The March of Folly

Historian Barbara Tuchman won a Pulitzer Prize in 1962 for The Guns of August, her magisterial study of how the European powers blundered into World War I. An early reader of the book was John F. Kennedy, who applied the lessons of that book to help the US avoid similar blunders during the tense days of the Cuban missile crisis.

In 1984, Ms. Tuchman published The March of Folly, which considered how governments and institutions through the ages made stupendously stupid decisions, such as the Vatican’s fermentation of the Protestant Reformation, the British government’s provocation of the American revolution and America’s descent into the Vietnam war.

The book opens with the essay “Pursuit of Policy Contrary to Self-Interest.” Brilliant when written, the essay is now shocking because it precisely describes the process by which the Bush administration pitched a nation into the morass of the Iraq invasion and occupation.

Some excerpts:

“To qualify as folly…. the policy adopted must meet three criteria: it must be perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not merely by hindsight…. Secondly, an alternative course of action must have been available … a third criterion must be that the policy in question must be that of a group, not an individual ruler, and should persist beyond any one political lifetime.”

Two out of three ain’t bad, but the Iraq debacle scores a perfect three. Multiple voices – from Gen. Eric Shinseki to Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) to the UN Security Council to a substantial portion of the America public – begged George Bush not to launch a war of choice in Iraq. Second, an alternative course was available via UN weapons inspectors, international sanctions and diplomacy. Third, Mr. Bush’s group included neocons, backers of the Project for a New American Century and the corporate cronies now grown bloated on the blood of innocents. As for persistence beyond one political lifetime, the damage wrought in the past five years – in one form or other – will likely outlive everyone on the planet today.

“Wooden-headedness, the source of self-deception, is a factor that plays a remarkably large role in government. It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts. It is epitomized in a historian’s statement about Philip II of Spain, the surpassing wooden-head of all sovereigns: ‘No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence.’”

The same can be said of Bush II of America, the surpassing wooden-head of all presidents. Sadly, contrary facts seem only to make Mr. Bush more stubborn and Dick Cheney more conniving. This week’s departure of Karl Rove will not significantly decrease the supply of cranial lumber on Pennsylvania Avenue.

“A principle that emerges … is that folly is a child of power. We know, from unending repetitions of Lord Acton’s dictum, that power corrupts. We are less aware that it breeds folly; that the power to command frequently causes failure to think; that the responsibility of power often fades as its exercise augments. The overall responsibility of power is to govern as reasonably as possible in the interest of the state and its citizens. A duty in that process is to keep well-informed, to heed information, to keep mind and judgement open and to resist the insidious spell of wooden-headedness. If the mind is open enough to perceive that a given policy is harming rather than serving self-interest, and self-confident enough to acknowledge it, and wise enough to reverse it, that is the summit of the art of government.”

We are not at the summit of government, nor can we even see it from here. Given that the current choice of presidential candidates range from awful to mediocre, and that most of them are hostages of the same forces that shaped the Bush administration, it’s unlikely we’ll see an undoing of Mr. Bush’s damage in anything less than two or three decades. Or maybe not. Keep an open mind.

© Mark Floegel, 2007

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