636’s Law

Why do politicians make disastrous decisions with the consistency of iron filings obeying a magnet? Decisions that in retrospect (and frequently in prospect) seem doomed to failure? After 9/11, did it make any sense when, after coming close to the point of capturing Osama bin Laden, the U.S. government began pulling troops, materiel, and intelligence assets away from the hunt in order to invade a country that had nothing to do with Osama?

After invading that country (Iraq), what was the set of policy options that faced our brilliant and esteemed leaders? They could have maintained most of the preexisting organizations and institutions in the country and co-opted them to maintain order and a functioning civil society. This was a policy followed very successfully by Gen. MacArthur during the occupation of Japan. Of course they followed the polar opposite policy of firing all the Ba’athist administrators and disbanding the army, thus ensuring that the insurgency would benefit from a reserve army of the unemployed and disaffected.

The Democrats are also are no strangers to this tropism. The FISA telecom immunity fiasco is a perfect example: key provisions in the underlying statute had been expired for months and, contrary to the fearmongering lies of President Bush and CIA Director Hayden, what happened was –  nothing. So there was no need to be panicked into enacting new legislation indemnifying the telecoms against their own illegal behavior. The public overall didn’t seem to care one way or the other, but the Democratic base was vehemently against immunity. And there was no way to immunize the telecoms unless Congress affirmatively acted. Since it requires the speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader to move legislation, the Democrats could have simply run out the clock on the Bush administration.

Of course, we know how this farce ended: Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid brought up telecom immunity legislation and gave the president what he wanted without even so much as a quid pro quo. What the Democrats achieved by this move was substantively bad legislation, a horrible precedent for future statutory indemnifications of illegality, a victory for the president they profess to oppose, and a (more) disillusioned voter base.

In the last couple of days we have seen this scenario play out again with the selection of Joseph R. Biden Jr. as the vice presidential nominee of the Democratic Party. However this selection plays out in the political horse race, it is substantively an extremely poor choice that will increase the probability that a Democratic foreign policy (should Barack Obama win) will simply be Bush Lite: more interventions, more insane levels of defense spending, more foreign aid giveaways to scoundrels like Mikheil Saakashvili.

The canned media critique is that Biden is a rhetorical blowhard who does not know when to shut up but that he has immense foreign policy experience. The first characterization is true: one recalls his opening statement during Samuel Alito’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing. Biden’s statement rambled, heaved, bloviated, and oozed like treacle, without point or substance, neither endorsing nor critiquing Alito’s substantive qualifications. He chewed up so much valuable time not making any of the points that Democrats were presumably at pains to make that the C-SPAN camera briefly showed his colleague Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) burying his head in his hands in despair at Biden’s interminable performance.

The second characterization is also largely true; Biden has immense foreign policy experience. But it is precisely the wrong kind of experience if the Democrats want to contrast themselves with the disastrous policies of the last eight years. He has long been a pliant tool of the War Party, favoring humanitarian intervention as the principal tool for meddling overseas. In a previous essay we alluded to John McCain’s introduction of a “let’s invade Serbia” resolution in 1999 as evidence of the Arizona Senator’s maniacal bellicosity. McCain’s chief cosponsor for this legislation was Biden.

Biden was Capitol Hill’s main cheerleader for Bill Clinton when the latter unleashed his idiotic 100-hour bombing campaign against Iraq in order to divert attention from his impeachment. When Scott Ritter, a U.S. member of the UN arms inspection team in Iraq, began saying that the inspections were effective (which Washington didn’t want to hear), and that the United States was inserting intelligence operatives into the team to target Saddam Hussein (thus giving Saddam legitimate grounds to expel the whole operation), Biden patronizingly excoriated Ritter during the latter’s congressional testimony, referring to him as “Scotty Boy.” The passage of time has vindicated Ritter far more than Biden.

Biden is one of the immense tribe of Washington savants who were gung-ho for the invasion of Iraq but who edged away from their support once it became less popular. Of course, the opposition is not based on any belated appreciation of the invasion’s illegality, immorality, ruinous cost, or geopolitical imbecility. The default “opposition mode” is to criticize the invasion because there weren’t enough troops. Morally, this argument is cretinous, like condemning Operation Barbarossa solely because the Wehrmacht didn’t go in heavy enough. It is illogical as well: the American public is bombarded daily with pronouncements about how the U.S. military is “stretched to the breaking point,” and how there is an upper limit to the number of troops that can be maintained in Iraq. So how would those extra troops have been conjured out of thin air?

It is revealing that as late as the fall of 2005 Biden gushed over a speech given by Bush to the National Endowment of Democracy (a coven of “ex”-Trotskyite neoconservatives who specialize in spending taxpayer dollars to rig elections abroad). Bush’s speech was the usual malignant drivel about exporting democracy to the heathens at gunpoint; in praising it, Biden was endorsing the mindset that gave rise to the Iraq debacle in the first place.

Biden’s trip to Georgia as Obama’s emissary is just the latest example of his foreign policy judgment. The principal result of this journey was Biden’s pronunciamento that taxpayers should fork over $1 billion to the Saakashvili regime. This amounts to indemnifying Saakashvili for his criminal stupidity. No doubt once Congress gets finished with such an aid package the price tag will be $5 billion.

Biden is fond of saying that because the DOD budget is so big there is a budgetary disproportion to what the State Department gets. Ergo, this automatically means in Biden’s mind that because DOD gets so much, State’s budget ought to be increased. Of course, it never occurs to him that it is just as logical to conclude one could cure the disproportion by decreasing DOD’s budget rather than by increasing State’s.

In point of fact, the foreign aid budget, just like DOD’s, is a riot of waste, fraud, abuse, and bribes to regimes even more corrupt and odious than our own. One could rationalize temporary humanitarian aid to places hit with natural disasters or the like. But permanent, country-based aid (the vast bulk of the foreign aid budget) is simply a waste of money. One can imagine that in an administration in which Biden had influence such potlatch would greatly increase.

So why did Obama pick him? The standard answer is that Democrats don’t want to appear “weak” (a term that now essentially means “less trigger-happy”) on national security policy. But that raises the question of why this dynamic exists in the first place. Why did Obama choose the most bellicose of potential vice presidential candidates precisely when the public is fed up with the results of earlier bellicosity?

Libertarian writer Justin Raimondo facetiously propounded the theory that when hijacked airliners hit the World Trade Center towers on 9/11 they ripped a hole in the fabric of the space-time continuum and the country entered a “Bizarro World” where up was down, black was white, and stupidity was wisdom. There is some attractiveness to that argument – after 9/11 stupidity became almost a mandatory component of good citizenship – but it does not explain why there were many manifestations of this phenomenon prior to 9/11. The extremely serious consequences of intervening in the Balkans, for instance, are only now coming to light with Russia’s long-delayed response to it in Georgia.

To explain why the American political class invades the wrong countries, indemnifies criminals, picks people like Joe Biden for responsible positions, and engages in so many other destructive acts, we modestly propose Werther’s Law, or the Iron Law of Adverse Political Selection: in decadent political systems the most damaging policy option tends to be the one chosen.

To explain how Werther’s Law works, we need reference to another political rule of thumb, the Iron Law of Oligarchy, which states that all organizations tend to develop into hierarchies with oligarchs at the top. We submit that those oligarchies over time tend to become inbred, either literally (think Bush family), or because they select members based on obedience to hierarchy, a groupthink mentality, and ability to self-censor. The rewards for correct behavior are lucrative: not only the thrill of wielding power when in office but a virtual ironclad guarantee of well-remunerated lifetime employment as a lobbyist, a board member of a defense contractor, or a holder of an endowed chair at a foundation.

Making serious mistakes, or even pursuing disastrous policies, are no impediment to one’s career moving onward and upward. “Failing upward” (known cynically in Washington as “f*ck up and move up”) is an occurrence as frequent in Washington as the common cold. How else to explain Paul Wolfowitz’s horrific tenure at the Department of Defense being rewarded with a plum job as president of the World Bank, where he could make further business contacts that would keep him well-paid even after he failed in that job? It is no sin to be incompetent; it is a sin to be competent and diligent in one’s job if it involves blowing the whistle on malfeasance in one’s organization. The fate of whistleblowers in the Bush administration is abundant evidence of this. No one with a mortgage likes to be demoted, fired, or blackballed from future employment.

As the oligarchy metastasizes, it penetrates and transforms other governmental and non-governmental organizations, including those intended to serve as watchdogs. Congress ceases to oversee military spending, because every weapon system is built in somebody’s district. The media hires “news analysts” straight out of the White House and “military analysts” whose explicit understanding of their jobs is to present wars in the best possible light.

The public becomes less and less able to affect the issues. The American people are not noted for their driving intellectual curiosity in the first place, but should public indignation lead to protest it is quickly channeled into electoral politics, where the protest is drained of life. Elections themselves are characterized by personality contests, horse-race trivia, and strenuous efforts to avoid real issues. The opposing candidates, chosen by political hierarchies, afford the voter the choice between Coke and Diet Coke even if he desperately wants Bordeaux.

The oligarchy, and the political system that radiates outward from it, becomes an interlocking and self-reinforcing web of interests. Success becomes what serves the interest of the oligarchy (including the financial interest of individual members thereof); failure is whatever does not serve its interest. The system is inwardly focused, self-referential, and hostile to new ideas. The illusion of free debate is maintained by allowing marginal, process-oriented criticism (“not enough troops”). Those who reject the rules of the game and fundamentally critique the system, like Ron Paul or Dennis Kucinich, are simply quarantined, ridiculed by the bought media, and often face primary challenges organized by the party hierarchy.

Such a system is either notably incurious about the world outside its own power structure or else it seeks to interpret that world in ways that complement its own flattering self-image. Left to mature long enough the system becomes delusional. Hence all the crowing in the past 20 years about indispensable nations, hyperpowers, and so forth. Given that war is incredibly remunerative to the oligarchy (hundreds of thousands of people within a 50-mile radius of the Capitol make a really, really good living off it) even as it drains the resources of the public at large, it is no wonder that Washington habitually resorts to the sword. The fact that it provides an overseas scapegoat doesn’t hurt, either, in terms of keeping the home folks in line.

Small and weak countries that habitually engage in this warlike behavior quickly end up in the dustbin of history, like Somalia. But the United States, like Rome, is a vast country with huge (though not infinite) resources and can delude itself for decades that this kind of behavior is benign. And it is benign, at least for the short- and even medium-term interests of the oligarchy. The perverse incentives of the process ensure that the oligarchy is stabilized and personally enriched even as national strength gradually ebbs.

Although we have used war-making as the prime example of oligarchy enhancement, the same principle applies in other fields. Why did the government encourage the decline of manufacturing and the financialization of the economy, thereby authorizing the creation of financial transactions that were little better than Ponzi schemes? A close examination of Fannie Mae’s and Freddie Mac’s political contributions to the oligarchy reveals the answer: it was incredibly lucrative.

Given the powerful set of career and monetary incentives that allow the American oligarchy to define failure as success, it will be very hard to break the feedback loop of rewards and punishments that create disastrous policies. But, as noted before, financial resources are not infinite. It is unlikely (though not unthinkable) that the American oligarchy could lurch into some crisis that gets everyone killed. But it is more than likely that, like the Soviet Union, Britain, Holland, Spain, and Rome before it, the American empire will follow Werther’s Law and stumble over the ensuing decades from quagmire to quagmire, depleting its funds till outsiders shake their heads over the pathetic comedown of the erstwhile hyperpower. Joe Biden may be an extensive footnote in the history of that decline.