America: How can smart people be so dumb?

America: How can smart people be so dumb?

America: How can smart people be so dumb?
Even the US commander in chief has to rely on an $80 billion-a-year intelligence service. (Reuters)
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We are again in a bipolar world — not that of the Cold War, but a psychological one. At one pole are the triumphalism, ecstasy and jubilation of America’s enemies; at the other are denial, disbelief, humiliation, anxiety and fear as its friends and allies lament another sign of the end of Pax Americana. 

Although I swore allegiance to Queen Elizabeth when I became a citizen of the UK, I never felt other than Lebanese in my 38 years in cosmopolitan London. The culture shock when I moved to the US made me feel British for the first time. What was missing was explained to me (in a Manchester accent) by the receptionist at a Washington think tank: Americans had lost the ability to use simple common sense. In fact, they haven’t, they are just prevented from using it. I have been puzzled by this question and have tried to understand it in the past five years. The answer may be deeply cultural, and the explanation may lie in America’s uniquely bureaucratic society.

Lawrence of Arabia was parachuted into the desert with a simple mission — to organize an Arab revolt. He had to rely on his wits, common sense, and a little knowledge of the region acquired on archeological trips to Syria and Lebanon. He succeeded, with a little bit of luck and judgment, making connections and forging alliances. It is time to rewatch that movie.

Had he been a present day American, T.E. Lawrence would have been sent in with precise instructions and a rule book of several thousand pages which he would have had to blindly follow at every step. When he met Anthony Quinn outside Aqaba, he would have handed him several forms: Disclaimer, non-disclosure, security clearance questionnaire and all sorts of vetting documents. Then they would have had to sign a contract, possibly with a tendering process with other tribes, and have it validated at every step with proper receipts and tax forms for Awda Abu Tayi’s share of the booty.

T.E. Lawrence was congratulated for his success. Had he failed, he would have been “Lawrence who?” His American counterpart would face a rigorous evaluation of the process. Every step would have been recorded, measured, validated and approved by an army of administrators who would also interpret the rules and plan the next steps. The original goal of the mission is irrelevant and could be totally forgotten; even success would be punished if rules were broken, since success is in following the rules.

The anthropologist David Graeber described the American system as “Total Bureaucratization,” and far more German than it is Anglo Saxon. Brits either conquer countries or trade with them, Americans try to administer them. Their bureaucracy is the same in the public and private sectors, and was imposed on all the international institutions they created after the Second World War, such as the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO and the UN. It is a hydra-like monster; every time you cut one head it grows many others, and any attempts at reducing it create even more layers.

The US lawyer and writer Philip K. Howard traces the demise of American common sense back to 1970, when J. Skelly Wright, a federal appeals judge, described the idea of administrators having freedom to use their judgment in making decisions as the “soft underbelly of the American legal system,” and called for “an interlocking network of rules” to prevent co-option of the system by those it was trying to regulate. The result was that while forest rangers in the 1960s could carry the list of rules in their shirt pockets (“They did just fine armed with a pamphlet of rules and their own common sense,” according to Al Gore), they now had to consult several volumes of fine print and needed a dozen administrators to help navigate them.

The industrialist and financier William Hopper offers another interpretation of the same problem. It came when the traditional American company chief executive, who had risen through the ranks from the shop floor, was replaced by an MBA graduate installed at the top. The former could make a decision in full knowledge of the capability of every person at every stage of the process, with whom he was probably on first name terms. The latter would hire an army of lawyers and other MBAs to set up a gargantuan monstrosity of rules, making sure no one ever used their common sense or judgment to the best of their abilities and experience.

A former German army officer told me that in NATO exercises with the Americans, the US soldiers were by far the most competent, best equipped and well trained — but without instructions they were totally lost, and disabling their commander would paralyze the whole team.

In America, even the commander in chief has to rely on an $80 billion-a-year intelligence service. In July 2016, in the lovely little town of Rockport, Massachusetts, I met Ladislav Bittman, aka Larry Martin, a former head of the Czechoslovakian disinformation department before he defected to the US in 1969.  He explained to me how the American intelligence service had been rendered totally useless by bureaucracy, with restrictions on subject matter and interlocutors. A system of security clearances contributed to ensuring that the least competent people reached the highest posts.

American bureaucracy is a hydra-like monster; every time you cut one head it grows many others, and any attempts at reducing it create even more layers.

Nadim Shehadi

Someone, probably with an MBA, created a grid or a matrix with everyone’s counterparts and the precise questions they were allowed to raise. The result was that no one had sight of the larger picture.

Twenty years of counterterrorism work, costing billions, relied on a totally bureaucratized intelligence service that was barred from using common sense. My colleague, Prof. Jeffrey Karam, explained to me how “humint,” or human intelligence, was replaced with data-driven research and algorithms, often with results that any taxi driver on the ground could tell you were false.

How often have we heard commanders saying that in Syria they were “focused” on fighting Daesh?  “Focused” translates into being oblivious to anything else that is happening, and ignorance of the larger picture or the strategic implications. The “laser focus” on withdrawal from Afghanistan has been executed in the same mode. That focus has now been reduced to the evacuation of people from an airport.

This phenomenon of focusing on the task at hand epitomizes the problem in Iraq after 2003, in Syria after the 2011 uprising, and in Afghanistan for the past 20 years.

There are two messages from Afghanistan for all who collaborate with Americans and to all their allies and friends, according to the Kuwaiti academic and intellectual Dr. Abdullah Alshayji, whose country was liberated by the US after it was invaded by Saddam Hussein in 1991: Don’t count on the US any more, and don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

I am still puzzled by how the US is outsmarted by its opponents; how a city such as Washington, with the highest ratio in the world of PhDs per square meter, with all the think tanks, government institutions, lobbyists, media and policy institutes all “focused” on formulating policy, can collectively produce such dismal results that are so much less than the sum of its parts — how the image from the film “The Quiet American” has been replaced by that of the Dumb American.

  • Nadim Shehadi is executive director of the LAU Headquarters and Academic Center in New York and an associate fellow of Chatham House in London.
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