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Is Our Foreign Policy Establishment Learning?
To get around being badly wrong on a major policy, many policymakers and analysts will insist on judging policies by the supposed intentions of their authors and not by their results.
Peter Beinart commented on the lack of learning and accountability in U.S. foreign policy debates in a recent interview with John Glaser (quote begins around 23:53):
We also don’t have…we don’t really have a learning process that I think then shapes the public debate. So one of the things that’s really frustrating to me, and it’s probably frustrating to you…if you’re a hawk on Iran, okay, you’re a hawk on Iran, you think America needs to threaten military force, maybe even go to war against Iran, but if you take that…but if you were also very hawkish on Iraq, and very hawkish on Afghanistan, right? And also very hawkish, let’s say, on Libya, right? All of which didn’t turn out very well. It seems to me that when…I’m not saying you shouldn’t have a voice, a seat at the table…it seems to me that there should be a mechanism by which you have to explain why this is different…explain why those experiences should not lead us to the view that, actually, another war in the Middle East is probably not likely to turn out well.
It seems like in many other aspects of life or institutions, you try to have some learning process by which…and it seems to me that…especially when you are on the hawkish side that there is this way in which history starts over again when you propose a new military action that you want….Those folks who were right, who might have tended to have views that were more outside the mainstream…let’s look at those people who were right on Afghanistan and Iraq and say let’s make sure that this time, now that we’re debating war with Iran, that we give those people a little bit more of a voice because they have a pretty good track record….But that’s not the case.
The lack of learning among policymakers, analysts, and pundits is one of the biggest obstacles to having our government make wiser and less destructive policy decisions. Beinart says a little later on in the conversation that he doesn’t really understand why there is no learning process in our foreign policy debates, but I suspect he knows that the main reason why no learning takes place is that there are strong personal and professional incentives in our foreign policy institutions that penalize learning and reward conformism. It is safer and more rewarding for an analyst or a policymaker to endorse and then stick with a conventional hawkish position even when it leads to undeniable policy failure than it is to oppose that position vocally from the beginning.
To get around being badly wrong on a major policy, many policymakers and analysts will insist on judging policies by the supposed intentions of their authors and not by their results. Libyan war hawks are great fans of doing this, because it allows them to wash their hands of everything that came after the initial intervention so that they can take all the credit for its supposed benefits and none of the blame for its later costs. In this way, hawks can tell themselves that they didn’t really get anything wrong at all no matter how badly their preferred policy blew up in their faces, and then they can explain away the consequences as unfortunate but unintended effects for which they can’t be held responsible. Regrettably, this maneuver is usually very successful, and policymakers never are held responsible for what they have done.
Reflecting on past errors and trying to avoid them in the future simply aren’t priorities when policymakers and analysts can and do reliably fail upward. One might think that politicians would be more inclined to learn something, if only because they have to face voters and defend their records occasionally, but that isn’t what happens. Almost all of them are insulated from serious consequences because incumbency protects them most of the time from ever being voted out and very few voters care deeply enough about any foreign policy issues to vote them out for being wrong on major issues.
Beinart mentions Lindsey Graham as an example of an unlearning hawk, and Graham illustrates the problem that I am talking about very well. He is the worst of a bad bunch, but he has been comfortably reelected every time he has stood for office and he has no reason to fear that his blood-curdling warmongering will hurt him politically. He has probably been consistently wrong about more major foreign policy issues than almost any other elected official still alive, but Graham faces no penalties from voters and he continues to be treated as if he were some sort of foreign policy sage by credulous media outlets that keep bringing him back on their programs to make the deranged hardliner case.
All of the incentives are lined up to encourage most foreign policy professionals to default to supporting more hawkish and aggressive policy options, because that represents the path of least resistance and involves the least risk. This is then reinforced by habit over years and decades so that it becomes second nature. It becomes its own sort of “common sense.” Because there are absolutely no consequences for being completely wrong, up to and including being the architects of obvious disasters, there is no incentive to learn from policy failures. When confronted with clear evidence of policy failure, advocates for that policy will simply ignore it or pretend that their policy has been vindicated by events. Supporters of “maximum pressure” on Iran do this every day, and they continue to be quoted and treated as if they are serious people arguing in good faith. Ideological Iran hawks of that sort are the ones that need to learn the most, but they are also the ones that will never admit that they erred.
There is no mechanism to enforce learning because no one that might be in a position to enforce it wants to penalize anyone for getting things wrong. There is vigorous enforcement against ideological nonconformity, of course, but there is no desire to do the same thing for proven poor judgment and errors rooted in whatever the conventional wisdom happens to be at the time. Even partisan point-scoring tends to run in the same direction of bashing members of the other party for “weakness” or being “soft” on this or that adversary.
One final reason why there is so little learning in our foreign policy is that the U.S. has the luxury of enormous power and security that allows our government to commit crimes and blunders on a massive scale without having to fear any direct consequences. The sheer power that the U.S. possesses invites abuse and ensures that there will be no punishment for those that abuse it. If we want greater wisdom in our foreign policy and greater accountability for foreign policy failures, the U.S. has to have a much less ambitious foreign policy than it has had for most of the last hundred years.