To propose an idea, especially a controversial idea, is not to propose one’s own infallibility. We all make mistakes. We all have lapses in judgment. This is true for government officials and it is true for journalists attempting to understand contradictory information coming out of Russia.
Perhaps there are no experts in the world. Maybe there are only students with different bits of knowledge and insight. Where Russia is concerned, the problem is made complicated by distance and psychological inaccessibility. As some in the West realize, Russia’s national psychology has been conditioned by a different set of historical experiences. Another complicating factor, in terms of understanding Russia, is the fact that Russians have instinctively distrusted outsiders to the point that deception has been imbedded in Russian culture for many centuries. The Marquis de Custine, writing in the first half of the 19th century, said that hoodwinking foreigners was a Russian trait. The extensive fakery of the so-called “Potemkin villages” built to fool visiting dignitaries during the reign of Catherine the Great, belonged to the 18th century. From the depths of the Middle Ages to the 1940s, invaders of Russia were chagrined to discover that authoritative maps of Russia contained cunning errors. Towns and swamps did not exist where they were alleged to be. Roads and rivers were mismarked. And yes, it was intentional.
When talking about such a country, none of us can be absolutely sure of anything. So we blunder forward, policymakers and journalists, making mistakes along the way.
How could it be otherwise?
Prevailing opinions about Russia differ, with the majority believing that Moscow’s military power has collapsed. My task has been to poke holes in this theory. And I’m not alone in doing this. Among the many people who follow events in Russia, there are those who worry about the Kremlin’s unexplained fondness for expensive new weapons and underground nuclear-proof cities.
Joel Skousen is one of the few researchers courageous enough to speak out against the prevailing national complacency regarding Russia’s war preparations. In fact, he has worked to expose Russian and Chinese military activity that the U.S. policymaking establishment would prefer to ignore. This week, Skousen’s analysis is featured on my website, and he presents many facts that reinforce what I’ve been saying about Russia and China all along.
Skousen believes, as I do, that actions are a better guide to intentions than words. Don’t listen to what the Kremlin leaders are saying. Instead, watch what they are doing. It is very simple. If Mrs. Smith goes to the store and buys a turkey, and if she prepares the turkey for the oven, you can be fairly sure she’s going to be eating turkey for dinner — whatever she might say to the contrary.
In the same vein, if the Kremlin is building giant nuclear-proof cities under the Urals, if they are building the world’s most advanced ICBMs, if they already have a National Missile Defense system and are attempting to create a devastating new biological weapon in violation of treaty commitments, you can be fairly certain that they have a future war with America in mind — even if the Kremlin insists that America is Russia’s friend.
Skousen outlines Russia’s extensive war preparations, which contradict the claims of Russian leaders that the Cold War is over. Yet, as obvious as these preparations are to anyone who follows the work of Bill Gertz, Michael Waller, Stanislav Lunev and Ken Alibek (among a host of others), our nation’s leaders seem strangely unconcerned. President Bush is not eager to build up the U.S. military as Ronald Reagan was 20 years ago. Clinton’s neglect of the military does not, apparently, need immediate rectification. In addition, grave concerns about the growing military collaboration between Beijing and Moscow have not excited the new administration.
It is over the West’s apparent non-reaction to the Russian threat that Joel Skousen and I have an interesting disagreement. Why do most government officials dismiss Russia and China as immediate threats to our security, preferring to dwell on threats from so-called “rogue states” and terrorists? According to Skousen, our leaders are too intelligent to misread Russia and China’s moves. Therefore, he concludes, there must be a conspiratorial group guiding the Western elite. He argues that our government’s greatest blunders are part of a cunning elitist strategy.
Many people in America today, especially those who have passed through the educational program of the John Birch Society, believe that policy missteps in high places are often calculated. They talk of a grand conspiracy going back many years, involving secret societies and bankers. It is a conspiracy to create a “New World Order.”
I’ve often wanted to explain why I disagree with this thesis, although I understand that globalism and internationalism are genuine movements in their own right. In recent columns I have attempted to show that stupidity is normal in politics, and we cannot always pin mistakes on cunning conspirators. Politics is about group interaction, and groups make us stupid.
Gustave Le Bon explained, more than a hundred years ago, that groups are easily manipulated by something called hope. When a human being joins a group, said Le Bon, his critical faculty is suspended. He enters into the group’s emotions, which have a very low intelligence quotient indeed. Any thinking person who has stumbled into a religious cult or attended a YAF (Young Americans for Freedom) meeting will know what I mean. And in this regard, the CFR (Council on Foreign Relations) is no different than every other like-minded herd.
It must be remembered that propaganda not only affects the masses. It also infects the propagandists themselves. People typically end up believing their own rationalizations, which are used to support false hopes and expectations.
In recent columns I have emphasized the “stupidity question,” drawing from great thinkers like Le Bon and Machiavelli. We are all victims of our own need to belong. We are also victims of our will to believe. It is not that we are stupid as individuals, but we can easily become stupid whenever we join a group. As people are channeled and “socialized,” they often leave their independent judgment behind (in order to conform to group expectations and needs). For that matter, everyone understands that belonging to a group is often necessary for personal survival, promotion and success.
At the same time, belonging to a group short-circuits our brain. Look at the craziness in the Middle East. Perfectly decent people — Arabs and Israelis — are getting ready to murder each other because of group identification. This is not merely an affliction which infects the common people. It infects leaders as well, who reflect the hopes and fears of their followers.
There are many channels through which stupidity and madness can overtake us. Few have stopped to consider that power itself makes people stupid. First, there is the crippling arrogance which arises from the enjoyment of power. This enjoyment corrupts intellectual integrity, even as the powerful find themselves besieged by daily events, unable to make the time needed for study and reflection. Some leaders, it is true, understand the dangers of power-induced stupidity. President John Kennedy, who blundered through the Bay of Pigs fiasco, learned a valuable lesson. During the Cuban missile crisis he became acutely aware that group and time pressures could lead a president into an unnecessary nuclear blunder. Wisely, Kennedy detached himself from the group and allotted time for solitary reflection.
Besides the negative influences of group pressure, time constraints and the blind arrogance of power, there is also the negative influence of ideology. Every group, including ruling groups, has ideological assumptions. Because we believe in X, Y or Z, we often refuse to accept facts that are right in front of us. We prefer our ideological assumptions to facts which threaten to overturn those assumptions. There is hardly an honest person involved in politics who has not had occasion to say to himself, “that goes against everything I believe. It cannot be true.”
Bureaucratic prerogatives can also make people stupid. Past errors must be defended and facts erased or ignored, since careers associated with those errors must be protected. This helps to explain why we have bureaucracies that will not come clean on issues ranging from POW/MIA affairs to Russian treaty violations. Powerful office-holders are associated with blunders and betrayals which afterwards cannot be admitted.
The list of factors tending to promote political stupidity are numerous. Loyalty itself, which is extremely important to the working of government, is dumb and blind in terms of the intellectual integrity its good offices negate. If politics cannot warp matter, it can nonetheless warp the mind.
Many critics will argue that my own analysis is warped, as I would question theirs. We are not free to assume that anyone is unaffected by the many psychological factors that pervert and corrupt political judgments. Even more important, people in positions of power are under intensive non-rational pressures. Therefore, it is my contention that even an intelligent government (like the one we have under George W. Bush), can easily paint one layer of stupid policies over another. This is because false hopes and irrational impulses animate nearly all social discourse.
Look at any political statement — from right to left — and you will find a nonsensical subtext. In case after case, political talk and action is predicated on irrational expectations: for example, the war on poverty, the war to end all wars, the League of Nations, the United Nations, the Bolshevik Revolution, Hitler’s Third Reich, Roosevelt’s New Deal, Nixon’s detente, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, etc. Each of these political movements or policies was based on false hopes that have since been smashed, and have since been reborn like a phoenix from the ashes. To look at one case in particular: Nixon’s detente policy (which continued under his successors, Ford and Carter) ended with the fall of Saigon, a communist explosion in Africa, a Marxist takeover in Nicaragua and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Policies based on group-think, which emerge out of committees and compromises, often have a wisdom of their own — which cannot be denied. But sometimes they are plainly stupid and even disastrous.
When Mr. Skousen and others use conspiracy theory to explain government stupidity with regard to Russia, I believe they are missing one of the central facts of political life. Yes, there are conspiracies and movements in history — like socialism, liberalism, nationalism, etc. But these movements are themselves full of stupidities and errors. It is the irrationality and senseless quality of the world wars of the last century that ought to impress itself on us.
Of course, things being what they are, my criticism of Mr. Skousen could be a special case of blindness. Since stupidity is contagious and irrationality infectious, we all need to be open-minded with regard to our own frailties. And we need to be humble before the facts, especially when those facts support the view that America is in trouble and Mrs. Smith is, after all, preparing to cook a turkey.