From Liberty Street: Lessons Forgot or Refused to Be Learned

John Turner

One thing we can assume with a strong degree of confidence: the people who conduct the foreign affairs of nations around the world have less than good sense with respect to standards sane people hope will come to prevail. This is not because government personnel are deficient in intellect. It's because they operate in systems that demand lunacy. If they didn't think -- or at least pretend to think -- like lunatics, they wouldn't be allowed to play the game. They would be washed out.

Evidence in support of this thesis is extensive. Consider, for example, the strategy that Seymour Hersh describes in the latest New Yorker. Relying on reports from government insiders, he says, "Israel believed that by targeting Lebanon's  infrastructure, including highways, fuel depots, and even civilian runways at the main Beirut airport, it could persuade Lebanon's large Christian and Sunni populations to turn against Hezbollah."

Anyone who actually believed such a thing had sunk so far into delusion his mind was hopeless. When people are having bombs dropped on their neighborhoods, they turn against the bombers. And anyone who fights against the bombers becomes celebrated and popular. People who don't understand this have lost their minds.

Democracy since the advent of professionalized bureaucracies has been suffering from a severely false analogy. Citizens have been led to believe that government operates like science, that there are experts of government who know how to devise wise policy just as physicists know how to set off a nuclear reaction. But what is wise policy? Is it not governmental behavior that will allow you and me to live our lives as we wish? And how can a bureaucrat know how to structure such behavior better than you and I do?

The problem, particularly here in the United States, is that we have been trying to have democracy on the cheap. We want a wise foreign policy without the bother of having to pay attention to what's going on around the world. And that is something we can never have.

We have failed to grasp a fundamental truth: no bureaucrat can fully imagine what your life is to you -- living on your street, going into your kitchen in the morning to make your cup of coffee, watching your children or your grandchildren set off for school. But, you may ask, don't bureaucrats themselves do these things?

Some of them do, although in the upper ranks not as many as you might imagine. Whether they do or not, when they get to their offices they enter a world where the specifics of ordinary life are replaced by abstractions, and where pleasing someone up the line washes away all thought about whether you -- or anybody else -- can enjoy breakfast in peace. Hard as it may be to believe, people at the secretarial and deputy-secretarial levels in state departments and defense departments do not imagine what it would be to you to have a bomb fall in your street some morning. They don't think that what you would feel is important enough for them to exercise their imagination over it. In short, they live in a world very different from yours, and they don't much care about your world unless you force them to pay attention to it. This is the basic lesson of democracy. And it is a lesson we have largely forgot, particularly where foreign policy enters it.

Seymour Hersh's article tells us that the bombing campaign against Lebanon by the Israeli Air Force was seen by many of the leading figures in Washington as a prelude to a U.S. attack on Iran. Here's how a former intelligence official describes Dick Cheney's thinking on the matter: "What if the Israelis execute their part of this first, and it's really successful? It'd be great. We can learn what to do in Iran by watching what the Israelis do in Lebanon."

This is language of derangement. The ripping apart of an entire country, the evisceration of hundreds of bodies, is viewed simply as a part of something bigger. And the assumption that what would work in Lebanon -- and didn't, by the way -- would work in Iran is abstract analysis of the most crazy sort. It all comes about because of the enormous gap between the concerns of those who make policy and those for whom it is presumably made.

In America at the moment bombs dropped on other people's heads don't count for much. This, too, is a failure of democracy. It's a refusal to see what the nature of bombing is. It's a denial that other people's lives mean as much to them as ours do to us. It's a blank look at the terrible hatreds being inflamed by the knowledge that most of the really big bombs being dropped on people nowadays were made in the U.S.A.

John Arguilla, an analyst at the U.S. Navy Postgraduate School, says, "strategic bombing has been a failed military concept for ninety years and yet air forces all over the world keep on doing it."

If our inattention to what military bureaucrats are doing, off in their removed and sanitized world, leads to the strategic bombing of Iran by U.S. forces, then the craziness of our policy and our rhetoric will be multiplied many times. And what's more, your breakfast, in your house, on your street, will be in greater jeopardy even than it is today.

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Harvard Square Commentary, August 21, 2006