An expert's point of view on a current event.

Six Lessons America Seems Thoroughly Incapable of Learning

Why the Obama administration keeps making the same mistakes over and over.


It's been a bad few months for those determined to believe humanity is marching inexorably towards a more peaceful future.

It’s been a bad few months for those determined to believe humanity is marching inexorably towards a more peaceful future.

In Iraq, militant extremists so brutal they were disavowed by al Qaeda have captured numerous major cities, leaving behind a trail of mutilated corpses. In Syria, civil war deaths now exceed 150,000, and military momentum has swung back towards the ruthless Assad regime as rival groups of extremist insurgents marginalize moderate rebel forces. In Afghanistan, Taliban forces are resurgent; in Ukraine, a low-level civil war continues. Even the Promised Land has exploded again. So much for the Better Angels.

It’s been an equally rough time for those who imagine that U.S. military force offers a simple solution to the world’s messy problems. The hard-fought Iraq War has brought no enduring gains, either for Iraq’s battered population or from the standpoint of U.S. security, and the 13 year-long war in Afghanistan seems destined to drift towards to a similarly whimpering end. Meanwhile, American efforts to assert political and economic influence have been just as unavailing lately: Russia and Syria continue to ignore U.S. ultimatums, while in the Middle East, Washington’s efforts to restart the "peace process" have yielded little process and less peace.

Here in Washington, D.C., it is customary to offer some compensatory "lessons learned" after reciting such tales of woe, in which we posit that though lots of crappy things keep happening, they are making us wiser.

This sanguine theory of world affairs has been with us for some time. Consider these 2011 comments by Karl Eikenberry, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan: "Americans are extraordinarily adaptive. We’re creative…. [W]e frequently pull back from an enterprise, sum up lessons learned, be self critical, and continue to improve."

Have some crappy things happened in Afghanistan? Perhaps — but, says Amb. Eikenberry — they merely point to a key lesson learned, which is the "need to get a better understanding of what’s realistic in terms of setting goals and objectives."

Lessons learned tend to be hortatory in nature. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria informs us that the Iraq War offers five lessons, including "bring enough troops," while participants in a recent think tank "lessons learned" event on Ukraine conclude that "the West … ought to be more proactive and united." Even the most appalling tragedies offer opportunities to grow in wisdom: After examining past U.S. failures in the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan, a June 2014 Stimson Center report on "Lessons Learned for Stabilization in Syria" concludes that "understanding underlying conflict dynamics is essential."

It’s hard to quarrel with such insights. Who would defend the value of willful ignorance, or champion the cause of not bringing enough troops to a war?

But no matter how ponderous the white paper or portentous the panel discussion, the term "lessons learned" remains, at best, a polite euphemism.

If we were more honest, we would just go with some phrase such as "Manifestly Stupid Shit We Should Never Do Again (But Probably Will)." Or, perhaps: "Crappy Things that Have Happened, Inviting Us to Draw Several Lessons that We Intend to Ignore as Thoroughly as We Have Ignored Mrs. Hooten’s Algebra II Class on Conic Sections for the Last 30 Years."

The truth? We seem thoroughly incapable, as a nation, of learning even the most crushingly obvious lessons from our interactions with the rest of the world. So — though I know I’m supposed to follow my earlier recitation of recent bad news with sage advice for future foreign policy adventures — I find that today that I just can’t do it.

Instead, I’ll offer a few "Lessons We Seem Thoroughly Incapable of Learning." Read ‘em and weep.

1. Other people’s nationalism (or tribal, ethnic, religious, or familial loyalty) is as real as ours.

My fellow Americans, you know how we love our country — our families and religious traditions, our favorite sports teams and pet doggies? You know how we’d fight to defend them if we had to, and how we’d get kind of offended if a bunch of heavily armed foreigners showed up and started telling us, in broken English, how trivial and irrelevant they are?

Well, other people feel the same way.

Weird but true! For instance, we Americans look at Sunni and Shiite Islam and can’t tell the difference, but most Sunnis and Shiites are acutely aware of the difference, and some are willing to kill and die over it. Over and over, we explain to the Iraqis that they would be so much happier in a nonsectarian, multitribal, multiethnic state. Over and over, quite a lot of them react to this with irritation, which they sometimes express by pointedly joining a religious militia, or trying to kill us.

We Americans look at Afghanistan, and it doesn’t seem like much of a country: There’s not a Starbucks or Chick-fil-A in sight, half the people in rural areas don’t even seem to wear shoes, and the roads suck, so obviously the Afghans should be glad that we are in their country in order to help them. And yet, somehow, many of them are not glad. Most of them don’t want the Taliban, but most also don’t want a Starbucks or Chick-fil-A; some don’t even want shoes. Almost all of them find it unpleasant to be told what to do by heavily armed Americans in wrap-around sunglasses. Some of them find this so unpleasant that they’re willing to form alliances of convenience with the Taliban, just to get rid of us.

Lesson we should learn, but probably won’t: No one likes being told that the things they consider important are stupid, and the things they consider stupid are important — especially when the message comes from outsiders.

This doesn’t necessarily mean we should not boss people around from time to time, or even occasionally use force if non-lethal forms of bossiness don’t work. There are some baseline human rights and humanitarian norms I’m quite comfortable demanding that others adhere to: don’t rape; don’t torture, don’t slaughter civilians, and so on. But even if we decide that some bossing is both appropriate and likely to be effective, we should stop being so astonished when those we boss around react with hostility rather than gratitude.

2. It’s not a "war of ideas."

I’m not saying ideas and ideologies don’t matter — they can and sometimes they do. But history, social psychology, and numerous other disciplines tell us that most humans are not rational actors. We don’t decide whether we should continue to patronize Starbucks or Chick-fil-A — much less how to vote or whether we’re willing to kill or die for a cause — because we’ve been persuaded by a reasoned argument or some interesting new data, or even by a rhetorically skilled demagogue. We go to Starbucks because our friends and colleagues go there; it won’t matter how many times strangers who patronize Dunkin’ Donuts explain that we’re making a mistake. Most of us vote the way our parents vote; if we break away from our parents, it’s usually only because the lure of a new peer group is potent enough to break the spell of family.

Study after study reinforces the conclusion that "information" and "ideas" are relatively trivial factors in how we form our opinions: Give a die-hard advocate of any given position new information that undermines his views, and his position is likely to harden, not weaken. The only exception? If the new information comes from an "insider" — someone perceived as sharing the same views and values. Conservatives reading a defense of a liberal policy proposal will disagree with it if told they’re evaluating a liberal proposal, but will support the same proposal if they’re told it comes from a prominent conservative — and vice versa.

Even those rare individuals who somehow manage to break away from the herd and evaluate new ideas and information for themselves often find that at the end of the day, loyalty trumps their own reasoned opinions. During the American Civil War, there were Southerners who were morally and politically opposed to slavery, but who nonetheless fought on the Confederate side. Why? Because despite their personal views about slavery and the ideology that supported it, they couldn’t imagine not fighting alongside their brothers and friends.

In Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan today, the same holds true. Few young men join the Taliban, al Qaeda, or the Islamic State because they happened to hear a persuasive sermon or read a rhetorically powerful fatwa. They join because their uncles, cousins, and brothers have joined; because they don’t like the heavily armed outsiders who stroll around like they own the place; because they need the money; because they’re frightened of the consequences to themselves or their families if they don’t join; or all of the above. Yes, many swallow whole the ideology of whichever extremist group holds sway in their region — but they swallow it not because al Qaeda has a "persuasive narrative," but because humans are social and imitative animals; we adopt the habits, ideas, and narratives of those we value and trust.

Lesson we should learn, but probably won’t: Let’s stop wasting time trying to "win the war of ideas" or "counter the narrative." It hasn’t worked, it doesn’t work, and it’s not likely to work in the future — at least in the clumsy and culturally clueless way we usually go at it. People don’t exist in a vacuum; they exist in groups of other people, and when they change their minds, it’s usually because those they regard as "insiders" offer them both an alternative way to understand the world — and, just as important, a viable way to act on that alternative understanding that doesn’t require them to starve or die, or abandon or betray those they love.

3. There is no "them."

It drives me batty when I hear pundits say things like, "the Iraqi people want peace and freedom!" I always wonder: which Iraqi people are you talking about, precisely? Because there are more than 30 million of them — and not all of them want the same things.

Do "the Iraqi people" want peace and freedom? I am quite certain that many of them do. Some of them would give their lives to advance the cause of peace and freedom. But it is painfully apparent that not all Iraqis want peace and freedom: some profit from conflict, some can simply imagine no alternatives. And, unfortunately, even if the vast majority of Iraqis want peace and freedom, it doesn’t take many who want the opposite to upset the whole apple cart.

The same goes for statements like "Why should the United States help defend the Iraqis, when they won’t fight to defend themselves?" Here too, I wonder: exactly which Iraqis are supposed to defend themselves? The 37 percent of the population aged 14 and under? The elderly women? The Iraqi soldiers whose commanders embezzled the money that was supposed to buy arms and equipment, and who now face a well-armed enemy with neither weapons nor any means of transportation? How about the Sunni tribesmen who have joined up with the Islamic State in an alliance of convenience, because they view it as the only way to regain what they view as their fair share of political power? Presumably they think they are fighting for freedom — whether for families, neighbors, tribes, or country. They’re just doing it in a way we don’t like.

Lesson we should learn, but probably won’t: If we want to understand what’s going on in another country, we need to get granular. We Americans are often far more pluribus than unum — indeed, many commentators and pollsters tell us that U.S. partisan and cultural divides are growing ever deeper. We know it’s meaningless to speak of "what Americans want," because we want different things, and we want those things with different degrees of passion. Why expect other populations be homogeneous, particularly when their borders were drawn far more arbitrarily than ours?

4. The fog of war is even foggier than you think — and it extends well beyond warzones.

We always think we know more than we turn out to know, and we always underestimate the vast distance between the making of policy and its implementation. We thought we knew Putin wouldn’t make a grab for Ukraine; we thought we knew the U.S.-trained Iraqi military could fend off a relatively small band of extremist insurgents. We thought we knew a lot of things. And we keep right on thinking we know what’s going on: Right now, for instance, we still think we know which Syrian rebels are the good guys, and we think we know how to keep any weapons and money we give them out of the hands of the bad guys.

Don’t bet on it. The information we have is often partial and misleading, and good guys have a dismaying tendency to later become bad guys. (See: anti-Soviet Afghan mujahedeen; see also: pretty much every Iraqi faction.)

And then there’s logistics. And bureaucracy. And friction, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. And Murphy’s Law. Those arms for the "moderate" Syrian rebels will eventually reach some Syrian rebels, but odds are they’ll be the wrong arms, or not enough, or they’ll be militarily irrelevant by the time they arrive — or the rebels who get them may have stopped being so moderate by then. Oops.

Lesson we should learn, but probably won’t: Be humble: we know less than we think, we’re clutzier than we think, and our plans are more likely to backfire than we think. Geographical and cultural distance compound these problems. And here’s a corollary: However much money, domestic and international political will, information and time we assume we will have, we will end up having less. There will be budget cuts and red tape; we won’t be able to get the intelligence we need at the time we need it, and voters and politicians will lose patience with anything that’s difficult and lasts more than five minutes. Plan accordingly.

5. When we get self-righteous and condescending, we annoy people; when we issue meaningless ultimatums, we look dumb.

There is nothing inherently wrong with telling other states what we’d like them to do, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with expressing our dismay when they do things we consider dangerous or immoral. But when addressing foreign leaders, we often sound like kindergarten teachers telling five-year-olds they won’t allowed at the grown-up table if they keep that up. Thus, we’re fond of insisting that China, Russia, Iran, and every other recalcitrant state must follow "rules" and behave "in a responsible way."

To those recalcitrant states, this kind of language is annoying and hypocritical. (See: U.S. invasion of Iraq). It tends to backfire.

Even worse is the meaningless ultimatum. We love to announce that we will "not tolerate" the "unacceptable" behavior of foreign regimes and organizations — which we then continue to tolerate, since we lack either the will or the ability to bring the intolerable behavior to an end. (See: intolerable Syrian behavior; red lines; intolerable Russian behavior, etc.) This makes Washington look both self-righteous and foolish.

Lesson we should learn, but probably won’t: Teddy Roosevelt got at least one thing right: "speak softly and carry a big stick" is a good maxim (though not one he consistently lived by). It’s worth quoting the entire passage from Roosevelt’s 1901 speech:

Right here let me make as vigorous a plea as I know how in favor of saying nothing that we do not mean, and of acting without hesitation up to whatever we say. A good many of you are probably acquainted with the old proverb, "Speak softly and carry a big stick — you will go far." If a man continually blusters, if he lacks civility, a big stick will not save him from trouble, and neither will speaking softly avail, if back of the softness there does not lie strength, power. In private life there are few beings more obnoxious than the man who is always loudly boasting, and if the boaster is not prepared to back up his words, his position becomes absolutely contemptible.

So it is with the nation. It is both foolish and undignified to indulge in undue self-glorification, and, above all, in loose-tongued denunciation of other peoples. Whenever on any point we come in contact with a foreign power, I hope that we shall always strive to speak courteously and respectfully of that foreign power.

6. "Don’t do stupid shit" is a sound maxim, but it’s not a strategy. Neither is "leadership."

It’s a messy, scary, mixed-up world, and we all want some guiding principle to help us cope with the challenges we’re facing. The Obama administration seems to have settled on "Don’t do stupid shit." Unsurprisingly, given everything I have written above, I consider this a perfectly decent maxim (though, like Teddy Roosevelt, President Obama doesn’t always abide by it). Critics of the president tend to decry such defensive minimalism, however, and insist that what the United States needs is less reactiveness and more "leadership." This too is fine, as far as it goes; in theory, thoughtful leadership is quite consistent with the avoidance of stupid shit.

But neither constitutes a strategy. Sure, we should avoid being stupid — but with what end in mind are we avoiding stupidity? Sure, we should "lead" — but where to?

Take the current crisis in Iraq. The United States could do, or not do, any number of things, ranging from the provision of humanitarian assistance to diplomatic efforts to all-out military re-engagement in Iraq. But it’s difficult to evaluate any of these options, in part because of the general fogginess of the situation — see No. 4, above — but also because it remains unclear just what we’re actually trying to achieve in Iraq, and to what ultimate end. Regional stability? Control of oil? Free markets? Spread of democracy and human rights? Prevention of attacks on the home soil? Prevention of attacks on U.S. interests, however defined? Ideological victory over extremism? Containment of the Islamic State? Alleviation of humanitarian crisis? Preservation of America’s reputation as "helpful" nation? Creation of an American reputation as a nation that minds its own business?

We still say we want a unified, inclusive non-sectarian Iraq. Is that truly what we want? Is it what we need? Is it a feasible outcome? If it’s not, what’s the "least worst" of the more plausible outcomes? Does a collapsing, violent Iraq in fact threaten U.S. interests? Which interests, and by how much? What ability do we have to change or contain the situation? (Sure, we have planes, drones, and troops — but whom should we target? Can we hit those targets? Will hitting those targets weaken ISIS, or just increase the chaos and trigger a backlash? Whose interests are we defending?) What risks and trade-offs in money, lives, and backlash can we tolerate? Are we willing to make Iran an ally of convenience? What about Bashar al-Assad? And how will other regional and international actors respond to various U.S. actions (or the lack thereof) in Iraq — and how would these responses affect our interests? That’s an awfully long list of questions — but despite numerous administration statements of concern and resolve, I haven’t heard a lot of answers.

Lesson we should learn, but probably won’t: Without a clear and consistent understanding of our interests, our priorities, and the end-state we want to reach, it can be hard to determine what constitutes stupid shit, and harder still to decide which way to lead. At the end of the day, even truly learning all the other lessons we ought to learn won’t get us very far, if we don’t know which way we’re going.

Yes — we still need a grand strategy. In fact, we need one more than ever.

Coming soon: A grand strategy for an empire in decline.

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department. Her most recent book is How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything. Twitter: @brooks_rosa

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