From Liberty Street: Changing Minds

John Turner

An article by Peter Baker in Sunday's Washington Post says that many of the Bush administration's former staunch supporters are disgusted with the way things are going in Iraq. Kenneth Adelman and Richard Perle are the principal figures discussed by Baker. But he also mentions Richard Haass, Colin Powell, Richard Armitage, Carl W. Ford. Jr., and Lawrence B. Wilkerson. Adelman is quoted as saying, "There are a lot of lives that are lost." And Perle reputedly remarked, "If I had known that the U.S. was going to essentially establish an occupation, then I'd say, 'Let's not do it. It was a foolish thing to do.'"

Poor little boys! They've been disappointed. It seems not to have occurred to them that if you send an army obsessed with using the most destructive weapons technology can devise to invade a country, people are going to get killed and the invading army will stay there for a long time. Furthermore, the people whose country has been blown apart aren't going to love those who did it.

The consequences of invading Iraq were obvious in advance to anyone who thought about it at a junior high school level. Now, we need to face the truth that we placed our nation in the hands of men whose thought couldn't approach even that standard.

The invasion and occupation of Iraq cannot be attributed mainly to flawed intelligence, or mistaken policy, or inadequate strategy, or insufficient planning. All these have been markers of recent foreign policy. But the primary cause of the horror in Iraq was thought which couldn't attain a preadolescent level. The United States has been in the grip of thinking so immature and shallow we have not been able to avoid plunging into disaster after disaster. It's a serious question whether we can step away from this radical callowness rapidly enough to escape genuine national collapse.

Think of the reputations of both Adelman and Perle as they have been consistently promoted by American journalism. They have been put forward to us as men of immense knowledge and deep minds. It may be the case that they have a store of facts rattling around in their skulls. But anyone who has listened critically to their prognostications over the past decade knows they can't make sensible use of what they know. The only employment of knowledge they can imagine is as support for their own bloated, egomaniacal wish-fulfillment. They are not men thinking; they are greedy boys grabbing for trinkets and toys. The result of placing men like them in positions of political responsibility has been widespread death and immeasurable suffering.

Why do we do it? Why have we constructed a political system that regularly rewards and promotes men who can't think? Is something in the water? Or in the air?

Over the past decade I've read dozens of essays asking why we once had men like Jefferson, Adams and Madison heading our national affairs, and now we have Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld with advisors like Adelman and Perle. Goodness knows, Jefferson, Adams and Madison weren't perfect. They all made serious blunders. But they were serious men with mature minds. They were capable of rethinking a proposition. The gap between them and the current gaggle of political leaders is staggering.

I have seen no convincing answers and I certainly don't have a comprehensive one myself. I do, however, know this, and I believe it's a significant element of the explanation. Jefferson, Adams and Madison were supplied by their culture with a sound education and they lived in a time when national leaders were expected to demonstrate that their education had taken hold. At the least, they were required to read and write at a mature level. They were all familiar with the influential ideas that had percolated through the history of the West since the classical era in Greece. We can be pretty sure -- despite publicity ploys to the contrary -- that the current generation of leaders do not have minds nourished by an intellectual tradition of comparable substance.

A people who cease to think will cease to flourish. Neither nature nor history is kind to nincompoops. The question facing the American people is whether they have the mental resources to demand, rational, sensible thought from those who exercise political power. We hear an increasing number of voices who say we don't. Recent books by Morris Berman, Thomas Frank, Richard Sennett, Todd Gitlin, Robert Putnam, Mark Danner, Kevin Phillips, Clyde Prestowitz, Andrew Bacevich, Seymour Hersh, Chris Hedges, Michael Sherry, and George Packer all suggest, in one way or another, that the United States is in danger of being swept into the dustbin of history.

I don't know that they are wrong. But I'm not yet ready to say it's inevitable. There are enough bright, sensible, imaginative citizens in America for us to have a renaissance of intelligence. But for it to happen we have to stop accepting people on the level of Adelman and Perle -- and Bush and Cheney for that matter -- as adequate thinkers. They are not adequate. They are, rather, spoiled intellectual brats. And they have no right to conduct our affairs.

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Harvard Square Commentary, November 20, 2006