11/15/2006 01:34 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Foreign Policy "Expertise" Revisited

Donald Rumsfeld attributed his firing and the Republican election losses to the American people being unable to "comprehend" what was going on in Iraq--a display of the same arrogance and boneheadedness that characterized his tenure. Rummy is a rather perfect illustration of what I said in my blog of 10/11/2006: foreign policy by "expert" over the past fifty years has been a total disaster.

In his provocative book, The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki demonstrates that regardless of knowledge or intelligence, any collection of ordinary people--provided its members are diverse, and independent of one another--will make better judgments and better decisions than the most brilliant expert, or even a group of experts working as a unit--especially if they're all trying to please the same authority figure. Large groups of people consistently do better than the elite few, whose homogeneity and shared assumptions often lead them into folly. Surowiecki cites the Bay of Pigs as an example--a small group of like-minded 'experts' who firmly believed that 1200 men could take over Cuba, that the Cuban population would rise up in support of them, and that no one would know the United States was behind the operation. All three beliefs turned out to be ludicrous.

In the early 1960s, when there were only a few hundred U.S. military advisors in Vietnam, a cabinet meeting was discussing various options: sending more military advisors, sending American troops, etc. At one point Bobby Kennedy--the 'naïve voice'--wondered what would happen if they did nothing at all. His statement was ignored and the "Best and the Brightest" went on discussing troop deployments. If Bobby's suggestion had been followed, the final outcome would have been about the same as it is now: a communist government moving toward a modified capitalism as it gets caught up in the global economy. Meanwhile fifty thousand Americans would still be alive, thousands more would be whole in body and mind, millions of Vietnamese would be alive, their country wouldn't be deluged with toxic chemicals, and the hundreds of billions the United States wasted on an unnecessary war could have spent maintaining our infrastructure, educating our children, developing a viable health care system, or (for the selfishly-inclined) lowering the tax rate.

Another reason not to trust Washington "experts" is the fact that they're in Washington--that they're attracted to power. Power addicts can have many skills, but one deficit they all share is an inability to refrain from trying to tinker--a need to control, manipulate, exert power. These power-hungry 'experts' have no faith in the dynamism of their own institutions--capitalism and democracy. They profess to believe in them, but actually they believe democracy and capitalism can only be imposed on unwilling populations by brute force.

But both capitalism and democracy are highly dynamic forces that grow spontaneously in response to changing world conditions--expanding populations, speedier communication, and so on. Nothing can prevent the nations of the world from eventually being swept up in the global economy. To embrace it may create great suffering in the short run. To wall it out is to wither and die.

But the Washington power-addicts don't like to think of anything occurring independent of their agency. And they hate democracy and will subvert it whenever a population is so foolish as to elect a leader they don't like, as we've seen them do in Iran, Chile, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Haiti, and elsewhere.

Vietnam itself is an example. During World War II the Allies promised Ho Chi Minh that if he fought against the Japanese, Vietnam would be given independence after the war. But the United States and Britain reneged on this promise and gave the country back to its colonial ruler, France. After an 8-year war Ho Chi Minh defeated the French and declared independence.

American intervention in Vietnam--splitting the country in two and setting up a puppet dictator--was based on the CIA's estimate that in a free election Ho Chi Minh would receive 80% of the Vietnamese vote, since he was a national hero who had liberated his country from both the Japanese and the French.

Iraq 'experts' like Rummy and Cheney demonstrated the same blind allegiance to macho tinkering as the Bay of Pigs architects and the Vietnam War cowboys. What these foreign policy 'experts' have achieved in Iraq is to turn what was possibly the most Westernized Muslim country in the Middle East into a hotbed of homicidal fundamentalist fanaticism.

It's time the American people began to take more responsibility for foreign policy decisions. Few of our military adventures and covert operations of the past fifty years have not left America both poorer and weaker.