Yes, but, David, I think the analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant. I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.
~ President Obama speaking to David Remnick on January 7, 2014, not long after jihadists took over Fallujah in Iraq
Wouldn’t it be something if we put the same intense, intelligent energy we devote to our sports teams, into productive criticism of our foreign policy officials? The difference is that for sports, critics want the home team to win. For foreign and defense policy, the home team is your own party! Thus that discussion is as partisan as every other discussion has become.
This fall our JV foreign and defense policy team prepares to leave Washington. In January, less than four months, a new one will take over. If we were sports fans, we would anticipate the new season with hope. As it is, we have little hope at all that the new team will be any better than the current one. Who are the leaders of the current team?
- President Barack Obama
- Vice-President Joe Biden
- First-term Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
- Second-term Secretary of State John Kerry
- Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter
- National Security Advisor Susan Rice
Compare these five office holders to the previous JV team, which was even more incompetent than this one:
- President George W. Bush
- Vice-President Richard Cheney
- National Security Advisor and then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
- Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld
- Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz
I left first-term Secretary of State Colin Powell off the team. He let Dick Cheney pressure him to appear before the UN to urge war against Iraq. Until then, he had been the only member of the national security team to oppose the war. He caved, but I’m not sure he was incompetent.
Now since we have used Obama’s sports terminology, which he employed to describe a team that whipped him a few months later, let’s make a further comparison with football. Athletes like to engage in what they call ‘trash talk’. They use it to get inside their opponents’ heads, to make them lose confidence or anger them so they don’t play as well. Sometimes trash talk includes boasting, to build up your own confidence. In sports like boxing or mixed martial arts, the talk can help with your marketing as well.
The difference with athletes is that everyone agrees about how to keep score. You may not like the referees, but people still generally accept the outcomes. With football, you have sixteen winners and sixteen losers every week. No matter what you say on or off the field, you have to prove yourself during four quarters of play.
Foreign and defense policy are different. People don’t agree about how to keep score. Disastrous defeats are treated like minor turnovers. Insignificant accomplishments are treated as triumphs. You can pretend for a long time, especially if you’re a big country. The propaganda machine never sleeps. The blame game never stops. The spinning wheel spins out preposterous lies, and when people simply ignore those, the wheel slows down for a while. No matter what, you will not hear the truth from a politician who is on the hook.
If dishonesty reigns, people can’t agree about winners and losers, and the home team isn’t even your own country, how do you field a better team? Where do you find skills or even motivation to improve? You could say the last sixteen years have seen teams so bad, they are bound to get better. No one can tolerate another eight years of gross mistakes. Yet we harbored all those hopes for improvement in 2009, and improvement didn’t happen. As the new team unlimbered on the field, we watched with dismay as they ran the same old plays, with the same ungrounded confidence they would win.
Even though the new team was just as dishonest as the previous one, they appeared not to care how inept they were. They were amateurs, they knew it, and tried to disguise it only intermittently. Moreover, they did not seem interested in prospects of improvement. Chess players, tennis players, football and baseball players: they all have a program of study and practice they pursue as they compete to become champions. Washington fields foreign policy teams that appear to work hard, even appear earnest, but when off-camera they don’t know what they ought to do.
The previous team, in office from 2001 to 2009, thought of themselves as professionals. They came into office with pedigrees, personalities, and self-assigned prerogatives. Their failures showed that what you think of yourself, however conceited your self-conception might be, has nothing to do with your actual abilities. Your high self-regard places no limits on the magnitude of your mistakes. When you have no humility, you have no means of self-correction, no wisdom, and no ability to do even the minimum expected of you. You wander about as clueless as if you never made any claims for yourself.
When you make a mistake in your own household, a responsible person owns it and takes some action to correct it. When you make a mistake as leader of a superpower, constituents expect the same pattern of recognition and correction. If you display no ability to learn from mistakes, if instead you conceal your mistakes and lie about them, people start to suspect. They wonder why you are so eager to conceal mistakes, since you have to be open about them in order to correct and improve.
At last we begin to see the motives behind concealment. What initially appears as a mistake comes into focus as a crime. No wonder, then, that the perpetrators don’t want to take responsibility for what they have done. That would compel them to admit guilt. Criminals do not take responsibility for what they have done. Their whole mission is to escape responsibility. Let’s note here, as we talk about crimes, that aggressive war is the ultimate crime in international relations. We have hanged leaders of other countries who commit this crime.
Despite their best efforts at secrecy and concealment, people discover that their leaders do in fact commit crimes, which they hide among with their mistakes and their compulsive dishonesty. Suddenly they’re no longer leaders, experienced professionals who command respect. They become more like the scary clowns people report in their neighborhoods, people who harvest their children and send them to die far away, just like the pied piper did centuries ago.
Of course, these pied pipers cause a lot more damage than your run-of-the-mill criminal. We have seen a lot of people die because incompetents decided a little warfare might be a good thing for all of us back here at home. A lot of people have lost their livelihoods and family members because someone in Washington DC thought a little hubris and violence could go a long way. Add some dishonesty to the mix of pride and power, and you see a nation so enamored of its own war-making capabilities, it does not even see what it has lost. It just blunders along while others hate, scheme, and seek revenge.
You almost wish people would snicker. At least that would betray only modest anxiety. We have traveled well beyond that reaction, though. Blameworthy or not, our leaders have failed so often, so thoroughly and without appearing to care, that they carry a multitude of sins at this point. With so many lies, you cannot sort their actual crimes and mistakes from those they did not commit. Certainly enemies abroad have no interest in sorting that out.
As we end this era of incompetence and loss, check the score. How far behind are we? That far? What’s the matter with our team? Can’t we do better than that? For your football team, you can hope for a better performance next week. After sixteen years of losing in foreign and defense competition, when weakness arises from both over-confidence and mistakes so obvious you cannot believe anyone would make them, you don’t hope for improvement next week. In fact, your expectations fall so low that you feel protected from further disappointment.
Then your team blunders again, and you begin to wonder how far it can sink. From all indications this fall, we have some distance to go before the bottom rises out of the murk to meet us. Fearfully, the violence we have sown abroad appears to arrive in our communities week by week. We don’t know where this climate of violence and helplessness will take us. We have only one clear principle to guide us at this point: do not look to officials in Washington for competence, honesty, or leadership. These qualities of character exist together when you have leaders who take responsibility for their actions.
In publication since 2009, The Jeffersonian occasionally publishes topical collections of essays on politics, such as Revolution on the Ground and Infamy. To learn about these and other books, visit Dr. G’s Writing Workshop.