Why US Politics and Policy Are Adrift

The U.S. system of politics and public policy is in disarray awash with elites trying to manipulate the public and the public drifting away from any factual grounding, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

Christopher Preble has given us some interesting thoughts about foreign policy elites and the U.S. public and how the interplay of the two figures into bad foreign policy. He captures accurately some recent patterns of ends being ostensibly pursued without the means being employed to accomplish those ends. But in the course of criticizing elites he probably lets the public off too easily.

Preble and others have argued that leaders can sway the public more easily on national security matters than on domestic issues because members of the public have direct first-hand experience with what is working or not working domestically (e.g., a person has a job or doesn’t have a job) while they lack comparable direct contact with the results of foreign policy.

Barack Obama and George W. Bush at the White House.

Barack Obama and George W. Bush at the White House.

But the domestic-vs.-foreign distinction breaks down because having direct experience with the results of policy is not the same as having a good sense of what particular policies bring good results. In fact, the public often is woefully ignorant about the latter. What is good for an individual or family does not necessarily scale up into what is good at the level of national policy.

Although fiscal restraint is good for family financial health, for example, in a time of insufficient demand it is bad for the health of the national economy (and for creating jobs). Yet many members of the American public mistakenly believe otherwise.

Certainly there are instances of determined elites getting the public to believe certain things so that the elites can achieve foreign policy objectives they have set for themselves; the launching of a major offensive war in Iraq in 2003 is an extreme example of this, just as it is an extreme example of some other things.

But one can also easily point to examples of elites swaying the public in domestic policy as well. The Donald Trump phenomenon has partially unmasked what Republican Party elites have been doing for some time in this regard. They have helped to maintain a constituency by stoking some of the fears and attitudes that Trump is now expressing, while also encouraging the mistaken belief that they are pursuing economic policies that serve the interests of that constituency rather than the one percent — and then not delivering on that false premise, a fact that Trump also is exploiting.

The disconnect between ends and means in something like the application of military force to countering terrorism in places such as Syria is not primarily a matter of elites determining the ends and the public being stingy about providing the means. The primary disconnect instead comes from the public often being inconsistent and illogical when in comes to matching ends and means. Again, this arises in domestic as well as foreign policy, as in the frequently observed pattern of wanting to maintain popular programs X, Y and Z but not wanting to pay the taxes necessary to finance them.

If there are halfway and ineffective measures currently used against terrorism in Syria or elsewhere, that is not because the Obama administration has established an objective of defeating terrorist groups but is encountering public resistance in mustering the means to do so. It would be more accurate to say that the American public demands that a fearsome terrorist group such as ISIS be defeated — and so the administration has to accept that objective and to do something about it — while a president who takes a more sober and careful approach to assessing costs and benefits is trying to limit the drain on blood and treasure along the way.

Any public claim to having a higher wisdom than elites when it comes to resisting costly and unwise foreign interventions is vitiated by the public’s inconsistency in mounting such resistance. The resistance tends to come only (as with now) from the fatigue of prolonged overseas commitments, or even more so after especially costly fiascoes such as the one in Vietnam.

Speaking of the Vietnam War, that is an example of how the misconceptions of elites and the public sometimes exist in tandem. They can arrive at a misconception together, without one necessarily leading the other. On Vietnam, misconceptions about falling dominoes and U.S. credibility being at stake were a widely shared conventional wisdom, not a Saddam-will-give-WMD-to-terrorists manipulation by a particular elite of the public.

There certainly is good reason to agree with Preble in believing that some who currently function as foreign policy elites in the United States should be retired. What President Obama is resisting in trying to limit expenditure of blood and treasure in a place like Syria is pressure not just from public fears about terrorism but also from what his aide Benjamin Rhodes would call the blob. But there is still plenty of blame left over to assign to the public.

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.)

17 comments for “Why US Politics and Policy Are Adrift

  1. Oz
    June 12, 2016 at 09:52

    President Obama is not “trying to limit expenditure of blood and treasure in a place like Syria.” He is trying to create the public perception that he is fighting Islamic extremists, while simultaneously trying to nurture and cultivate them as a tool for hoped-for “regime change,” an insane policy to which the US has adhered now for going on 40 years. Our leaders have taken way too much malicious advice from the British.

  2. k
    June 11, 2016 at 01:32

    this writer, paul pillar, seems to still be working for the us govt. disinformation and propaganda.

  3. Jerad
    June 10, 2016 at 22:14

    I think this piece is far too kind to Obama. To suggest he does not work harder to defeat ISIS because he is a realist who wants to limit loss of life does not gel with the facts. We know that the Obama administration has, at best, turned a blind eye as the Turks, Saudis, and other international powers have stoked the flames of insurgency and rebellion in Syria. That is the best case scenario, because there is reason to believe that the Obama administration has not only turned a blind eye but actively participated in propagating the Syrian tragedy.

  4. delia ruhe
    June 10, 2016 at 17:59

    Obama has just authorized a trillion dollar upgrade of nuclear weapons. I find that inconsistent with the image of him projected in this piece. It’s also inconsistent with all his lovely speeches about nuclear non-proliferation. Iran must get rid of those it never had, but the US can spend a trillion dollars upgrading theirs.

    • Joe Tedesky
      June 10, 2016 at 18:58

      I would like to think where Obama authorized the 1 trillion dollars for nuclear upgrades, was where he turned down the 2 trillion dollar budget that was originally proposed. I also would like to think while Obama gets Iran to do away with the nuclear program they didn’t have, that he secretly points to this Iran deal to Israel and Saudi Arabia as an example of what they should also be doing…and then I wake up, and read the real news.

      I agree with you Delia

  5. David Farrar
    June 10, 2016 at 17:58

    Golly, I disagree with this gentleman’s assignment of the public’s function in a public debate. “We are all sovereigns now; sovereigns without subjects,” Judge John Jay once observed.

    We the People are the sovereigns of the land because it is we the People who will inevitably pay the final price, but that’s another story.

    If the sovereigns are not backing the right horse, it is most certainly not their fault! As Surowiecki points out in his book, “The Wisdom of Crowds”, if given the right information they will unerringly make the right choice at a far, far higher percentage rate than supposedly informed government bureaucrats, while doing it much quicker and at a fraction of the cost. But giving the public the right information, and by ‘right,” I mean, the “true” information, seems to be the very last thing our elected leaders are doing. In fact, it is just the opposite, the last thing government officials want to do it tell the public the truth.

  6. Erik
    June 10, 2016 at 13:54

    There are very good points here, but I’ll suggest that the “disconnect between ends and means” in failed policy is less the public being illogical in “matching ends and means” than the “elites” having quite different ends and insisting upon the wrong means.

    “Any public claim to having a higher wisdom than elites when it comes to resisting costly and unwise foreign interventions is vitiated by the public’s inconsistency in mounting such resistance.”

    The public is inconsistent because it is diverse: it contains the wisdom of a society, along with the nonsense, but cannot be expected to be generally wise, apart from the ability of democratic institutions of public debate and elections to bring forth the wisdom of those who have it, and to make the knowledge of broadly debated issues more widely available. When those institutions are controlled by money as in the US, it is greed and bullying that become elite, not wisdom.

    The term “elites” could confuse the issue. When used in “higher wisdom than elites” it appears to refer to knowledgeable persons, whereas it often refers to oligarchy, whose wisdom is unknown and usually poor. The selection of leaders and experts by US democratic process most often has led to disaster in foreign policy, precisely because it has been selecting oligarchy reps with too little knowledge or concern for truth and justice to make foreign or even domestic policy. The term “elite” could confuse wealth and power with wisdom, a distinction that the issue requires.

    • Bill Bodden
      June 10, 2016 at 18:05

      The term “elite” could confuse wealth and power with wisdom, a distinction that the issue requires.

      When “elite” is applied to universities there is the assumption and insinuation that they are the best of the institutions of higher learning. Unfortunately, they also in too many cases produce graduates devoid of moral and ethical principles that venture into the business world to engage in unethical and even criminal practices. Nothing elite there in the conventional meaning of the word.

  7. Bob Van Noy
    June 10, 2016 at 12:27

    The Blob is us. One can sense breakthroughs happening everywhere and, as yet, it is impossible to tell the good guys from the diluted. I would be a good time to make a personal list of people, associations, parties etc. to test your accuracy as all of this falls apart. A classic Paradigm Shift or as Malcolm Gladwell would put it “Tipping Point”. A time to evaluate your position, find allies, and choose. Thank you Paul Pillar and Robert Parry and Bernie Sanders…

  8. Madhu
    June 10, 2016 at 10:50

    True, much of the public has been negligent in its oversight duties.

    However, Mr (Dr?) Pillar has a very specific background and training. The level of propaganda directed at the American public is incredibly sophisticated and the average person trying hard to make a living, raise children, keep up with local school board politics, etc., is such that the Blob has the advantage.

    Even members within the Blob become mesmerized by other DC factions or nations’ propaganda, even with their immersion in that world and their background in the politics of it all.

    I agree with the overall gist of the article but I wish there was a little more empathy for the way life is actually lived for most people and how hard it is for ordinary folk to see through the thicket of propaganda. It’s not so easy unless you devote significant time to it, or if you have the abilities for it. To be blunt, not everyone has that without being properly educated about it. We don’t have the media doing its job. The Blob has the advantage in that it also controls aspects of media reporting and, well, jobs, pensions, via its lobbying efforts for various funders.

    Keeping up with all of this is something that becomes hard for ordinary people with their ordinary life responsibilities. This is a period of paranoia as many people have to keep up with the changes to pension rules, savings/investement rules, job rules, employer rules (if you are lucky to have a job): a shifting changing strange period. It’s hard to keep up.

    Haven’t political science studies shown that elite preferences are more likely to be adopted by DC than constituent or public wishes? Is it really public fear driving our MidEast policy? There are so many drivers. I think the public is easily distracted and the minute-by-minute culture of DC overstates the degree to which the public is really fearful.

    • Bill Bodden
      June 10, 2016 at 11:48

      Thank you to Paul Pillar for this article and Madhu for this excellent comment.

      The level of propaganda directed at the American public is incredibly sophisticated and the average person trying hard to make a living, raise children, keep up with local school board politics, etc., is such that the Blob has the advantage.

      The propaganda directed at the American public begins at an early age. In most probable cases, indoctrination begins with teaching children in the fifth grade to memorize and repeat with considerable frequency the pledge of allegiance. This is probably one of the factors – movies are another – that helps to explain young men and women signing up for ill-begotten wars promoted by liars in government.

      The words of the pledge eventually become meaningless to politicians and their supporters, but they will, nevertheless, insist on its recital as the equivalent of a loyalty oath.

      • SFOMARCO
        June 10, 2016 at 12:07

        When I was in the second grade, “Under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance. Since we were not a church-going family, I thought that was weird. Still do. Patriotism + Religion, a heavyweight, one-two propaganda punch in one (run-on) sentence.

        • Bob Van Noy
          June 10, 2016 at 12:31

          One of my pet peeves SFOMARCO! Also, the coins; from “E pluribus unum to In God We Trust.”

          • Bob Van Noy
            June 10, 2016 at 12:41

            “One out of many.” We’re all immigrants: except, of course, Native Americans (I bet that they hate that designation).

        • Bill Bodden
          June 10, 2016 at 15:49

          But we are one nation under God. Unfortunately, that god is Mammon whose temple, high priests and principal acolytes are in Wall Street.

      • June 12, 2016 at 05:45

        True Bill Bodden.

        Recall Iraqi weapons of mass destruction? Iraqi ties to Al Qaeda? Iraqi mobile biological weapons laboratories? Iraqi meetings in Prague with Al Qaeda? Iraqi purchases of yellowcake uranium from Niger?

        All these claims were reported as true. All were later proven false or, worse, fabricated. Yet all were widely believed. Only the yellowcake uranium was conceded as bogus before the invasion of Iraq. As the U.S. crafted its response to the provocation of a mass murder on U.S. soil, those widely shared beliefs shaped a consensus to wage war on a nation that had no hand in it and costing the American taxpayer trillions of dollars on an illegal war.

    • June 10, 2016 at 23:14

      U.S. has transitioned from 2007 Bush to 2016 Obama with scarcely a burp in overseas belligerence and fewer domestic civil rights, all in the name of fighting the “terrorism” which is induced by their own state-terroristic policies.


      In the ensuing decade, if anything, the U.S. forced march toward coarseness and indifference to law and its own Constitution,
      – as U.S. CIA or NATO air attacks murder human beings in one strike as though they were swatting flies;
      – as U.S. cop-thugs deny citizens the Constitutional right to peaceable assembly.

      -as the U.S.-enabled Zionist entity shames the Holy Land with its presence, persecuting every Palestinian human being every day in evermore depraved ways; Listen to the mayor of Jerusalem sympathizing with Palestinians;

      Tel Aviv’s 71-year-old Mayor, Ron Huldai, blamed Israel’s occupation of Palestine for the recent attack:

      “We might be the only country in the world where another nation is under occupation without civil rights,” he said when speaking to Israeli army radio on Thursday. “You can’t hold people in a situation of occupation and hope they’ll reach the conclusion everything is alright.”

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