BLOOM (screaming): “Have you lost your mind? What are you talking about? Kill the actors. You can’t kill the actors –they’re not animals, they’re human beings!”
BIALYSTOCK: “They are? Have you ever eaten with one?”
By Barry Rubin
The most common question—or remark—that I get from readers is to say that I’m wrong to talk about how Western policymakers (and especially the Obama Administration) are ignorant, ideologically deluded, and unable to learn from experience. They claim that these problems arise from a deliberate malevolent effort to destroy America.
It tells something about how bad a lot of the administration’s policies are as to make such a conclusion possible. Nevertheless, it’s not correct.
With academia, mass media, most of the publishing industry, and Hollywood on their side how would these policymakers know any better? Their professors told them they were brilliant; the books they read all tell them they’re right. Nobody corrects or criticizes them except those who they can rationalize are opponents–and evil people, too!–and thus these are partisan carpings to be disregarded.
If the critics can be described as conservatives their views are discounted. If you are proven to be correct that seems to have no effect on the powerful institutions and elite opinions.
In fact, the very fact of being a critic is used to disqualify criticism. When I wrote a detailed critique of Obama’s policies in a prestigious policy journal, the prestigious authors responded that what I said should be discounted–and my specific arguments need not be persuasively countered– because…I was critical of Obama’s policies!
I cannot imagine any other time in modern Western intellectual history when this kind of thing has happened.
So the usual corrective institutions aren’t functioning. If no one tells the emperor and his courtiers that they are under-dressed such people are going to keep peeling off clothes confident of the fact that nobody (or at least anyone who counts) will tell them that they are naked. With so much insulation, they don’t feel the chill.
Those certain that Obama and his government—and I only speak of foreign policy here—must be acting deliberately out of malice generally have one thing in common: they have never actually dealt with high-level politicians and decisionmakers.
Believe me, ignorance, arrogance, stupidity, a smug arrogance that closes one off to learning from advice or experience, and ideological blinders are not so unique in those circles. I’ve seen this pattern over and over again, both as a historian and from direct observation.
And those readers who have had such first-hand experience are no doubt nodding their heads at this point and thinking of their funniest anecdotes that demonstrate this point.
What’s unique is the almost totality with which various enablers keep up this pretense, making the situation far more extreme than usual. Presidents like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush no doubt believed in their positions. But having to confront daily a firestorm of ridicule and criticism forced them to question themselves constantly, to make adjustments, and even to change. policies that clearly were either not working or were too unpopular.
That’s the way the system is supposed to function.
What is different now are the following points:
–In the past, there was a lot of feedback from non-government institutions that had to be taken into account. Even if you were a smug, arrogant son-of-a-gun you had to be cautious so as not to be embarrassed or humiliating by doing something dumb and getting called on it. The Obama Administration doesn’t have to worry, and that has a bad effect on its behavior.
–Conservatives and Republicans still have to live by the old rules because they get no such pass by these institutions. On the contrary, they are subjected to intense scrutiny, biting criticism, and even deliberate misrepresentation. So whether or not they are correct, they know that every mistake or miscalculation will be relentlessly highlighted. This can be annoying and unfair but it is also a good thing for a government to deal with critics and not just courtiers.
If Sarah Palin says something stupid, a hundred sources will ridicule her and she won’t make the same mistake again. If Barack Obama says something stupid he won’t learn anything because of the silence of the fans.
–Conversely, politicians want to be loved by the “cream” of society. They are stung by being considered fools and so trim their sails in order to court praise. But if the intellectual elite, the universities, the mass media, the cultural elite, and Hollywood almost unanimously sing your praises daily it is easy to think you are infallible no matter how wrong you are.
–The career bureaucracies at the State and Defense departments represent an institutional memory and an independent source of information and analysis. Even if one doesn’t agree with the ideas and proposals put forward by the uniformed military, Foreign Service, and civil service, they have a lot of experience and knowledge that is indispensible.
Unfortunately, while all presidents decide not to listen to this advice there have been few that have done so more than the Obama Administration.
This is partly due to having a secretary of state who is a former rival and a secretary of defense who is a holdover from the previous administration. The CIA is led by someone who is clueless, while the national security advisor is a political operative who administers ideologues who have their own channel to the president.
In short, this is a moment in history when external and internal checks have failed to an almost unprecedented extent.
–Finally, it is helpful to have a president with some grasp of international affairs, who is willing to depend on someone with tremendous knowledge (think of President Richard Nixon’s close working relationship with National Security Advisor and later Secretary of State Henry Kissinger), and doesn’t think he already knows anything.
Let’s face it, why would a man who has only been a community organizer, adjunct law professor, state legislator, and very briefly a senator with a bad attendance record have a real feel for international affairs. The fact that he is an ideologue and arrogant even by the usual standards of politicians and presidents makes things worse.
So while there are some very good people in U.S. government agencies and even some very competent political appointees, the mess does result from arrogance, stupidity, ignorance, inexperience, and ideology of those who are making the final decisions.
Yes, they are doing the best they can. And that’s precisely the problem.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and a featured columnist for PajamasMedia at http://pajamasmedia.com/barryrubin/. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is http://www.gloria-center.org/. His PajamaMedia columns are mirrored and other articles available at http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com/.