Sun Tzu, Steve Bannon, and the Trump White House “Warriors”

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Steve Bannon, self-professed student of the Art of War (Getty Images)

W.J. Astore

A favorite book of Steve Bannon’s is Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.  A classic of military strategy, The Art of War was compiled during the Warring States period (403-221 BCE) in ancient Chinese history.  It was a time of intense civil warfare in China, a time when a cessation in fighting was merely a pause between the next round of battles among warlords.  It’s still widely read today for its insights into war, its clever stratagems and tactics, and its lessons into human nature and behavior.

Bannon, who served in the U.S. Navy, is an armchair strategist with an affinity for military history books.  He appears to believe in inevitable conflict between the Judeo-Christian West, which he favors due to its “enlightened” values, and the World of Islam, which he sees as retrograde and barbaric when compared to the West.  He sees the world as already being in a “warring states” period writ large, a realm of conflict marked by “holy war” to be mastered by warrior/scholars like himself.

Joining him in this belief is Donald Trump, who took great pains to recite the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” in his speech before Congress, as if using these words were a mark of personal courage on his part.  Trump has boasted about winning the “next” war, as if war during his presidency is inevitable.  And I suppose it is, with Trump at the helm and advisers like Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, and Stephen Miller pursuing a bellicose hardline against Islam.

Be careful what you wish for, Trump and cronies, and be especially careful about declaring victory in wars before you’ve even fought them.  Here Sun Tzu has much to teach our “warriors” in the White House.

For one thing, Sun Tzu writes that a battle is best won without fighting at all.  Said Sun Tzu: “Fighting and winning a hundred wars is not the greatest good.  Winning without having to fight is.”  In other words, you set the stage so carefully that the enemy must surrender or face obliteration before the curtain is even raised on war.

Secondly, Sun Tzu warns about the folly of protracted wars, how they deplete the national budget and weaken a state, especially when support among the people is tepid.  Warfare, notes Sun Tzu, must be treated with the greatest caution, even as it is waged with great cunning.  Best of all is to outsmart the enemy; next best is to form alliances, to build a much bigger army than the enemy, which may force them to capitulate.  Worst of all is to get bogged down in long wars, especially in cities, which require expensive sieges that wear on both sides (just ask the Germans at Stalingrad about this).

Ultimately, Sun Tzu writes that by understanding oneself and one’s enemy, a skilled leader can engage in a hundred battles without ever being in serious danger.  But an unskilled leader who does not truly know his own nature or that of his enemies is one who is fated always to lose.  Trump, who fancies himself a great leader and who is ignorant of foreign nations and peoples, does not inspire confidence here, even as he promises the American people that we’re going to win so much, we’ll get bored with winning.

Sun Tzu puts great emphasis on careful planning and sober deliberation before launching attacks.  If the recent Yemen raid is any indicator, Trump is neither a careful planner nor a sober deliberator.  Indeed, Trump’s personal qualities expose him to being manipulated by a cunning enemy.  In listing the personal traits that are dangerous in a commander, Sun Tzu mentions “quick to anger” as well as “self-consciousness” or vanity.  One who’s quick to anger can be goaded by insults into making poor decisions; one who’s vain and self-conscious can be humiliated or manipulated into rash action.

Trump promises an American military that is so big and so strong that no country will dare attack us.  Yet Trump himself, surrounded by his “warrior” advisers, isn’t content to build a huge military while not using it.  Indeed, Trump is already using it, notably in Yemen, pursuing policies that are fated to perpetuate warfare around the globe.  And it’s hardly encouraging that, after the failed Yemen raid, Trump shifted the blame to his generals rather than taking it himself.

Remember what Sun Tzu warned about vanity as well as perpetual warfare, especially when your own people are increasingly divided?  Something tells me this lesson is lost on Trump, Bannon, and crew.  Embracing the stratagems of The Art of War, its emphasis on surprise, subterfuge, deception, and quick strikes, is not enough.  You must seek the wisdom at its core, which is very much against war except as a last resort.

Know thyself, said Sun Tzu, echoing the Greek philosopher Socrates.  Face yourself squarely, recognize your flaws, your vanity (“All is vanity,” say the Christian Bible, a book Trump professes to treasure), and be careful indeed in unleashing war.

Do Trump, Bannon, and company know themselves, admit to their flaws and vanities, and recognize that war, in all its perils and costs, should be a course of last resort?  So far, evidence is wanting.

“We’re a nation at war”

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Madison: Permanent war marks the end of democracy

W.J. Astore

Last week, Army General Raymond “Tony” Thomas, head of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), expressed his dismay about the Trump administration. “Our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil,” Thomas opined.  “I hope they sort it out soon because we’re a nation at war.”

What does that mean, we’re a nation at war?  Many will think that a dumb question, but is it?  Sure, we have roughly 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, and that war isn’t over.  Sure, the U.S. is still helping Iraqi forces (notably in Mosul) against ISIS and related terrorist groups. Yes, the U.S. and NATO (joined by Russia?) are seeking to corral and eventually to end ISIS and “radical Islamic extremism/terrorism.”  But do these efforts constitute a world war, like World Wars I and II?

It doesn’t feel like a war — not in the USA, at least.  Congress has made no formal declaration of war.  Few Americans are sacrificing (of course, the troops in harm’s way are). There’s no rationing.  No tax increases to pay for the war.  No national mobilization of resources.  No draft.  No change in lifestyles or priorities. Nothing.  Most Americans go about their lives oblivious to the “war” and its progress (or lack thereof).

Here’s my point. Terrorism, whether radical Islamist or White supremacist or whatever variety, will always be with us.  Yes, it must be fought, and in a variety of ways.  Police action is one of them.  Political and social changes, i.e. reforms, are another.  Intelligence gathering.  Occasionally, military action is warranted.  But to elevate terrorism to an existential threat is to feed the terrorists.  “War” is what they want; they feed on that rhetoric of violence, a rhetoric that elevates their (self)-importance.  Why feed them?

Another aspect of this: a war on terrorism is essentially a permanent war, since you’ll never get rid of all terrorists.  And permanent war is perhaps the greatest enemy of democracy — and a powerful enabler of autocrats. James Madison saw this as clearly as anyone:

Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.  War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debt and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.  In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people.  The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manner and of morals, engendered in both. No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare …

After reading Madison, does anyone dedicated to democracy really want to be “at war” for, well, generations?  Forever?

Of course, there’s another aspect to General Thomas’s critique that must be mentioned, and that’s his audacity in criticizing the government (and, by extension, his commander-in-chief) for not having its act together in “the war.”  Generals are supposed to fight wars, not critique in public the government they serve.

War rhetoric doesn’t just inspire terrorists and empower autocrats while weakening democracy: It also emboldens generals.  They begin to think that, if the nation is at war, they should have a powerful role in making sure it runs well, until the state becomes an apparatus of the military (as it did in Germany during World War I, when Field Marshal Hindenburg and General Ludendorff ran Germany from 1916 to its collapse in November 1918).  The Trump administration has already put (long-serving and recently retired) generals at the helm of defense, homeland security, and the National Security Council. Remember the days when civilians filled these positions?

One more point: If the U.S. is now “a nation at war,” when, do tell, will we return to being a nation at peace?  If the answer is, “When the last terrorist is eliminated,” say goodbye right now to what’s left of American democracy.

The Poison of War

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President Bush just before he gave his “mission accomplished” speech in May 2003

Chris Hedges

In May 2003, Chris Hedges gave a controversial commencement speech at Rockford College (Rockford University since 2013) in Illinois.  Back then, Hedges was an award-winning reporter for the New York Times who had recently completed a book, War Is A Force that Gives Us Meaning (2002), which I highly recommend.  Earlier that month, President George W. Bush had given his “Mission Accomplished” speech about the Iraq war, and patriotic pride was riding high.  Hedges had the foresight to recognize the mission had not been accomplished, and that the cost of war (all wars) would be high to the United States as well as to the countries purportedly liberated.

Booed and interrupted on several occasions during his speech, Hedges persevered.  His words from 2003 are well worth reading again, especially as President-elect Trump assembles a team of former generals and hardline rightists with the promise of obliterating ISIS and of “winning” conflicts around the world.

Here is his speech, in its entirety.  I have bolded one passage on Athens and the poison of war that is particularly telling for the current American moment.  W.J. Astore

Chris Hedges at Rockford College, Commencement Address, May 2003

I want to speak to you today about war and empire.

Killing, or at least the worst of it, is over in Iraq. Although blood will continue to spill — theirs and ours — be prepared for this. For we are embarking on an occupation that, if history is any guide, will be as damaging to our souls as it will be to our prestige, power, and security. But this will come later as our empire expands and in all this we become pariahs, tyrants to others weaker than ourselves. Isolation always impairs judgment and we are very isolated now.

We have forfeited the good will, the empathy the world felt for us after 9-11. We have folded in on ourselves, we have severely weakened the delicate international coalitions and alliances that are vital in maintaining and promoting peace and we are part now of a dubious troika in the war against terror with Vladimir Putin and Ariel Sharon, two leaders who do not shrink in Palestine or Chechnya from carrying out acts of gratuitous and senseless acts of violence. We have become the company we keep.

The censure and perhaps the rage of much of the world, certainly one-fifth of the world’s population which is Muslim, most of whom I’ll remind you are not Arab, is upon us. Look today at the 14 people killed last night in several explosions in Casablanca. And this rage in a world where almost 50 percent of the planet struggles on less than two dollars a day will see us targeted. Terrorism will become a way of life, and when we are attacked we will, like our allies Putin and Sharon, lash out with greater fury. The circle of violence is a death spiral; no one escapes. We are spinning at a speed that we may not be able to hold. As we revel in our military prowess — the sophistication of our military hardware and technology, for this is what most of the press coverage consisted of in Iraq — we lose sight of the fact that just because we have the capacity to wage war it does not give us the right to wage war. This capacity has doomed empires in the past.

“Modern western civilization may perish,” the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr warned, “because it falsely worshiped technology as a final good.”

The real injustices, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, the brutal and corrupt dictatorships we fund in the Middle East, will mean that we will not rid the extremists who hate us with bombs. Indeed we will swell their ranks. Once you master people by force you depend on force for control. In your isolation you begin to make mistakes.

Fear engenders cruelty; cruelty, fear, insanity, and then paralysis. In the center of Dante’s circle the damned remained motionless. We have blundered into a nation we know little about and are caught between bitter rivalries and competing ethnic groups and leaders we do not understand. We are trying to transplant a modern system of politics invented in Europe characterized, among other things, by the division of earth into independent secular states based on national citizenship in a land where the belief in a secular civil government is an alien creed. Iraq was a cesspool for the British when they occupied it in 1917; it will be a cesspool for us as well. The curfews, the armed clashes with angry crowds that leave scores of Iraqi dead, the military governor, the Christian Evangelical groups who are being allowed to follow on the heels of our occupying troops to try and teach Muslims about Jesus.

The occupation of the oil fields, the notion of the Kurds and the Shiites will listen to the demands of a centralized government in Baghdad, the same Kurds and Shiites who died by the tens of thousands in defiance of Saddam Hussein, a man who happily butchered all of those who challenged him, and this ethnic rivalry has not gone away. The looting of Baghdad, or let me say the looting of Baghdad with the exception of the oil ministry and the interior ministry — the only two ministries we bothered protecting — is self immolation.

As someone who knows Iraq, speaks Arabic, and spent seven years in the Middle East, if the Iraqis believe rightly or wrongly that we come only for oil and occupation, that will begin a long bloody war of attrition; it is how they drove the British out and remember that, when the Israelis invaded southern Lebanon in 1982, they were greeted by the dispossessed Shiites as liberators. But within a few months, when the Shiites saw that the Israelis had come not as liberators but occupiers, they began to kill them. It was Israel who created Hezbollah and was Hezbollah that pushed Israel out of Southern Lebanon.

As William Butler Yeats wrote in “Meditations in Times of Civil War,” “We had fed the heart on fantasies / the hearts grown brutal from the fair.”

This is a war of liberation in Iraq, but it is a war now of liberation by Iraqis from American occupation. And if you watch closely what is happening in Iraq, if you can see it through the abysmal coverage, you can see it in the lashing out of the terrorist death squads, the murder of Shiite leaders in mosques, and the assassination of our young soldiers in the streets. It is one that will soon be joined by Islamic radicals and we are far less secure today than we were before we bumbled into Iraq.

We will pay for this, but what saddens me most is that those who will by and large pay the highest price are poor kids from Mississippi or Alabama or Texas who could not get a decent job or health insurance and joined the army because it was all we offered them. For war in the end is always about betrayal, betrayal of the young by the old, of soldiers by politicians, and of idealists by cynics. Read Antigone, when the king imposes his will without listening to those he rules or Thucydides’ history. Read how Athens’ expanding empire saw it become a tyrant abroad and then a tyrant at home. How the tyranny the Athenian leadership imposed on others it finally imposed on itself.

This, Thucydides wrote, is what doomed Athenian democracy; Athens destroyed itself. For the instrument of empire is war and war is a poison, a poison which at times we must ingest just as a cancer patient must ingest a poison to survive. But if we do not understand the poison of war — if we do not understand how deadly that poison is — it can kill us just as surely as the disease.

We have lost touch with the essence of war. Following our defeat in Vietnam we became a better nation. We were humbled, even humiliated. We asked questions about ourselves we had not asked before.

We were forced to see ourselves as others saw us and the sight was not always a pretty one. We were forced to confront our own capacity for atrocity — for evil — and in this we understood not only war but more about ourselves. But that humility is gone.

War, we have come to believe, is a spectator sport. The military and the press — remember in wartime the press is always part of the problem — have turned war into a vast video arcade came. Its very essence — death — is hidden from public view.

There was no more candor in the Persian Gulf War or the War in Afghanistan or the War in Iraq than there was in Vietnam. But in the age of live feeds and satellite television, the state and the military have perfected the appearance of candor.

Because we no longer understand war, we no longer understand that it can all go horribly wrong. We no longer understand that war begins by calling for the annihilation of others but ends if we do not know when to make or maintain peace with self-annihilation. We flirt, given the potency of modern weapons, with our own destruction.

The seduction of war is insidious because so much of what we are told about it is true — it does create a feeling of comradeship which obliterates our alienation and makes us, for perhaps the only time of our life, feel we belong.

War allows us to rise above our small stations in life; we find nobility in a cause and feelings of selflessness and even bliss. And at a time of soaring deficits and financial scandals and the very deterioration of our domestic fabric, war is a fine diversion. War for those who enter into combat has a dark beauty, filled with the monstrous and the grotesque. The Bible calls it the lust of the eye and warns believers against it. War gives us a distorted sense of self; it gives us meaning.

Once in war, the conflict obliterates the past and the future all is one heady intoxicating present. You feel every heartbeat in war, colors are brighter, your mind races ahead of itself.  We feel in wartime comradeship.  We confuse this with friendship, with love. There are those who will insist that the comradeship of war is love — the exotic glow that makes us in war feel as one people, one entity, is real, but this is part of war’s intoxication.

Think back on the days after the attacks on 9-11. Suddenly we no longer felt alone; we connected with strangers, even with people we did not like. We felt we belonged, that we were somehow wrapped in the embrace of the nation, the community; in short, we no longer felt alienated.

As this feeling dissipated in the weeks after the attack, there was a kind of nostalgia for its warm glow and wartime always brings with it this comradeship, which is the opposite of friendship. Friends are predetermined; friendship takes place between men and women who possess an intellectual and emotional affinity for each other. But comradeship — that ecstatic bliss that comes with belonging to the crowd in wartime — is within our reach. We can all have comrades.

The danger of the external threat that comes when we have an enemy does not create friendship; it creates comradeship. And those in wartime are deceived about what they are undergoing. And this is why once the threat is over, once war ends, comrades again become strangers to us. This is why after war we fall into despair.

In friendship there is a deepening of our sense of self. We become, through the friend, more aware of who we are and what we are about; we find ourselves in the eyes of the friend. Friends probe and question and challenge each other to make each of us more complete; with comradeship, the kind that comes to us in patriotic fervor, there is a suppression of self-awareness, self-knowledge, and self-possession. Comrades lose their identities in wartime for the collective rush of a common cause — a common purpose. In comradeship there are no demands on the self. This is part of its appeal and one of the reasons we miss it and seek to recreate it. Comradeship allows us to escape the demands on the self that is part of friendship.

In wartime when we feel threatened, we no longer face death alone but as a group, and this makes death easier to bear. We ennoble self-sacrifice for the other, for the comrade; in short we begin to worship death. And this is what the god of war demands of us.

Think finally of what it means to die for a friend. It is deliberate and painful; there is no ecstasy. For friends, dying is hard and bitter. The dialogue they have and cherish will perhaps never be recreated. Friends do not, the way comrades do, love death and sacrifice. To friends, the prospect of death is frightening. And this is why friendship or, let me say love, is the most potent enemy of war. Thank you.

What Did 9/11 Inaugurate?

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The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Viktor Vasnetsov)

W.J. Astore

On this 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, we should ask ourselves what those attacks inaugurated.  In a word, calamity.  The wildly successful actions of Al Qaeda, combined with the wild overreactions of the Bush/Cheney administration, marked the 21st century as one that will likely become known to future historians as calamitous.

In thinking about the 9/11 attacks, as an Air Force officer, what struck me then, and still does now, is the psychological blow.  We Americans like to think we invented flight (not just that the Wright Brothers succeeded in the first powered flight that was both sustained and controlled).  We like to think that airpower is uniquely American.  We take great pride that many airliners are still “Made in the USA,” unlike most other manufactured goods nowadays.

To see our airliners turned into precision missiles against our skyscrapers, another potent image of American power, by a terrorist foe (that was once an ally against Soviet forces in Afghanistan) staggered our collective psyche.  That’s what I mean when I say Al Qaeda’s attacks were “successful.”  They created an enormous shock from which our nation has yet to recover.

This shock produced, as Tom Engelhardt notes in his latest article at TomDispatch.com, a form of government psychosis for vengeance via airpower.  The problem, of course, is that the terrorist enemy (first Al Qaeda, then the Taliban, now ISIS) simply doesn’t offer big targets like skyscrapers or the Pentagon.  The best the U.S. can do via airpower is to strike at training camps or small teams or even individuals, all of which matter little in the big scheme of things.  Meanwhile, U.S. air strikes (and subsequent land invasions by ground troops) arguably strengthen the enemy strategically.  Why?  Because they lend credence to the enemy’s propaganda that the USA is launching jihad against the Muslim world.

The wild overreactions of the Bush/Cheney administration, essentially continued by Obama and the present national security state, have played into the hands of those seeking a crusade/jihad in the Greater Middle East.  What we have now, so the experts say, is a generational or long war, with no foreseeable end point.  Its product, however, is obvious: chaos, whether in Iraq or Libya or Yemen or Syria.  And this chaos is likely to be aggravated by critical resource shortages (oil, water, food) as global warming accelerates in the next few decades.

We are in the early throes of the calamitous 21st century, and it all began fifteen years ago on 9/11/2001.

The Attack in Nice, France

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W.J. Astore

In Nice, France, 84 people were killed by a maniac who drove a truck into a crowd on Bastille Day (French Independence Day).  The driver, identified as Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, was a French-Tunisian with a criminal record but with no known terrorist links.

Much remains unknown about this attack.  Was the driver acting alone?  Was he “radicalized,” killing for a political/religious purpose?  Was he working with a terrorist sect, or perhaps he sympathized with one?  We should be careful not to jump to conclusions.

I want to make one rather obvious point: It’s easy to politicize such horrendous attacks. It’s easy to say things like: “It’s all the fault of radical Islam!  The West is at war with radical Islam!  Muslim immigrants are to blame!”  And so on. Before reaching any conclusions, let’s gather all the evidence.

There’s a natural tendency to resort to the rhetoric of warfare here.  Politicians are especially prone to this.  And if you don’t agree with them, they dismiss you as naive or delusional — or worse.

The problem with warfare rhetoric is that it answers questions before they’re even asked. It imposes solutions before you even fully understand the problem.  For example, if it’s a “war,” the inevitable solution is more militarization.  More surveillance.  More police. More weapons.  Perhaps more military strikes as well.

But what if more military strikes actually aggravate the problem?  What if more police, more surveillance, more raids combine to abridge the freedoms that France fought for, the very freedoms which the French celebrate each year on Bastille Day?

Liberty, equality, and fraternity are noble goals.  They need always to be nourished and protected, not just from terrorists and other criminals, but from those in authority who may overreact in the name of protecting the people.

Guns and Grievances

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Guns look way too cool in our movies

W.J. Astore

The news out of Orlando is shocking.  Another mass shooting in America.  Another 50+ people dead with an additional 50+ wounded.  And then I saw this headline:

“America has 4.4% of the world’s population, but almost 50% of the civilian-owned guns around the world”

The ready availability of guns in America, to include military-style assault weapons with 30-round clips, makes it far easier for shooters bent on murder to kill large numbers of people.  It doesn’t matter what you call these shooters, whether you label them terrorists or lone wolves or crazed lunatics or whatever.  Apparently the latest shooter bought his guns legally, had a grievance against gay people, expressed some last-minute allegiance to ISIS, and then started blasting away at innocent people in a club that was friendly to gays.

Sure, guns alone are not to blame.  The primary person to blame is the shooter/murderer himself.  But (to repeat myself) the guns sure make it a lot easier to kill, and in large numbers.

We live in a sick society, often a very violent one, certainly a disturbed one, one that places enormous stress on people.  Another exceptional headline that I first heard on Bill Maher is that America, again with 4.4% of the world’s population, takes 75% of the world’s prescription drugs.

Guns and drugs – the two don’t mix, even when they’re legal.   Americans are over-armed and over-medicated.  Add to that mix the fact that Americans are under-educated, at least compared to our peers in the developed world, and you truly have a toxic brew.

Over-armed, over-medicated, and under-educated: surely this is not what our leaders have in mind when they call us the exceptional nation, the indispensable one, the greatest on earth.  Is it?

 

 

Lying and Deception in the Iraq War – and Today

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Hannah Arendt, cigarette in hand (Arendt Center, Bard College)

W.J. Astore

(This is part 2 of 2 of an essay dealing with lying, politics, and war, inspired by Hannah Arendt’s writings on The Pentagon Papers.  For part 1, click here.)

After the Vietnam War, the U.S. government oversaw the creation of a post-democratic military, one that was less tied to the people, meaning that the government had even less cause to tell the truth about war.  Unsurprisingly, then, the hubris witnessed in Vietnam was repeated with Iraq, together with an even more sweeping ability to deny or disregard facts, as showcased best in a statement by Karl Rove in 2004.  The actions of the Bush/Cheney Administration, Rove suggested, bypassed the fact- or “reality-based” community of lesser humans precisely because their premises (the need to revolutionize the Middle East and to win the War on Terror through violence) were irrefutable and their motives unimpeachable.  In Rove’s words:

We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

So it was that the Bush/Cheney administration manufactured its own “facts” to create its own “reality,” as the Downing Street Memo revealed (according to a senior British official, U.S. intelligence was “fixed” in 2002 to justify a predetermined decision to invade Iraq in 2003).  Dubious intelligence about yellowcake uranium from Africa and mobile biological weapons production facilities in Iraq (both later proved false) became “slam dunk” proof that Iraq had active programs of WMD development.  These lies were then cited to justify a rapid invasion.  That there were no active WMD programs in Iraq meant there could be no true “mission accomplished” moment to the war – a fact George W. Bush lampooned by pretending to  “search” for WMD at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2004.  In this case, lies and self-deception coalesced in a wincing performance before chuckling Washington insiders that recalled the worst of vaudeville, except that Americans and Iraqis were dying for these lies.

Subsequent policy decisions in post-invasion Iraq didn’t fit the facts on the ground because those facts were simply denied.  Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in July 2003 he didn’t do quagmires even as Iraq was becoming one for U.S. forces.  Two years later, then-Vice President Cheney claimed the Iraq insurgency was “in the last throes” even as insurgent attacks began to accelerate.  Lies and deception, to include self-deception, doomed the U.S. government to quagmire in Iraq, just as it had in Vietnam forty years earlier.  Similar lies continue to bedevil U.S. efforts in Iraq today, as well as in Afghanistan and many other places.

Even as official lies and deception spread, whistleblowers who stepped forward were gagged and squashed.  Chelsea Manning, Stephen Kim, and John Kiriakou were imprisoned; Edward Snowden was forced into permanent exile in Russia. Meanwhile, officials who toed the government line, who agreed to dissemble, were rewarded.  Whether under Bush or Obama, government officials quickly learned that supporting the party line, no matter how fanciful, was and is rewarded – but that truth-telling would be punished severely.

Lying and Self-Deception Today

How are U.S. officials doing at truth-telling today?  Consider the war in Afghanistan.  Now in its 15th year, regress, not progress, is the reality on the ground.  The Taliban controls more territory than ever, the drug trade is exploding, and Afghan forces remain unreliable.  Yet the U.S. government continues to present the Afghan war as winnable and the situation as steadily improving.

Similarly, consider the war on terror, nowadays prosecuted mainly by drones and special ops.  Even as the U.S. government boasts of terrorists killed and plots prevented, radical Islam as represented by ISIS and the like continues to spread.  Indeed, as terrorism expert David Kilcullen recently admitted, ISIS didn’t exist until U.S. actions destabilized and radicalized Iraq after 2003.  More than anything, U.S. intervention and blundering in Iraq created ISIS, just as ongoing drone strikes and special ops raids contribute to radicalization in the Islamic world.

Today’s generation of “best and brightest” problem-solvers believes U.S. forces cannot withdraw from Afghanistan without the Afghan government collapsing, hence the misleading statements about progress being made in that war.  Radical Islamic terrorists, they believe, must be utterly destroyed by military means, hence deceptive statements about drone strikes and special ops raids as eliminating terrorism.

Accompanying lies and deception about progress being made in wars is image manipulation.  Military action inoculates the Washington establishment, from President Obama on down, from (most) charges of being soft on terror (just as military action against North Vietnam inoculated John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson against charges of being soft on communism).  It also stokes the insatiable hunger of the military-industrial complex for bottomless resources and incessant action, a complex that the current crop of Republican and Democratic candidates for president (Bernie Sanders excepted) have vowed to feed and expand.

Whether in Vietnam, Iraq, or in the war on terror today, lying and self-deception have led to wrongheaded action and wrongful lessons.  So, for example, rather than facing the quagmire of Afghanistan and extricating itself from it, Washington speaks of a generational war and staying the course until ultimate victory.  Instead of seeing the often counterproductive nature of violent military strikes against radical Islam, Washington calls for more U.S. troops, more bombing, more “shock and awe,” the approach that bred the Islamic State in the first place.

One thing is certain: The U.S. desperately needs leaders whose judgment is informed by uncomfortable truths.  Comfortable lies have been tried before, and look what they produced: lots of dead people, lost wars, and a crippling of America’s ability to govern itself as a democracy.

More than ever, hard facts are at a premium in U.S. politics.  But the higher premium is the exorbitant costs we pay as a people, and the pain we inflict on others, when we allow leaders to make lies and deception the foundation of U.S. foreign policy.