The March of Folly, continued

The government policy which immediately sprang to my mind as I read “The March of Folly” was (obviously, I think) the US invasion (or, if you prefer, liberation) of Iraq. In fact, I often felt as I read the section on Vietnam that entire paragraphs and pages might be taken as accurately describing Iraq if only the word Vietnam were replaced with Iraq throughout.

After finishing the book, however, I second-guessed myself. Was the invasion so clearly a folly in hindsight? Was not the war justified solely on the grounds of removing Saddam from power? Were we clearly going to fail? (After all, a correct policy incompetently pursued is not a folly at all, either by Tuchman’s definition or in common parlance.)

I was quite staggered, however, to read the latest Atlantic Monthly feature story, “Blind into Baghdad”. The upshot: almost every problem encountered by the US in its occupation of Iraq was predicted (and in many cases workable solutions proposed) by organisations inside the US government (e.g. the State Department, USAID) and NGOs before the invasion took place. Their advice was wilfully ignored by the Office of the Secretary of Defence, which went so far as to forbid the participation of Pentagon officials in crucial meetings.

It is important to point out that critics of the war — especially politicians — have focussed almost solely on (a) the way the US went into it alone without gathering allies, and (b) the fact that Weapons of Mass Destruction (the ostensible justification for the war) were not found. The first is not an argument of justification but of means — if the war was just then the US’s lack of allies does not make it unjust and vice versa. (French and German participation in a war are hardly indicators of its being just, and yet almost all such criticism would have been squelched had they been involved.) The second is not as important as you think: many wars are not fought for their stated reason. E.g. we did not fight WWII simply because of Pearl Harbour or the Civil War simply because of Fort Sumter.

Neither of these criticisms (if they were accurate) would qualify this war as folly. The real questions we should be asking are: (a) was the war in our interest? and (b) has the war been conducted competently? Unless the occupation turns into an absolute fiaco of Vietnam proportions or another vicious tyrant takes over Iraq as soon as the US leaves it may never be possible to answer the first question definitively. As to the second, it seems quite clear that the rift between the Bush II administration and the State Department (or indeed any sources of information not wholly in agreement with its wishful thinking) has seriously degraded the quality of US policy.

The March of Folly

I’m reading Barbara Tuchman’s “The March of Folly” at the moment. The basic point of this book is that nations can be as irrational and dysfunctional at a policy level as individuals are in managing their own affairs. To this end she cites the Trojans (in their war with Greece, and particularly in bringing the horse into their city against the dictates of caution and prophecy), the Renaissance popes, England’s handling of her American colonies, and US involvement in Vietnam. The book was written in the context of the arms race with the Soviet Union just prior to Perestroika (I hope I spelled that correctly), with the hardly tacit implication that this was the Great Folly of that time.

Tuchman’s definition of Folly is very precise. It’s much more specific than simply “a really stupid thing to do”.

To qualify as folly for this inquiry, the policy adopted must meet three criteria: it must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not merely by hindsight. … Secondly a feasible alternative course of action must have been available. … third … the policy in question should be that of a group, not an individual leader.

These are quite exacting criteria. The first means that there must have been a reasoned outcry against the policy at the time. The second that reasonable alternatives were put forward. And the last that the whims of individual fools are discounted.

It’s easy to look at government policies in today’s world of which one might disapprove (I’m sure you can think of several) and, on the assumption that they will fail, mark them as follies, but it seems to me that in any reasonably free or democratic society, there will always be arguments that a policy is “counter-productive”, and many “feasible alternatives” (such as doing nothing) tabled. As such, almost any failed policy of a modern democracy will qualify as folly by Tuchman’s definition.

For democracies, it seems that to qualify as folly a policy should have nearly overwhelming public support (rather than merely being pursued by a group) at least at its inception. Sadly, the examples I’m thinking of easily meet this criterion as well.