The Illusion of Competence

Empowered Dingalings, Magical Supersecret Whatevers with Lots of Flashing Lights, Total Cluelessness, and Other Chronicles of Washington

February 7, 2008

Fraud is rife, I tell you. At a glance the citadels of power in Washington seem imposing. One thinks of imperial Rome, or the intergalactic empires of science fiction. Along Pennsylvania Avenue, on Capitol Hill, in Foggy Bottom, in monumental buildings in Federal Greek style, men and women of erudition seem to manage the world. Across the river in the Pentagon, spangled generals operate an inconceivably powerful military that can strike anywhere within hours of deciding to do so. At Langley in Virginia and Fort Meade in Maryland the intelligence agencies spy on the world, sucking in vast amounts of information from secret satellites and undersea taps and massive antenna farms. The whole enterprise reeks of inexorability and omniscience.

And so with other governments and empires. But on slightly more penetrating examination, one sees that countries blunder about like idiot children more often than they act wisely, or even sentiently. This is obvious in all fields of national endeavor, but most conspicuously so in matters martial. Armies usually aren’t very good.

For example, in WWI neither the alleged statesmen of Europe, nor the most betinselled of their generals had the faintest idea of how the war would go. In WWII neither the Nazis nor the somewhat more rational Japanese Army understood the implications of attacking the United States. Come Vietnam, the Pentagon’s swarms of well-paid analysts provided no notion of what the war would become, despite the recent example of the French experience. All of these catastrophes seem less to be understandable miscalculations than wanton stupidity.

The bewilderment never ends. The clownish American defeat in Mogadishu, the amateur-hour business of the Marine barracks in Beirut—on and on. They never see it coming, or suspect that it might come. Today in Iraq the government is fighting a war it didn’t remotely foresee, and doing it badly. Consequently we have the comic spectacle of the world’s mightiest military being fought to a standstill by yet another group of ragtags with rifles. Ah, but we will remember it as glorious, not as an embarrassing botch.

Surprise is said to be the first element of strategy. The Pentagon is always surprised.

The reasons for governmental puzzlement vary with the system of government. Under royalty, the next ruler is the king’s eldest son, though he be a twitching half-wit. (The same principle may be seen at work in the Bush dynasty.) In democracies the ruler is the most popular, a quality having no relation to the capacity to rule. In America the president is usually a provincial governor with no knowledge of the world.

Thus came Reagan, an amiable fool of entertaining intellectual incoherency (having since been packaged by conservatives as a hybrid of Mother Theresa and the saintly Abraham Lincoln, himself heavily remanufactured). Thus such pedestrian items as the elder Bush, Truman, the endlessly moralizing Carter, all better suited to town councils than to presiding over a world power. Understandably they just don’t do it well.

In war, much of the explanation is that the intelligence services seem peculiarly unable to find out what is going on in the world; if they do find out, they are likely to be ignored. No one notices this because spies are wrapped in an emotional mantle of eerie potency that distracts attention from their dismal record. In part the unmerited admiration they enjoy springs from the secrecy that enshrouds them: We don’t know what they are doing (and neither do they). The CIA, NSA, Mossad, OGPU, NKVD, KGB, DIA, Savak, MI6--all loom relentless, omniscient, coldly effective, almost spectral—like Batman. You can’t run and you can’t hide. The Shadow knows. They have the dark appeal of ruthlessness and are thought to have secret powers deriving from mysterious electronics and poisons.

At a second glance, they are unimpressive. Pearl Harbor happened because it didn’t occur to the Navy to wonder where the Japanese fleet was. The Korean War took Washington utterly by surprise as did, later, the Chinese intervention. The CIA completely miscalculated Cuban support for the Bay of Pigs. (Not for nothing is it known as the Children’s Agency.) In Viet Nam the entire Viet resistance caught the intel people by durprise, and there was the comic-opera business of the Son Tay Raid. (American forces swooped into Hanoi to rescue prisoners of war, the intelligence people not having noticed that said prisoners had been moved.)

The rise of the Berlin Wall surprised the intel people, as did its fall. Indeed our multibillion dollar, Crayed-to-the-gills, mathematized, secret-satellited three-letter outfits missed the coming collapse of the Soviet Union, their chief object of study. And they missed 9/11. And the Iraqi resistance. And their success in finding Bin Laden captivates the imagination. And….

The illusion of competence.

How can such incontinently funded agencies of very smart people accomplish so little? I can guess. Americans love technology, at which they are very good. The spookies confuse phenomenally advanced technology for the gathering of data with knowing what to do with it once they have it. They then try to analyze it for those who are supposed to pay attention to it, but won’t unless it fits their preconceptions. Too many geeks, too few feet on the ground.

The ideology of the last gatekeeper determines what intelligence reaches the top. Bureaucratic infighting often trumps the pale appeal of facts. Starting in the late Fifties the nonexistent missile gap was insisted on by Air Force intelligence, which wanted money for bombers of greater intricacy and elaboration. The Navy saw no such gap. Bush the Little wanted there to be WMD, and so there were—except, of course, there weren’t. Spooks spend thirty years sitting in secret rooms behind five cipherlocks, associating only with people trained like themselves, and unable to talk things over with anyone in the real world on penalty of going to Leavenworth. They’ve probably all got Captain Marvel Secret Decoder Rings. None of this engenders judgement.

The illusion of competence.

An advantage of getting older, or at least an effect, is that you cease believing that adults know what they are doing. Finally you cease to believe that there are any adults. If I were sixteen, I might see Dick Cheney as a statesman who knew all sorts of things hidden from me. Daddy knows best. But I am of his age. He looks to be a puffed-up bureaucratic bully hiding behind an extensive array of character disorders. I think, “This wingnut is running a country, for God’s sake? I need a drink.”

I propose a federal law requiring that all babies be fitted with helmets. Too many are dropped on their heads, and bubble up to Capitol Hill, where they impersonate grownups. The illusion of competence.