Derek Leebaert’s Magic and Mayhem

Derek Leebaert is an interesting and unusual man who combines active involvement in the world of business and government with an intellectual bent and a wide-ranging mind. He describes himself as a management consultant, currently a partner in the Swiss management consulting firm MAP AG. The holder of a D.Phil. degree from Oxford University, he spent seven years as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard’s Center for Science and International Affairs, where he became the founding editor of the journal International Security. Since 1996, he has taught foreign affairs at Georgetown University while continuing his consulting activities.

Of Leebaert’s books, several deal with information technology and several with foreign and defense policies and events. In 2002, his book The Fifty-Year Wound: How America’s Cold War Victory Shapes Our World (Boston: Little, Brown) was published. This 700-page tome is, if not the best comprehensive history of the Cold War, certainly one of the better ones. Packed with carefully documented information, it is critical of U.S. policies and actions in many respects, yet it remains well within the bounds of respectable scholarship in establishment circles, as does everything Leebaert writes. He is not a radical.

His most recent book, Magic and Mayhem: The Delusions of American Foreign Policy from Korea to Afghanistan (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010), is a less meaty, but even more critical book. By saying that it is less meaty, I do not intend to suggest that it lacks a great deal of factual evidence or careful documentation, but that it jumps about more, relying more on anecdotes and portraits of key actors, and less on a sustained analytical narrative. Nevertheless, it is a worthwhile book, especially for those who retain their faith that U.S. foreign and defense policymakers actually want to serve the general public interest better, if only they knew how to do so―a view I do not share.

Leebaert focuses on several dimensions of what he calls the foreign policy makers’ reliance on “magic”―a collection of assumptions and convictions about what the United States government can and should do in its dealings with the rest of the world. He calls it magic, he explains on page 1, because “shrewd, levelheaded people are so frequently bewitched into substituting passion, sloganeering, and haste for reflection, homework, and reasonable objectives.” As Leebaert illustrates with a great variety of cases, decision makers forgo careful study, detailed, factual evaluation, and judicious evaluation of alternatives (including the alternative of doing nothing) and instead opt for plunging almost blindly into efforts that almost any serious, informed thinker could have told them were doomed to fail. They are supremely self-confident, notwithstanding their all-too-frequent lack of any real basis for such confidence.

Such decision making almost always represents the work of what Leebaert calls “emergency men”―”the clever, energetic, self-assured, well-schooled people who take advantage of the opportunities intrinsic to the American political system to trifle with enormous risk” (p. 5). “Many people,” he notes, “are ready to play with dynamite” (p. 38). Emergency men may be found in the upper reaches of the government hierarchy―examples include such heavyweights as McGeorge Bundy, John F. Kennedy, Henry Kissinger, and Paul Wolfowitz―but they are also represented by a large number of political appointees at slightly lower levels and by many advisers and consultants, including putative experts on leave from academia or think tanks. All of these people may be distinguished from the officials who occupy permanent places in the bureaucracy in the State Department, the Defense Department, the armed forces, and the CIA. Such long-term functionaries receive relatively generous treatment in Leebaert’s assessment, being credited with greater knowledge of what they are doing and less eagerness to take the next big plunge.

Emergency men do not sit idly by, waiting for an emergency to arise. They look for one, and should they fail to find one, they may try to create one or the impression of one. Thus, Richard Nixon noted that Kissinger “would be ready to spark a crisis over Ecuador did Vietnam not exist” (p. 126). This search is scarcely a modest contribution to the promotion of national security. As Leebaert writes, “[T]he same policy expert who detects a ‘crisis’ will make darn sure that he or she is part of the effort to solve it. … Emergency men identify a calamity … then sound the tocsin, offer quick verdicts, and jump forth with action-oriented remedies” (p. 126).

To make matters worse, “emergency men, so often synonymous with war hawks, tend to prevail in policy arguments.” They exploit the “‘action bias’ in decision making. Individuals feel compelled to ‘do something,’ anything, when confronting a challenge,” even though “leaving a ‘crisis’ alone can be a better means of handling a problem” (p. 159). All serious students of history are familiar with this pattern. It is the story, for example, of Theodore Roosevelt’s rise to power and of nearly everything Franklin D. Roosevelt and his lieutenants did during the early New Deal. Rare is the government official who goes down in history as a great man because he had the mature judgment and sage willingness to recognize that “doing something” would only make matters worse. Until recently, for example, hardly anyone had credited Warren G. Harding’s hands-off approach to the depression of 1920-21 for helping to bring about a quick, full recovery from this sharp contraction.

Emergency men tend to make a hash of matters for a variety of reasons, and Leebaert devotes the heart of his book to an elaboration of a half dozen chronic problems along these lines. He identifies these categories in the introduction:

  1. A sensation of urgency and of “crisis” that accompanies the belief that most [sic] any resolute action is superior to restraint … joined by the emergency man’s eagerness to be his country’s revealer of dangers, real and imaginary.
  2. The faith that American-style business management … can fix any global problem given enough time, resources, and appropriately “can-do,” businesslike zeal.
  3. A distinctively American desire to fall in behind celebrities, stars, and peddlers of some newly distilled expertise who, in foreign affairs especially, seem to glow with wizardry.
  4. An expectation of wondrous returns on investment, even when this is based on intellectual shortcuts.
  5. Conjuring powerful, but simplified images from the depths of “history” to rationalize huge and amorphously expanding objectives.
  6. The repeated belief that America can shape the destiny of other countries overnight and that the hearts and minds of distant people are throbbing to be transformed into something akin to the way we see ourselves. (pp. 7-8)

 Leebaert finds the origin of this syndrome in the U.S. response to the Korean crisis of the early 1950s, “the moment when magical thinking began regularly to insinuate itself with decisions of ‘national security’” (p. 28). As I have suggested, however, such modes of thought in policy making surely have earlier roots, although perhaps only from Korea onward were they so deeply embedded in defense and foreign policy making, as opposed to domestic policy making. Any activist U.S. government will probably tend toward this sort of “magical” syndrome because of its affinities with important strains in American politics and culture.

Leebaert’s book contains a number of finely etched cameos of emergency men such as Bundy, Robert McNamara, Kissinger, Douglas Feith, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Perle, and Paul Wolfowitz. For the latter five―prime examples of the neocon emergency men who played leading roles in bringing about the disastrous Iraq war and the subsequent ill-fated U.S. occupation―Leebaert has scarcely a kind word. He subjects to scathing criticism even Cheney and Rumsfeld, the two who at one time seemed to have had genuine talents and accomplishments. Given that Leebaert seems to be fairly evenhanded―indeed, almost uninterested―in regard to ideology and political party affiliation, his disdain for the neocons is especially striking. In his view, their chief shortcoming was not their ideology as such, but the fact that with their less-than-half-baked ideas about cakewalk victories, Iraqi oil paying for the war, and democratic dominoes falling across the Middle East, among other things, they were simply disconnected from reality.

In view of the stupidity that goes into so many U.S. defense and foreign policies, Leebaert considers why the smart, well-educated people in decision making circles who see through the stupidity do so little to object to or obstruct the disastrous policies as they are being formulated. Part of the answer has already been given: Emergency men who are eager to “do something” tend to carry the day by dismissing those who prefer to go slower as obstructionists, defeatists, and saboteurs. Being on the receiving end of such internecine attacks does not generally promote one’s career. Of course, political leaders tend to surround themselves with cowardly yes men in the first place, so keeping one’s negative views to oneself often seems the obvious thing for such flunkies to do. Moreover, people who take a longer view of their careers must take care not to become known as a troublemaker, a pessimist, or a foot-dragger. One needs to remain a player.

To be a player entails consulting off and on for government, maybe getting confirmed by the Senate for a job or a sinecure on a presidential commission, participating on panels at the Council on Foreign Relations along with grandees from previous administrations, identifying yourself as an “owl” rather than as a hawk or a dove, and writing books that with any luck can get blurbed by Dr. Kissinger. This opulently carved door opens but narrowly, if at all; it can close completely on those who ask awkward questions or bring up troublesome facts.

In short, go along to get along, even if going along means keeping silent or voicing agreement when the emergency men are barking for precipitous, ill-considered, and potentially disastrous policies and actions.

Besides, if things do go wrong, one can always deflect the blame onto others. After the catastrophe of the U.S. war and subsequent occupation in Iraq, for example, all of the leading neocon warmongers have had the gall to publicly blame those who, they allege, poorly implemented the policies they formulated, while continuing to find nothing wrong with the policies themselves. Political actors rarely admit to having made mistakes in any event, but this blatantly twisted, self-serving interpretation leaves one aghast.

I wonder, however, whether Leebaert himself, notwithstanding all of his astute critical observations about policies and policy makers, also might have fallen victim to the temptation to express himself in a way that allows him to remain a player. As I noted at the beginning of this review, he is clearly a man of some consequence in the establishment. He has all of the right credentials, experience, and connections. His footnotes sometimes document a point as something a general, a diplomat, or another significant decision maker told him in person. Although he levels criticism at some people and some policies, he readily supports others, such as the first Gulf War and the U.S. war on Serbia, that in some eyes (including mine) seem to exemplify all of the foolishness he finds so obvious in other foreign engagements. Had his book ventured beyond the bounds of polite foreign-policy debate, it would not have received, as it has, dust-jacket endorsements by a former secretary of the U.S. Navy, a former vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army, and a former secretary of the U.S. Air Force and member of the Defense Science Board.

Leebaert’s approach to criticizing U.S. defense and foreign policies bears an interesting similarity to the criticisms Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek leveled against socialism. These famous Austrian economists never criticized the socialists as bad people or as people who sought to act in a way that would harm the general public. They invariably gave their socialist ideological opponents the benefit of the doubt with regard to their good intentions. Although this approach has a certain theoretical justification in the development of economic theory, it flies in the face of historical reality. Many leading socialists, especially but by no means exclusively in the USSR, were little short of fiendish. It strains credulity to suppose that they were simply misguided men of good will.

Likewise, much of what seems merely foolish to Leebaert strikes me as the result, not of faulty thinking about policies and their likely consequences, but of the desire for political power and personal aggrandizement and of ideological and political motives that will not bear scrutiny. About such possibilities Leebaert has little―shockingly little, really―to say. In his view, it appears that the emergency men have been good men who allowed themselves to be seduced by “magical” thinking, when they should have gone about their business in a more rational, deliberate, and evidence-based manner. He therefore thinks that a book such as his might well serve to educate policy makers, leading them to abandon magic and to adopt a sounder approach to making their decisions. In this regard, I believe he has slipped into wishful thinking as much as did many of the foreign policy makers he so aptly criticizes.

Whenever we try to understand why policy makers act as they do, we must answer the question: Are they fools or charlatans? Leebaert concludes, in effect, that in the defense and foreign policy realm, they are often fools. I am inclined to the conclusion that they are both. Indeed, they are even worse: all too often, they are fools, bunglers, charlatans, liars, and murderers. Such persons’ playing with dynamite poses a grave danger to the rest of us. By now, we ought to have seen through them and their schemes a great deal more clearly than most of us have.

UPDATE: I have just discovered that my friend Jim Bovard also reviewed Leebaert’s book. His review appears in the March issue of The American Conservative. I recommend it highly. .

Robert Higgs is Retired Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Founding Editor of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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