Policy Making: Madness Disguised
In an excellent biography of Robert Strange McNamara entitled Promise and Power there occurs the following assessment of McNamara by one of his contemporaries at a time when McNamara seemed to some to be on the verge of mental breakdown as the Vietnam War was degenerating into mindless and ineffective killing and McNamara knew it.
“Everything he believed in was being knocked on its ass in Vietnam. Here was a guy who really believed that the truth is what you got out of the machine when you asked for it. You know, what would we do about x? – here comes the answer, the organizational truth.” [p. 426]
Now this is an excellent characterization of Robert McNamara and how he thought, both in and out of the political arena. But it seems fair to say that it is also a pretty good description of how a good many, even most Americans have come to think politically. We ask: What are our problems? Then we ask: What are the solutions to those problems? The implication being that solving political problems is a lot like or exactly like solving math problems. All we need do is to find the right formula and we will be able to solve our problems.
Hence, in Vietnam, those in charge looked for the formula, the right mixture of, say, search and destroy missions, Vietnamization, pacification, assassinations, and bombing that would lead to victory. And of course people like Robert McNamara looked like the most likely source of what would be the successful solution to the problem of Vietnam. After all, he had worked apparent wonders at the Ford Motor Company before he became the secretary of defense for Kennedy. But it didn’t work out that way and the longer McNamara dealt with Vietnam, the worse the situation seemed to become. That is, more and more civilians were killed, more and more American and Vietnamese soldiers were killed, and yet the war went on and on and on until, finally, the United States pulled out after having obtained, as the official line had it, “peace with honor.” Of course, it got neither peace nor honor. All it got was the return of is prisoners of war, while the Vietnamese once again united their country against the wishes of a powerful enemy seeking to subjugate them.
So what are we to make of this? If policy making does not work, if it leads more often to failure than success, what are we to replace it with? And that framework has so consumed our thinking about politics that it is difficult to think of alternatives. But let me try anyway.
Once upon a time, it was thought that there were certain fundamental political questions such as what is justice? What is the most appropriate end of politics? Is it liberty, prosperity, security, or national greatness? Or more recently, have we created a military-industrial complex, as President Eisenhower argued? How should ambition and the ambitious be dealt with? How can we prevent an oligarchy from forming and controlling our politics and society? What is a just war?
The fact that we don’t spend much time considering such questions does not mean that they aren’t important or relevant. One cannot help but suspect that it was the pursuit of national greatness that led to the fiasco in Vietnam, the one in Iraq, and the continuing one in Afghanistan. Perhaps if we questioned whether we should pursue national greatness, our politics would not be as messed up as it is. Has the pursuit of national greatness led to the creation of that military-industrial complex Ike warned us about? Did the failure to ask, seriously ask whether the Vietnam War was a just war contribute to its outcome? For if it weren’t just, then eventually that fact would make itself known, thereby contributing to the opposition that arose the longer the war went on and that many say caused US defeat in that war. Humans have a difficult time participating in injustice, especially when the injustice involves large scale killing, torture, and oppression.
In other words, we ignore some political questions at our own peril. Ambition and the ambitious must be dealt with by any political order, as should be crystal clear these days with Donald Trump as president, if it wasn’t already clear when LBJ, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, or George W. Bush was president. Ambition may be, as Alexander Hamilton wrote, “the ruling passion of the noblest minds” – or not! And the cost of ignoring certain political questions should be clear as we stumble from one failed military engagement, one fruitless war to another. To treat war-making as McNamara did in Vietnam and as our politicians have done in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, as a problem to be solved by the correct formula, without considering the status of war-making as a political activity or phenomenon, is to invite failure after failure. And all the glorification of our military will do nothing to avoid these failures. If not one soldier fighting in Vietnam had been dishonored – as some surely were – that war would still have been unjust and, hence, unsustainable. For that was what led to that war’s loss of legitimacy, that it was unjust, that it was inhumane, that it was a fool’s errand.
Robert McNamara’s biography is a good one to study because he was so eminently American. That he finished his stint in the Defense Department near a mental breakdown should be taken as a sign that how he did politics, which is largely how most Americans think of doing politics, is a form of or leads to madness.