WPost’s Deadly Lack of Realism

The Washington Post’s neocon editors advocate one regime change after another, oblivious to the death and destruction that their strategies have unleashed across the Mideast and now into Europe and reflecting a lack of realism about what U.S. foreign policy can achieve, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar notes.

By Paul R. Pillar

Fred Hiatt, whose Washington Post editorial page has been beating its drum incessantly for more U.S. intervention in Syria, comes at that same theme from another angle with a signed column that criticizes President Obama’s State of the Union address. Hiatt’s critique illustrates some recurring and fallacious patterns of thought that arise in debate about U.S. intervention and especially military intervention.

Hiatt didn’t like that the President, in Hiatt’s words, reserved any optimism in the speech for America and that “for the rest of the world, Obama was pessimistic, even fatalistic.”

Washington Post's editorial page editor Fred Hiatt.

Washington Post’s editorial page editor Fred Hiatt.

Specific passages in the speech Hiatt cites are one that referred to the Middle East “going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia” and another that noted how “instability will continue for decades in many parts of the world,in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, parts of Pakistan, in parts of Central America, in Africa, and Asia.”

Then Hiatt asks, “Why would a president ask Americans to assume that the problems of Central America, say, are intractable and inevitable?” But the President didn’t say anything about intractability or inevitability. He was merely making an observation about a reality, the sort of reality that, if ignored, can work to the detriment of sound U.S. foreign policy.

Even with insertion of the time frame “for decades”, the President’s observation about what we can expect regarding instability “in” some regions and in “parts of” other places is so safe as to be undebatable. To expect otherwise would be to predict a sweeping, benign transformation of a conflict-prone world the likes of which have never been seen.

Hiatt comments that Costa Rica has been stable for a good while and that the internal situation in Mexico has improved noticeably in the last 20 years, both true, and then writes, “Why would we assume that El Salvador or Honduras can’t accomplish as much?”

We shouldn’t assume that, and the President did not say we should assume that. But neither should we assume that those states will accomplish as much, or, even more relevant to policy questions, that they could do so with some sort of help from the United States.

Hiatt is right that we ought to be open to favorable possibilities, but a common problem with the mindset he represents is to focus only on those possibilities, or to focus on them disproportionately more than on the pitfalls and problems. A related tendency is to believe that current conflicts and instability, some of which, within time frames that are politically meaningful, really are intractable, are some sort of aberration that can be smoothed out with enough good will and enough policy smarts and that the countries involved can be returned to a sort of benign state of nature.

Other examples of favorable change that Hiatt cites are South Korea progressing from “an impoverished military dictatorship” and Estonia no longer being “a captive of the Soviet Union.” But even though his column is trying to make a point about U.S. policy, Hiatt says nothing about exactly what sorts of U.S. policy had anything to do with those changes.

In the case of South Korea, the big thing the United States did, in addition to years of substantial economic and military assistance, was the beating back of North Korean aggression, aided by China, in the Korean War and the subsequent ensuring, through a mutual security commitment and the stationing of U.S. forces in South Korea, that such aggression would not be repeated.

There was never anything like a civil war or violent ethnic or sectarian conflicts within South Korea, and certainly nothing remotely close to U.S. intervention in such internal conflicts. Neither was there anything like such U.S. intervention in Estonia, whose gaining of freedom was one data point in a much larger process of the Soviets’ European empire collapsing of its own weight.

There was sound policy and deft diplomacy on the part of the George H.W. Bush administration at the time, but that policy was distinguished as much by what it wisely did not try to do as by what it did. Robert Gates, who was deputy national security adviser at the time, later wrote that the smartest thing President Bush did as the Soviet empire crumbled was to “play it cool.”

Outlooks such as Hiatt’s obliterate any distinction between the idea that conscious action can be efficacious in resolving conflicts favorably, i.e., that we should not be “fatalistic” about such problems, and the idea that it is the United States that should be taking action.

Hiatt says that whether longstanding hatreds are managed or explode “is the result of political choices. It is not a matter of destiny.” Correct, and the political choices that matter above all are those of Mexicans, Koreans, or whoever’s conflict it is in the first place.

Referring to the cases of South Korea and Estonia, Hiatt writes that “it was the U.S. commitment to a peaceful democratic future … that paved the way for their success.” This vague formulation could mean either of two things, both of which also are characteristic of the interventionist position that the columnist represents.

One is to disguise a push for some specific measure (e.g., conduct U.S. combat air operations against the Assad regime) whose costs and risks may be all too apparent by making an exhortation for something more apple pie-ish (e.g., a “peaceful democratic future”) with the costs and risks being less obvious.

The other possibility is that Hiatt is referring just to “commitment” in the sense of expressing such a commitment, as leaders do in speeches (and it is a speech that in the first instance is what he is criticizing). That sort of approach also has become typical of much of the criticism of related policies of the Obama administration, such as the silly demand that the President say the phrase “Islamic terrorism,” as if that is somehow going to save lives from terrorism.

No matter how loudly or eloquently a leader utters a commitment or a popular phrase, speeches do not remove real obstacles and pitfalls on the ground.

A final fallacy is the apparent belief that polities and societies across the world are so homogeneous that whatever works in one place ought to work in another. Referring again to the Korean and Estonian cases, Hiatt writes, “Why would Obama set his sights lower for Afghanistan or Africa?”

If the President were indeed “setting sights” lower, it would be because of the enormous differences in political culture, ethnic geography, economic development, and much else that makes what is achievable in the way of resolving or managing conflicts in one place much different from what is possible in another place, and especially what is achievable in building stable democracies.

Hiatt repeats the same themes about Syria that he and his editorial staff have been repeating ad infinitum. There is the familiar and casual counterfactual assertion that if only a “modest intervention” had been undertaken earlier then we would be seeing nothing like the complicated and debilitating conflict that besets Syria today, but without any explanation as to why the roots of the conflict, involving such matters as sectarian divisions and legitimacy issues, would have been any more possible to overcome with a “modest intervention” on one date rather than another.

There is just the statement that the “modest intervention” would have been “to forestall a civil war that might spin out of control”, as if what Syria had before was a “controlled” civil war, or as if it were ever within in the power of the United States to “control” such things.

It surely would be nice if Honduras were just like Costa Rica, if Syria were just like Estonia, and if expressions of optimism by U.S. presidents about the possibility of felicitous change overseas could make such change happen. If that were so, making U.S. foreign policy would be a whole lot easier. But that’s not the way the world works.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

10 comments for “WPost’s Deadly Lack of Realism

  1. Mark Thomason
    January 17, 2016 at 14:50

    Why should we assume Honduras won’t be stable? Because we just did another coup there, short circuiting its political process to impose an outside priority. Of course that political process is not internally stable.

    But Hiatt cares little about Honduras. He cares about Israel, first and almost exclusively.

    The projection of long term instability is horrible to him because it displays the price of Israel’s policy of keeping its neighbors unstable. Villa in a desert is their vision. The price he and they avoid seeing is that if projected out into the longer term, that is not viable. Israel cannot survive if that is the vision of its survival.

    So he won’t see it. That is his solution, and their’s too.

  2. dahoit
    January 17, 2016 at 11:01

    Mexico has improved internally?Uh?
    This guys eyes are so close together it illustrates their cyclopian focus on Zion.

  3. Zachary Smith
    January 17, 2016 at 10:55

    The Post works to redefine “reality” on other issues besides war and destruction.

    The Washington Post‘s Catherine Rampell devoted a column (12/24/15) to a popular Washington pastime: trying to get young people angry at their parents and grandparents so that they are not bothered by the enormous upward redistribution of income taking place in this country.


  4. robcrawford
    January 17, 2016 at 02:36

    The WP editorial pages are rightfully regarded as a haven for glib, whining neocons. What they seem to prefer are simple shows of force – anything else is “weak”. It makes for a rather boring reading experience unless you are one of the anointed knowitalls like the humorless George Will. It really makes me wonder why I subscribed.

  5. robcrawford
    January 17, 2016 at 02:35

    The WP editorial pages are rightfully regarded as a haven for glib, whining neocons. What they seem to prefer are simple shows of force – anything else is “weak”. It makes for a rather boring reading experience unless you are one of the anointed knowitalls like the humorless George Will. It really makes me wonder why I subscribed.

  6. Abe
    January 16, 2016 at 22:58

    The AIPAC all-stars remain ensconced at the Washington Post under Jeff Bezos.

    As Juan Cole noted in 2013, “outside the Weekly Standard, you won’t find a more pro-Israel editorial page in the country”.

    For example, Israeli right-wing settler advocate Eugene Kontorovich, a regular Washington Post op-ed contributor, is a fellow at The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and lives in the illegal settlement of Neve Daniel in the occupied West Bank http://mondoweiss.net/2015/12/washington-professors-settlements

    • J'hon Doe II
      January 17, 2016 at 18:33

      Zionism is a nationalist and political movement of Jews that supports the establishment of a “Jewish homeland” in the territory defined as the “historic Land of Israel”. Since the majority of Jews were not Zionists until after WWII, Zionists used an array of misleading strategies, including secret collaboration with the Nazis and false flag terrorist attacks, to push immigration. This growing violence culminated in Israel’s ruthless 1947-49 “War of Independence,”in which at least 750,000 Palestinian men, women, and children were expelled from their homes by Israeli forces. This massive humanitarian disaster is known as ‘The Catastrophe,’ al Nakba in Arabic. In 1975, the General Assembly defined Zionism as a form of racism or racial discrimination. Today, over 7,000 Palestinian men, women, and children are imprisoned in Israeli jails under physically abusive conditions (many have not even been charged with a crime) and the basic human rights of all Palestinians under Israeli rule are routinely violated.

  7. Tristan
    January 16, 2016 at 22:39

    Well done, thus I offer a fantasy. In an alternative reality based on reality:

    “For just pennies a day, you and other [Insert nation other than USA]s like you who care can make sure the impoverished people of Flynt, Michigan, USA, can have clean drinking water. [Insert nation other than USA]s, please, look into your hearts and give to a needy American family who only wants to live in dignity, with access to clean water. Please help these Americans in need, donate today.”

    If only WaPo’s Fred H. could read beyond his predetermined mindset, he’d see that the fantasy of global hegemony is futile if you can’t even provide the basics in the “Homeland” of the Empire. Bread and circus only go so far, and when there is no water the indications of internal rot based on delusion are clear.

  8. Zachary Smith
    January 16, 2016 at 18:36

    I’m sure Mr. Pillar knows far better than myself that Fred Hiatt’s ‘reality’ is that he’s paid to catapult the propaganda for Israel. The man is a professional hack, and that’s why he wasn’t fired back in 2013 as Robert Parry strongly urged on these pages.


    Squillionaire Jeff Bezos was another of a string of moneybags making sure the primary job of that paper was continued.

    Promoting chaos in the middle east is what Israel wants, and that’s what Hiatt and company are going to keep doing.

    THAT is the reality.

    • JWalters
      January 17, 2016 at 20:58

      Well put. And behind Israel’s war are the banksters. For readers who haven’t seen it yet, the history is given succinctly in “War Profiteers and the Roots of the War on Terror”.

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