There are strange political phenomena. One, cited by Walter Karp in his book The Politics of War, is the phenomenon of the “heroic defeat.” As Karp explains this regarding Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations:
“Defeat held irresistible attractions. The League, defeated in the Senate, would regain what it had lost at the peace conference: the pristine purity of a noble ideal. The League’s defeat would shift from Wilson the burden of guilt that was crushing him. Who could accuse him of vainly inflicting war upon his countrymen, after ignoble politicians made his noble war vain….The defeat, per force, had to be a noble one, a defeat after heroic efforts to triumph. In the summer of 1919 Wilson drew up his plans for staging a heroic defeat.” [pp. 342-343]
In light of this, think of LBJ being “driven” from office in 1968 as he gave up re-election to work for peace, as he claimed, in the face of what he knew would be a “heroic defeat” in Vietnam, a defeat caused by the likes of imperialistic Communists, long-haired hippies, spoiled college students, treasonous professors, the mainstream media, and left-wing radicals who despised America. And, of course, Nixon and Kissinger had waged deadly war in Southeast Asia, a war that was ultimately lost because of the actions of ignoble politicians in Congress who refused the necessary funds when Ford was president to win the war. And all of this prepared the way for Ronald Reagan to claim that the Vietnam War was “noble.” Of course it was, as its “nobility” was guaranteed by sending a lot of American soldiers to die and kill in Vietnam when it was known that that war was unwinnable.
Here’s another strange political phenomenon: the surprise attack. Now, almost everyone knows that surprise birthday parties, for example, almost never work. The surprise is less than genuine. And yet both the “surprisers” and the “surprisees” have a mutual interest in pretending that the surprise did work. It’s more fun that way and it’s polite to pretend that you were surprised. Well, in surprise military attacks, like those that occurred on 9/11 in the US, this same mutuality of interest of pretending that the attacks were a genuine surprise is at work. If both sides pretend that the surprise was total, both sides benefit. The attackers benefit because they are made to seem quite impressive in their power and intelligence, especially when a powerful nation like the US was surprised. The attacked also prefer pretense to reality because the greater the surprise, the less blameworthy they are.
So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised when nations and otherwise intelligent politicians ignore warnings like those made prior to 9/11, one of which was that bin Laden intended to attack inside the United States and cautioned that these attacks would be waged with aircraft. By ignoring such warnings, these politicians were, in fact, protecting themselves from blame for not detecting and detering the forthcoming attacks. By ignoring such warnings, these politicians could later claim that they were totally surprised and were, therefore, blameless because, after all, the attack was a surprise.