

    Sounds like Obama & Co. are going to implement in full force The Kissinger Report, NSSM 200, the global population control (reduction) ukase of 1974. So, more billions for Planned Parenthood and other Obama allies to promote contraception and abortions. And fewer babies for Muslims and others the U.S. regime doesn’t like.

    But it won’t work. NSSM 200 had more effect reducing the West’s population to a level that the West now is dying.

    As to the Third World following what Obama tells them on contraception and abortion, see Waugh’s comic novel, “Black Mischief.”

    A link link on NSSM 200:

  5. Maxon 12 Dec 2008 at 9:07 am 5

    “We’ve gone from a Moron to a Poser, and there’s a fair chance we’ll all be missing the Moron soon enough.”

    Well put EM, and it’s great to hear you weigh in on this thread.

    It’s early days yet, but similarly and on an instictive level I have
    to agree, that the poser is all about talk, and style over any siginificant substance. Moreover he talks and talks, but basicaly tows
    the same ol’ line and pretty much endorses the same disasterous policies. Or at least so far.

    Disturbing is the notion of a troop surge in Afganistan, (exactly what Bin Laden wants) and what I percieve as the invetability of the futile confict extending further into Pakistan, and involving also India.

    Another example, So far he’s brought nothing new what-so-ever to the automotive industry crisis, and that equation remains a binary decision.

    As for the other (outgoing) smuck, don’t get me started.

    What’s paritularly disturbing is that so much rides on this new guy (poser).

    I admire you amoung those who choose quality over quantity
    in thier postings.

    Quick glance at the mirror suggests I should practice as well.


  6. […] Continue Reading » […]

  7. eomonroe00on 25 Jan 2009 at 12:04 am 7

    i am more curious about the comment in the article about how only the military can get things done. I have no experience so am expressing my opinion and am not doubting the writers claim, maybe he can expand upon it,

    but it seems we act with our military first to deal with issues, especially the 9-11 issue. I believe we need the moderates of the Arab world on our side to defeat gangs of terrorists yet by acting only militarily in afghanistan and Iraq we are destroying bonds we should be building,
    same thing with israel, for every bomb they unleash on a terrorist they unleash ten more on the innocent, when innocent die we are creating hate which leads to the next generation of terrorist.

    In my view we have tried the military strategy and we have consistently stepped backward since 9-11 for eight straight years, was it bc of our unilateral policy of using the military, was it the incompetence of our political leaders, who knows, all i know is we have a war on drugs that has lead to more drugs and more kids in jail, we have a war on poverty and we got more poverty, and our war on terror has brought us more terrorists, maybe another way up the mountain should be tried.