The End of Reason & the Next Big Bang
by G. Murphy Donovan (May 2013)
“Presumption is the pride of fools, and it ought to be the scholar's pride not to presume.” – Elie Kedourie
Institutions are the product of good ideas. Unfortunately, over time, the institution often becomes the enemy of the idea. The subversive character of “success” has an ancient lineage in the history of human experience.
Athenian democracy may have been undone by cynical philosophers and egotistical generals. Ancient Greece cultivated both. Roman republicanism is thought to have been victim to Vandals in the north and then imperial Islam to the south. Another culprit may have been an avatar empire that grew too fond of mercenaries and tax exemptions. When Roman citizens stopped doing the heavy lifting, the graffiti was on the wall. Surely Christianity before Constantine was an inclusive institution, but when Catholicism (or Eastern Orthodoxy) became state religions, monotheism foretold an age where new ideas were dangerous.
The Communist empire collapsed from internal contradictions. Marx and Lenin made all the correct noises about noble principles, justice and democracy for example. Eventually, however, inept totalitarians spiked those promising ideals.
Most small enterprise disappears without a historical murmur. The rise and fall of these may be as natural as the change of seasons and tides. Yet, many institutions probably fade simply because they outlive their usefulness, become victims of financial success - or excess. Contemporary “non-profit” research corporations, think tanks, may fall into this category.
Perched high on the sea cliffs of Santa Monica, California, the RAND Corporation is the mother, indeed, the queen of modern think tanks. Yes, this is the very same firm that was satirized by Terry Southern as the “Bland” Corporation in Doctor Strangelove (1964).
Towards the end of World War II, the Douglas Aircraft Company funded a small cadre of experts, whose purpose was to provide systematic analysis of strategic options, including nuclear planning. The president of Douglas and the commander of the Air Corps believed that a critical mass of intellects ought to be kept intact after the war. The advent of the Cold War seemed to validate such prudence. So a small group (approx 200) of mostly civilian specialists was sited in Santa Monica in 1948 that they might be as far from the political winds of Washington as possible.
In the early days, Santa Monica was indeed host to a band of independent intellectual giants; Bernard and Fawn Brodie, Roberta and Albert Wohlstetter, Herman Kahn, John von Neumann and others. When Brodie or Kahn came to the nation’s capital with a dog and pony show, the Pentagon auditorium was standing room only. The brass and gold braid in the audience was blinding. Today a
What happened to
The advent of “
The Ellsberg Affair
The history of the
The Pentagon Papers thus became the most notorious and overrated national security study in the annals of such reports. On the one hand, the 7,000 page study was commended for its candor; still, the analysis did not reveal anything that skeptical citizens didn’t already suspect after the Tet Offensive of 1968; that is, that two administrations had been spinning a very tedious, unwinnable war. The Pentagon Papers didn’t impact policy much either, the war went on for another four years, until 1975 - when General Giap snuffed the light at the end of General Westmoreland’s tunnel.
The policy impact of the Pentagon Papers may have been marginal in Washington, but in Santa Monica the blowback from the Ellsberg leak was a game changer. Predictably, the
Under Rice, the corporate ship came about and made flank speed towards the social sciences. Indeed, today
Yet, more ominous than relegating national security, their strong suit, to the back burner, was the likelihood that
If the Urban Institute and the Internal Revenue Service can be believed, there are now approximately 15, 000 non-profit think tanks servicing city, state, and federal governments in the US alone. That would be 30 think tanks for every state in the nation. This number does not include some 150,000 educational establishments which are separate
There are a number of conclusions that might be drawn here. The most obvious is that
And the numbers raise other questions. If 15,000 “outside” consulting firms are doing the thinking for government at municipal, state, and national levels; what justifies those thousands, if not millions, of super-grade government bureaucrats? And if there is no profit in “non-profits,” what is the explanation for the explosive growth of think tanks? Patriotism?
Part of the truth may lay with endowments;
Financial success has allowed
When asked about analytical diversification, and the new geopolitical reach, an old
The Revolving Door
The pivot for the
Serving from the Vietnam era through the recent expedition to Afghanistan, Andy Marshall at 93 years of age is not so much the Delphic Yoda, to whom he is often compared, as he is like a Pentagon’s version of J. Edgar Hoover. Marshall knows where all the bodies are buried. More importantly, with a small elite staff, Marshall is still a dispenser of significant contract research monies. When he calls, masters of the universe in Santa Monica, or at the Pentagon, do not put Andy Marshall on hold. ONA reports directly to the Secretary of Defense.
Any research should have three elements; scientific standards, a catalogue of potential unintended consequences (blowback), and an impact appraisal. The pharmaceutical or auto industries could serve as models. Drug trials and auto tests have measures of effectiveness; and the hazards of blowback (side effects or dangers) are clearly labeled, and advertised. And finally, chemists and engineers regularly assess the impact of their output.
True science always asks two questions; does this work and how well? The bonus from high standards in these, and similar industries, is their willingness to recall clunkers - or modify products that do more harm than good. Unfortunately, America seems to have higher standards for aspirin and seat belts than it does for national security research products.
The Ascent of a Priori
Strategy gurus, like Herman Kahn, used to scold his peers that, if national defense analysis goes awry, nothing else mattered. Indeed! Today there is more than a little evidence to suggest that a significant number of government, academic, and think tank analysts are cooking the books; that is, telling politicians what they want to hear – instead of what they need to know.
The problem is compounded by a timid generation of elected officials cowed by dubious notions of diversity, moral equivalency, and social leveling. Such qualities may be hard-wired in a generation where sensitivity trumps sensibility. Movers and shakers know what they believe and mostly they know what they believe got them to where they are. As a consequence, politicians in a democracy tend to confuse votes with validation. Contradicting the conventional wisdom of such a political class is hazardous duty.
And keeping a host of bureaucrats and federal camp followers on message requires a fairly consistent cueing system. In the national security arena, the obvious players are the usual suspects.
Unfortunately, the American cueing system now includes the Intelligence Community.
When Colin Powell, then Sectary of State, and George Tenent, then Director of CIA, appear before the United Nations and misrepresent ground truth in Iraq with the key judgments of a National Security Estimate (NIE), clearly policy cueing crosses some uncharted threshold.
The tone is set at the top. Cues trickle down. When a US president visits a host of Muslim capitals in his first term, but not Israel, a signal is broadcast. When a CIA Director (John Brennan) claims, nay insists that jihad is personal or ritual cleansing, he sends a message. When a US theater commander (David Petraeus) approves infidel hijabs, in lieu of helmets, for female soldiers, he provides a clue. When an Army Chief of Staff (George Casey) deploys to the Sunday chat shows to rationalize the unspeakable barbarity of a home-grown US Army jihadist; even dullards get the message.
The problem with policy cueing is that it is most likely to influence those listeners with the most to lose if they ignore the muezzin. Indeed, cueing is at the heart of the political correctness problem. A fairly consistent set of institutional signals now appears to have created an axis of appeasement. This axis includes the White House, the National Security Council, the Department of Defense, the Intelligence Community, and more than a few “objective and independent” universities and think tanks that are subcontractors to government at all levels.
War, Crime, and Anti-Semitism?
Hours after 9/11, George Bush allowed a plane load of Saudi elites to flee the US before the blood was dry at the World Trade Center. Never mind that most of the New York suicide martyrs were Saudis. The political cue here was meant for domestic and foreign consumption; to wit, America would not hold passive aggressors, sponsor nations, or clerical hate speech accountable for the atrocities of “extremists.”
The majority of Muslims were thus anointed “moderates,” on the authority of an asserted conclusion. All the while, fellaheen danced in the streets of Arabia. Future definitions of the terror threat would be confined to specific non-government agents like al Qa’eda or the Taliban. By fiat, Islamic terrorism was henceforth fenced as isolated phenomena with local motives; in short, jihad is represented as a perversion of, not a tenant of, a global Islamist theology - or Muslim politics.
This politically correct version of reality would be reinforced by a subsequent administration in a series of forays into the Ummah where Barack Obama would declare unequivocally that America, and NATO by extension, is not at war with Islam or Muslims. Never mind that NATO or American troops might be killing Muslims in four, or is it five, separate venues. “We are not at war!” is still the party line.
Then came “independent” analysis which backfills or rationalizes the political Esperanto.
The report ignores the larger strategic phenomena of jihad bis saif and protected Islamist hate mongering. But the bottom line of
How the West views Islam is more important then how Islamists act - or see themselves! By such logic, Arizona sheriffs might be deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, or Pakistan instead of the US Marines. And by such logic, where might genocidal Islamic felons, should they be caught, be tried; lower Manhattan?
The Mumbai attack was unique in two respects; a small Jewish center was targeted, the occupants were slaughtered; and the hotel hostages were then screened for religious affiliation – again, seeking Jews. It’s a safe bet that none of the Mumbai killers were ever stopped at an Israeli checkpoint or sold a building lot in east Jerusalem. This attack was planned and executed with motives removed from the usual; the India/Pakistan rift or the Israel/Fattah impasse. Mumbai was clearly motivated, in part, by a strain of virulent, contagious, and global anti-Semitism. No mention of this appears in Lessons of Mumbai’s “key judgments.”
The global bloom of anti-Semitism since the turn of the 21st Century is no accident. Those who ignore it, especially scientists at place like
(This report also reinforces suspicions about non-profit excess. “The Lessons of Mumbai” paper is a mere 25 pages long, yet lists ten (sic) authors; an average of two and a half pages per analyst. Makes you wonder how many scientists are required to screw in light bulbs out in Santa Monica. Clearly, featherbedding is not just restricted to government operations.)
“There is no evidence (sic) that America’s Muslim community is becoming more radical. America’s psychological vulnerability is on display…panic is the wrong message to send.”
“No evidence” - or none that
Nor does the RAND analysis account for the New Black Panther Party (NBPP) or the fact that this home-grown political movement was recently hijacked by radical Muslim Americans. The NBPP's most recent outrage was to threaten to burn the city of Detroit at a city council meeting.
And on US Muslim radicalization; clearly
The creation of veiled apologetics is not as worrisome as the pervasive misuse of such scientific reports, a trend which does nothing but devalue the currency of government financed analysis.
While the overall cast of
The Quinlivan essay was written shortly after 9/11 when “kinetic” solutions were all the rage; his paper flew in the face of the prevailing political winds. More recent
The Fukuyama Era
The apparent political metamorphosis at
Indeed, Rand’s most influential political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, now sits on the
Fukuyama’s sentiments have Hegelian threads; in short, a belief that political consciousness evolves with time. Unfortunately, equating progress with the passage of time ignores more than a bit of history and contemporary reality; the Dark Ages and the irredentist vector of Islam today come to mind. History, or the passage of time, is a two way street; going backwards is as likely as moving forward. And like evolution in the natural world, political history is littered with dead ends and dead civilizations.
Nonetheless, to his credit, Fukuyama’s utopian positivism is, today, probably the dominant political idiom for most social democracies including America. The recent and ongoing revolts in the Arab world provide examples.
The belief that democracy is the default political setting in the Muslim world is almost universal among Western politicians, academics, and journalists. The two most common adjectives used during the ongoing Arab revolts are “peaceful” and “democratic.” Neither is underwritten by ground truth.
Surely, political optimists have confused change with progress; or worse still, confused revolt with reform. The best that can be said of the “jasmine” revolution to date is that it is, as Tennessee Williams might have put it, like “the sickly sweet smell of mendacity.”
Indeed, utopian is often confused with dystopian in a world view that fails to accommodate, or minimizes, the dark side of human nature and creeping national security threats. Fukuyama acknowledges the possibility of “political decay,” but seldom sees decay as irredentism. Indeed, Fukuyama, like RAND, has become a member of the “Islam is not at odds with democracy” lobby.
If your primary concern is religion; your world view is authoritarian, not democratic. The Ummah doesn’t get a vote on the Koran or Hadith. And the various interpretations of sacred scripture or the Prophet’s life are made by clerics and religious scholars, not the fellaheen. The adjectival Islam portrayed in the West (i.e. moderates versus radicals) does not exist for most Muslims. As the Turkish prime minister tells us; “Islam is Islam!” For Islamic party leaders like Tayyip Erdogan adjectives like “moderate” are an “insult.”
The big tent mirage is another triumph of hope over experience. Islam is one tent. Spokesmen (emphasis on the second syllable) argue for tolerance only where Muslims are a voting minority. Polities with Muslim majorities may be ethnically diverse in some cases; but religious, sexual, or political diversity is rare. Neologisms like ‘Islamic republic’ are oxymorons where trivia like dress might be enforced with corporal punishment. Alas, a global Islamist movement, and its continuing barbarisms, metastasizes with the support of delusional western rhetoric born of asserted conclusions – and fear.
The most troubling assumption is religious moral equivalency; the conjecture that any religious belief or practice, and associated politics, deserves the same respect and protection as faiths which have, evolved with, and been enlightened by secular democracy. Apologists in the West refuse to consider unreformed Islam as the threat. Nonetheless, Islamic clerics, scholars and politicians are in fact at war with reason, science, and secular democracies.
In this, the aforementioned axis of appeasement and the Fukuyama world view may be cut from the same cloth. This is not to suggest that the appeasers are without critics. Samuel Huntington, Bernard Lewis, Paul Berman, and even the late Christopher Hitchens, are all informed and articulate skeptics who have provided candid assessments of Islamic theology and subordinate Muslim politics; now a variant of fascism dressed in a burka of religion.
Nonetheless, research on all things Islamic, with few exceptions, fails to consider religion as the nexus of all those Muslim wars. Indeed, clerical literalists are dismissed as radical or small minorities. However; the literal, (as in scriptural), and emotional, (as in survey), evidence of anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Western sentiment in Arab and Muslim communities is overwhelming. The Islamic mimber and cowering Muslim politicians are the problems. And the issue is not simply Jewish reputation among the dysfunctional majority at the UN. The strategic threat is survival - the specter of a 21st century Holocaust.
Elie Kedourie (1926-1992) laid a foundation challenging the conventional wisdom about Muslim “victims.” He more than any other scholar, warned about the pernicious effects of half-baked academic political theories, especially those applied to the Levant and Arabia, as a basis for policy. It is instructive on this point to note that the term “developing world” has replaced the phrase “third world” in the political science lexicon;” surely, like “Arab Spring,” another early euphemistic triumph of hope over experience.
Unfortunately, pragmatic (and mostly traditional) voices are often smothered with name calling, and neologisms like “islamophobia,” instead of reasonable discourse. Language often needs to be reinvented to accommodate quislings. Colonial guilt, self-loathing, and political correctness are, however, merely symptoms of a much larger problem.
The great cipher of the early 21st Century is the growing indifference or unwillingness of “scientists” in the West to defend the traditions and ethos that make reasonable discourse and modern science possible. Richard Rubenstein calls the phenomenon in Europe a surrender of cultural identity.
In another day, Kedourie took Arnold Toynbee and others to task for academic hubris, but the few critics of early political “correctness,” and other advocacy idioms, did little to alter a consciousness of who or what is responsible for the perennial pathology that plagues Muslim countries. If the West absorbs Muslim culture; Islamic values become crimes not virtues – immigration then becomes a kind of blowback imperialism. The major achievement of modern Islamism is that it has undone, for honest observers, the myths of religious and political moral equivalence.
Possibly, the intersection of government sponsored study and policy has never been a crossroad for truth. In today’s analysis, facts seem to have two faces; truth and ignorance. Evidence might be used to establish the truth of a matter, but facts are just as likely to be manipulated or ignored; indeed, used to spread polite, yet false, narratives. Systematic cherry picking of evidence to support a prioi judgments is now a cottage industry among the social, environmental, and political sciences.
We use RAND Corporation in this discussion because that institution is representative of the think tank phenomenon; the outsourcing of national security analysis, policy, and responsibility. RAND was there at the beginning and continues to be a prominent player. It seems politicians and generals seldom think for themselves anymore. Outsourcing allows the elite to take bows for policy achievements while providing a convenient scapegoat for any failures.
To be fair, RAND’s strong suit, historically, was always technical. Santa Monica made substantial contributions to space, gaming, systems analysis, and communications technology. Unfortunately, that’s history. The great dilemmas of contemporary national security are moral, not technical.
Today’s challenges are not ‘why’ or ‘how.’ “Should” is the tougher nut. Here RAND and its many brethren have failed. Failures like the mislabeling of terror tactics, regime change characterization, factual cherry-picking, and the minimization of global jihadism are all symptoms of moral malpractice. Most analysis of Muslim terror, theology, and links to political dysfunction suffers from want of candor.
These practices themselves are now classified as a separate “science:” Agnotology – the cultural production of ignorance. Necrosis of objectivity is compounded by virulent strains of Islamism; not simply threats to democracy and freedom, but more significant as threats to a culture tolerance, logic, and reason.
Surely, any view of reality is a compromise between ideals and experience. Total objectivity is impossible. Unfortunately, politically correct national security analysis now corrupts scientific method on the one hand and underwrites a plague of distortion on the other.
Threat is a function of two things; capability and intentions. The dominant clerical factions of Islam, Shia and Sunni, have been crystal clear on intentions. And their military capabilities improve daily. A Sunni nuclear capability already exists, and the Shia bomb is waiting in the wings. Such facts do not require much study; unless the purpose is to dismiss the evidence.
Citizens expect politicians to hedge their bets. Similar evasions are fatal for science, research, and analysis. RAND was originally an acronym which stood for research and development. The RAND Corporation never did much “development” and now their “research” might be more political than correct.
The Intelligence Community may have already been compromised; and now think tanks seem to know more about making money than they do about making sense. We should expect nothing but cold candor from official Intelligence sources and “independent” national security analysis – or stop wasting borrowed money on both.
Time may show that RAND and Fukuyama are half right. The collapse of Communism, now followed by the rebirth of religious fascism, is the end of something –the end of reason maybe, but surely not the end of history as we know it. The liberal ideal is anything but triumphant. The Twin towers, Benghazi, and Boston are reminders; not lethal enough yet to be wake-up calls, but we might do well to think of terror as down payments on the next big bang.
G. Murphy Donovan is a former USAF Intelligence officer and RAND research fellow who writes frequently about national security. A condensed version of this essay appeared in the spring (2013) issue of Otechestvennye Zapiski: the Journal of Russian Thought.
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