Bad Government Decisions That Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

In the U.S. Constitution, the nation’s founders originally conceived of a very limited federal government that protected, rather than usurped, the liberty of its people (not just its citizens), and also defended those same people, their territory, and way of life from foreign threats. The massive federal government today regularly infringes on people’s rights in everything from privacy to the taking of private property through confiscation and excessive taxation. Also, the US government is concerned with maintaining its informal overseas empire, which is counterproductive to the safety of its people at home and around the world. In short, the federal government’s growth is out of control and on autopilot, which should concern liberals, conservatives, moderates, greens, and libertarians alike.

The real problem with government is its incentive structure. That is, when spending other people’s money, the spenders – government officials, most of them unelected – have little incentive to be judicious and may spend the money according to the interests of their own bureaucracies instead of the taxpayer. Thus, many government decisions, although passing the Madison Avenue test for convincing the public, turn out to be bad ideas. That is not to say that corporations, billionaires, and private persons of lesser means do not make bad decisions, but they have at least some incentive to make better ones because the money they waste will be their own.

Government politicians and bureaucrats seem to be especially unconstrained to make good decisions in foreign and defense policy, because the public has a greater familiarity with things that affect them on a day-to-day basis – such as schools, roads, and the environment – than they do with faraway lands and exotic military hardware. Thus, the American people have repeatedly accepted military disasters abroad in the foreign empire, only complaining when the number of American body bags becomes great in a seeming endless quagmire – for example, in the US occupation of Iraq after George W. Bush’s foolish and needless invasion of that country. Even then, opposition to such imperial adventures is now muted because American wars are always "over there" in some faraway country and because no Vietnam-era draft exists to shanghai middle class kids – who want to be doctors, lawyers, dentists, etc. – into fighting in some distant hellhole. The imperial military is volunteer and that means when the troops get shot up overseas, we can just honor them at sporting events and feel better about ourselves – when we at least should have asked the government some hard questions about really bad policies putting them in harm’s way in the first place.

But let’s not just pick on George W. Bush. There is plenty of blame to go around. In 1979-1980, Jimmy Carter thought it would be a great idea to ensnare the Soviets a Vietnam-style bog by supporting the radical Islamist Afghan Mujahideen guerrilla fighters, and then Ronald Reagan accelerated this effort into trying to force a Soviet withdrawal from the country. Inadvertently, they created what ultimately turned out to be the first threat to the traditionally secure continental United States since the War of 1812 – Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda. In addition, Reagan, by sending U.S. troops to Lebanon in the early 1980s and then ignominiously withdrawing them under fire, convinced bin Laden that by attacking the United States, he could draw the superpower into a quagmire in the Middle East, defeat it, and force it out of Muslim lands for good.

Bush’s father’s crushing short-term victory in Desert Storm turned out to be a Pyrrhic triumph by beginning the entire train of events that enticed his son back into the Iraqi mire. Also, the permanent presence, after the war, of the US military in the Islamic holy land of Saudi Arabia, contrary to Bush’s initial promises to the Saudi king, was the spark that caused bin Laden to begin his war against the United States. When Bush the Younger invaded Iraq to continue his fight against the much weakened Saddam Hussein, an even more brutal regional affiliate of an already ruthless al Qaeda arose to fight the American invasion of yet another Muslim land. Al Qaeda in Iraq has now morphed into the even more vicious ISIS.

President Obama not only continued Bush’s illegal drone wars in several countries but accelerated them. In a drone strike in the small, insignificant country of Yemen in 2011, Obama killed an al Qaeda propagandist – a US citizen named Anwar al-Awlaki – which only enshrined the man as an Islamist martyr all over the world on the Internet. This episode illustrates what many experts on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism regularly say – it is difficult to kill your way out of an insurgency. The root cause of the violence must be addressed. In fact, American occupations or attacks on at least seven Muslim countries since 9/11 has gone beyond bin Laden’s wildest dreams in dragging the United States into the morass. Obama also used military power to overthrow Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi for no reason, thus creating more chaos and a base for ISIS and other terrorists in that country.

And bad governmental decisions are not confined to the Middle East. Violating the implicit (and maybe explicit) promise made to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to get him to approve the reuniting of Germany as the Cold War ended, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama have expanding the hostile NATO alliance right to Russia’s borders. Recently Obama took in the small country Montenegro as a deliberate slap in Russia’s face. Yet, expanding the NATO alliance effectively followed the Versailles model after World War I – keeping your defeated adversary outside the community of European nations – which led to the rise of Adolf Hitler and World War II and went counter to the much more effective Congress of Vienna model, which brought post-Napoleonic France back into Europe, thus ensuring a century of relative peace in Europe. Because the United States and NATO walked all over a defeated Russia after the Cold War, they are now faced with a nationalist Russian leader in Vladimir Putin who is destabilizing Ukraine to keep it out of NATO, which George W. Bush promised would become an alliance member. Not taking any responsibility for this unfortunate chain of events, the United States is using Russia’s behavior to put more NATO forces in Eastern and Southern Europe. Where will the escalation cycle end?

Finally, despite all of the politically hot public rhetoric between the two political parties in the United States, they regularly collude behind the scenes to hand out goodies. And the goodies have recently been large. Democratic President Obama and the Republican Congress just passed a bipartisan $1.8 trillion federal budget, which ends the era of austerity and busts spending limits to provide an added $66 billion in largesse, which will be divided evenly between buying more weapons and spending more domestically. The former will be used for more overseas adventures, likely leading to more blowback terrorist attacks on US targets, and the latter will likely be just wasted. The spending package is projected to add at least $2 trillion over the next 20 years to an already staggering national debt of almost $19 trillion.

Thus, we can no longer afford repeated government decisions that spend trillions of taxpayer dollars on projects that originally may seem like a good idea but turn out very badly and even make things worse. Any private company with such a poor record would have long been penalized by the market into bankruptcy; but the government just gets to "keep on keepin’ on" with no public outrage over its failures.

Author: Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.