Thursday, August 29, 2013

"Crackpot Realism" and Military Intervention in Syria

C. Wright Mills was a sociologist at Columbia University and a social critic with a strong impact on the New Left of the 1960s and 70s. If you haven't read Mill's The Power Elite, which Chris Hayes cites in his Twilight of the Elites, I highly recommend that you check it out. It captures the post-war emergence of a political-military-corporate elite and has incisive criticism with relevance and resonance today.

However, I want to address a different book by Mills, his The Causes of World War Three, because in that book he discusses his concept of "crackpot realism" in the context of foreign policy.

Mike Lofgren, the former Congressional staffer who recently wrote The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted, published an excellent piece in the Huffington Post five months ago on "Syria and the Triumph of Crackpot Realism." Although war was not as imminent then as it is now, his analysis--with its integration of C. Wright Mills--is highly relevant, and I would like to highlight his salient points today.

Lofgren explains Mills' concept of the "crackpot realist" in the following terms:
Crackpot realists are amoral men and women of worldly affairs who possess exceptionally banal minds. These are the "serious people" who populate government, the higher tiers of corporate America, the think tanks, the televised political talk shows, and other props of the national power structure.

What they do best is perform alchemy: they take reckless and foolish ideas and transmute them into rhetoric that is perceived as the tough, pragmatic, and common-sense wisdom of purported experts.
And to quote C. Wright Mills directly:
They know of no solutions to the paradoxes of the Middle East and Europe, the Far East and Africa except the landing of Marines. Being baffled, and also being very tired of being baffled, they have come to believe that there is no way out -- except war -- which would remove all the bewildering paradoxes of their tedious and now misguided attempts to construct peace. In place of these paradoxes they prefer the bright, clear problems of war...
Lofgren discusses this concept in the light of the US's military escapades (or, more aptly, debacles) over the past decade:
The benefit of crackpot realism is that the ordinary prudence of advocating avoidance of war can be depicted either as sloppy and unrealistic sentimentalism or as the irresponsible avoidance of the burdens and duties of a superpower in a dangerous world. In its refined form, crackpot realism wears the camouflage of idealism: military invasions are really aimed at humanitarian rescue, spreading democracy, or peacekeeping. In those cases, the crackpot realist can even affect a morally censorious tone: How can any serious person be in favor of letting Saddam Hussein remain president of Iraq? Or Bashir al Assad in Syria? Or whoever the Hitler du jour might be.

One might have thought the claims and pretentions of crackpot realists would have been thoroughly debunked by the eight-year long invasion and occupation of Iraq. It was a disaster premised on high-concept crackpot arguments: Iraqis will love us; sanctions aren't working; weapons inspections are useless; Saddam Hussein cannot be militarily contained; Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz's insinuation -- my favorite example -- that invasion and occupation costs might be less than those in the Balkans five years before, and could be paid for out of Iraq's oil revenues. At the pinnacle of this endeavor, of course, was President George W. Bush, the compulsive "decider," who was manfully willing to step up to the plate, make the tough decisions, and never look back or express regrets. It is much better for U.S. prestige and credibility to walk headlong into a catastrophe and keep at it than to weigh options -- that would be dithering -- or to admit a mistake and become a derided flip-flopper.
The foreign policy establishment in DC is brimming with such "crackpot realists." Democracy and diplomacy are too messy for them, too complicated, too uncertain, and they find refuge from this uncertainty, this lack of knowing, this lack of power, in calls for war. War eases such uncertainties and involves displays of unadulterated strength and of power. So war becomes, then, the only possible solution. The other solutions are "weak"; we must be "strong." The president must "lead." (Although the question of "lead where?" can often be ignored.) If there is a crisis abroad, the U.S. simply must do something, and that something being recommended always just so happens to involve the military, even if it is a problem that military intervention will likely make worse.

Of these "crackpot realists" and their quick resort to war, C. Wright Mills further noted,
Some men want war for sordid, others for idealistic, reasons; some for personal gain, others for impersonal principle. But most of those who consciously want war and accept it, and so help to create its "inevitability," want it in order to shift the locus of their problems.
These are good words to keep in mind as the administration rushes to war and the cable news pundits and editorial boards bang the war drums along with them.

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