Wednesday, February 17, 2016

States of stupidity (guest post by Peter T.)

In mid-2014, Obama defined the core of his foreign policy as “don't do stupid shit.”  Obama followed up by normalising relations with Cuba, negotiating a detente on nuclear matters with Iran that deprived the U.S. neo-cons of a potential casus belli, and refusing to be drawn into the ground war in Syria and Iraq.  Not doing stupid shit is a low threshold, and critics have charged that even so, it has not always been met.  Doubtless so, but it was a welcome contrast to the previous administration that made stupid routine.  Here, I want to look at one part of U.S. policy in the Middle East, a part that surely merits the label “stupid,” a part that just looks as if it went from being merely stupid to being moronic.

This Huffington Post piece by Jeffrey Sachs more or less covers the background.[*]  In focusing on Secretary Clinton's role, however, it misses an interesting point.  As Sachs notes, the CIA has done stupid stuff with disastrous consequences at least once a decade since its inception.  Further, as the CIA's effort in Syria has gone from muddle to failure post-Clinton, it has not therefore slackened.  Even as Kerry was negotiating a limited cease-fire (labeled a "cessation of hostilies"), the CIA stepped up arms deliveries and its foreign government partners were threatening armed intervention.

So this is not just Hillary Clinton, or Obama.  One explanation is to see this sort of thing as the real face of U.S. policy.  Another is to see it as the play of bureaucratic and other interests allowed some degree of play.  A third possibility, though, is to see it as an example of a state which has no single locus of decision – a state with multiple independent centres of power.

This challenges our ordinary conception of the state.  But examples are not hard to find. One thinks of the British and French frontier officers who often drove imperial expansion in the nineteenth century, sporadically checked by some areas of home government and encouraged by others.  Or the American settlers whose actions negated treaties with native tribes even as they were signed.  Or the way the German General Staff formulated military plans without regard for the Foreign Office, or how the French Foreign Ministry neglected to formally communicate a key diplomatic agreement to their general staff.  A final example is Japan in the 1930s.  Who was in charge: Tokyo or the young officers of the Kwantung Army?  The answer surely is both.

The possibility is that the CIA is so embedded in Washington and foreign networks of influence that it is effectively beyond the control of the formal mechanisms of the U.S. state. Certain versions of international-relations theory view states as single, "unitary" actors.  More realistic theories take into account the play of internal forces that shape decisions. Both approaches assume that, however arrived at and however discordant or contradictory, policy is at least the expression of a unified process.  The examples above suggest this is not always the case.

-- Peter T.

[*] I have certain disagreements with the Sachs piece that I plan to address at some later point.  I will add that guest posts at this blog obviously represent the views of the guest author and do not necessarily represent, down to every detail, the views of the blog's proprietor. -- LFC


Peter T said...

To be clear, I don't agree with everything in the Sach's piece myself. But it at least lays out the background succinctly.

LFC said...

It occurs to me to wonder whether someone in the CIA didn't anticipate that a proxy overthrow of Assad would not be easy, that the Iranians and Russians would come to his aid, etc. Sachs comes close to making it sound as if the Syrian civil war was entirely manufactured in Langley and Foggy Bottom, as if it had no genuine indigenous sources, as if there were no drought (that I've seen mentioned in other contexts) that devastated farming and heightened grievances in the part of Syria where anti-Assad protests first broke out. None of which, of course, is to deny that the CIA role in all this seems to have been, afaict (and I haven't studied it closely), v. short-sighted and counter-productive. (Sachs later, in prosecuting his case vs. HRC, also lumps together a whole bunch of interventions and treats them as the same, but that's a side pt here.)

Peter T said...

Well, they do not appear to have anticipated that funding the Afghan resistance would spread armed Islamic fundamentalism far and wide, or that Iranians would react to the overthrow of their government, or that funding the contras would lead to regional civil wars that would drive political breakdown and refugee crises or that intervening in Angola would provoke a Cuban response they could not meet, or in Laos a Vietnamese one...The list is long and inglorious, and in most cases "whocoudanode" applies.

Not that the rebellion was hatched in Langley. But Langley has a long record of adding fuel to fires in ammo dumps, watching the US (and everyone else around) get hurt by the ensuing explosions, and then doing it all again.

LFC said...

One would have hoped that eventually a process of learning from experience would kick in. But if it has at all, it seems to have been a rather weak one...