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Failure as a Way of Life

The fault line in American politics is no longer Republican vs. Democrat nor conservative vs. liberal but establishment vs. anti-establishment. This is an inevitable result of serial failure in establishment policies. Nowhere do we see this more clearly than in the establishment’s repeated military interventions abroad in wars against non-state opponents. When such interventions fail in one place—first Somalia, then Iraq, then Afghanistan, then Libya, now Syria—it does the same thing again somewhere else, with the same result.

Why has the establishment allowed itself to be trapped in serial failure? Once we understand how it works, the answer is plain: it cannot do otherwise. On Capitol Hill, the legalization of bribery—“campaign contributions”—means money rules. That puts business as usual in the driver’s seat because that is where the money is. If a member of Congress backs, say, the F-35 fighter/bomber, he can count on campaign contributions from its manufacturers and jobs for his state or district. (The Pentagon calls that “strategic contracting.”) If instead he calls for reforming our military so it can perform better in Fourth Generation wars, where fighter/bombers are useless, there’s no money.

My long-time colleague Paul Weyrich and I both began our Washington careers as Senate staff, Paul in the late 1960s and me in 1973. Shortly before his death in 2008, I said to him, “When we arrived on the Hill, at least half the members of the Senate thought their job had something to do with governing the country. Now that figure is at most 10 percent. All the rest think about is having a successful career as a professional politician and retiring very, very rich.” Paul agreed.

thisarticleappears janfeb16 [1]Just as money locks in current policy, so does ideology. To be a member of the establishment you must spout the ideology of “democratic capitalism,” the notion that America can and should remake the rest of the world in its own image. Other peoples see this, rightly, as an attempt to ram the Brave New World down their throats. Many are willing to fight to prevent it. But if a member of the Washington establishment dares question the ideology and suggests a policy based on realism, he immediately loses his establishment membership.


Over breakfast in Denver several years ago I said to my old boss, Sen. Gary Hart, “If you are a member of the establishment and you suggest more than five degrees rudder change in anything, you cease to be a member of the establishment.” He replied, “I’m exhibit A.”

Below these factors lies the establishment’s bedrock. It is composed overwhelmingly of people who want to be something, not people who want to do something. They have devoted their lives to becoming members of the establishment and enjoying the many privileges thereof. They are not likely to endanger club membership by breaking its rules. Beyond following money and adhering to its ideology, the rules are three.

The first is, don’t worry about serial failure. Within the Beltway, the failure of national policies is not important. Career success depends on serving interests and pleasing courtiers above you, not making things work in flyover land. As in 17th-century Spain, the court is dominated by interests that prosper by feeding off the country’s decay.

Second, rely on the establishment’s wealth and power to insulate its members from the consequences of policy failure. The public schools are wretched, but the establishment’s children go to private schools. We lose wars, but the generals who lose them get promoted. The F-35 is a horrible fighter, but no member of the establishment will have to fly it. So long as the money keeps flowing, all is well.

Third and most important, the only thing that really matters is remaining a member of the establishment. This completes the loop in what is a classic closed system, where the outside world does not matter and is not allowed to intrude. Col. John Boyd, America’s greatest military theorist, said that all closed systems collapse. The Washington establishment cannot adjust, it cannot adapt, it cannot learn. It cannot escape serial failure.

The public is catching on to all this and, on both sides of the political spectrum, turning to anti-establishment candidates. If we are fortunate, some will win. If the establishment manipulates the rules to hold on to power indefinitely, when it collapses it may take the state with it. 

William S. Lind is the author, as “Thomas Hobbes,” of Victoria: a Novel of Fourth Generation War [2].

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25 Comments To "Failure as a Way of Life"

#1 Comment By Christopher Manion On February 15, 2016 @ 8:02 am

Paul Weyrich is still an inspiration, as Bill recounts here. He tried to make that ninety percent do the right thing, appealing to their better natures but threatening their heart’s desires. It was, and is, a constant battle.

As for the closed system – the only way to drain DC’s Bipartisan Hot Tub is from the outside. That’s where the plug is – no one on the inside can reach it, and none there really wants to.

That’s our job.

#2 Comment By Colorado Jack On February 15, 2016 @ 8:11 am

“To be a member of the establishment you must spout the ideology of “democratic capitalism,” the notion that America can and should remake the rest of the world in its own image.”

They may spout it, but they don’t believe it and they don’t act on it. They have learned the lesson of Iraq. Here’s Donald Rumsfeld in 2015, with the advantage of hindsight: “I’m not one who thinks that our particular template of democracy is appropriate for other countries at every moment of their histories. The idea that we could fashion a democracy in Iraq seemed to me unrealistic.”

The establishment cheerfully tolerates and supports Saudi Arabia’s regime. No one in the establishment thinks it wise to press for democracy in any serious way. Ditto for Egypt, where our aid violates US law under any fair reading.

Lind has a point but way overstates it.

#3 Comment By TB On February 15, 2016 @ 9:35 am

“If the establishment manipulates the rules to hold on to power indefinitely, when it collapses it may take the state with it.”

I agree but, as Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet says, “I spy a kind of hope”. I believe a tipping point in our political culture was reached in 2008 when the electorate chose a young and inexperienced black man with a VERY scary name over a mainstream war hero and did so by a wide margin. I expect Bernie to be nominated and then win by margins that make BHO’s victory look close.

#4 Comment By ged2phd On February 15, 2016 @ 10:45 am

Great article. It’s long been apparent that the “establishment” seems oblivious to the consequences of their wasteful and foolish policies, but when you point out the foolishness has no (immediate) consequences for them, and even a positive impact on their careers, it all makes sense. Long term, though, it’s a sure descent into the abyss for all of us. Of course, the “little people” are falling first and faster, so the elites no doubt are calculating they’ll land on top of us so we’ll cushion their landing.

#5 Comment By Richard L Harrell On February 15, 2016 @ 10:57 am

The real definition of the Establishment is clear and simple. They are the scum of the Earth.

#6 Comment By JohnG On February 15, 2016 @ 11:26 am

As depressing the picture painted here may be, I actually think it’s optimistic.

To be a member of the establishment you must spout the ideology of “democratic capitalism,” the notion that America can and should remake the rest of the world in its own image.

Now, could someone explain to me how Afghanistan, Libya, Kosovo, or Iraq are now more conformant to some American ideal? I believe the truth is much worse than giant corporations having interest in perpetual wars: The establishment has become a vast network of private rackets that uses the American military & economic might as the ultimate extortion tool. Just ask the two worst secretaries of state in history posing (and seeking cover) as ultra-feminists.

It was under Mad Albright’s tenure that the US started to support (and bomb on behalf of) the shadiest of the terrorist figures in Kosovo, accused by several UN personnel of butchering Serbian and (traitor) Albanian prisoners to harvest organs for trade. You can’t make this stuff up, it’s beyond horrific. And, surprise, madam secretary leaves her post to turn into a hedge fund manager with investments and interests in the region. Payback for help, anyone? Who wouldn’t want to harness the US Air force for its private goals? And would anybody be surprised if HRC took this model one step beyond to make payments to the Clinton Foundation pretty concurrent with the “services” provided by the State Department? And how is this different (other than organ trafficking) from our senators and congressmen retiring vastly richer than when they went into politics? Just where did that money come from?

In summary, it’s NOT just evil corporations, it’s the vastly concentrated power of an out of control and overreaching government. Once you have that, you are bound to have individuals and networks trying to harness that power for their private purposes. So yes, let’s clean up political financing, but let’s also go back to the idea of limited government. And stay vigilant to keep it limited, because, you always end up in trouble otherwise.

#7 Comment By Fran Macadam On February 15, 2016 @ 12:32 pm

It couldn’t have been said better or more succinctly – or more truthfully.

#8 Comment By seydlitz89 On February 15, 2016 @ 2:08 pm

Lame article, sorry. Bill Lind seems unable to understand what strategic theory is. Still attempting to make his reified 4GW notions into reality. John Boyd “America’s greatest military theorist”? Ok, E-M theory of aerial combat is significant, but that is mathematics-based and has to do with aircraft design (quite limited really) which is not strategic theory at all, is it? But confusion among US (a)strategic thinkers is the norm and has been for some time . . . interests cloud their little heads . . . But then Dick Cheney is Boyd’s greatest follower . . . so . . . follow the leader . . .

After reading Jeffrey Sach’s blog post . . . I asked myself “why did I waste my time on this” . . .


#9 Comment By Rossbach On February 15, 2016 @ 2:41 pm

Given the realities of the 2-party system, with the neocons dominating GOP foreign policy and liberal interventionists controlling the Democratic side, it’s not hard to see how this total lack of accountability has persisted for so long. Hopefully, the pushback that the establishment candidates of both parties are experiencing from the voters will have its effect on national policy – if not in this election cycle, perhaps in the next one.

#10 Comment By connecticut farmer On February 15, 2016 @ 6:59 pm

Well put, JohnG. The system is thoroughly corrupt and given the divisions within American society may well be beyond repair. If so, we are doomed. Maybe the HRC email controversy will expose not only her personal corruption but that of the whole system, though I wouldn’t bet on it. She may only be the tip of the iceberg and as such only the worst of a bad lot whose numbers are legion.

#11 Comment By Fred Bowman On February 15, 2016 @ 11:43 pm

The LAST thing the Congressional-Military-Industrial Complex want is for ANY War to end, as it cut off their justication for a bloated military budget that continues to enriched them and their cronies for God know how long.

#12 Comment By Kurt Gayle On February 16, 2016 @ 12:10 pm

@ seydlitz89, who wrote:

“Lame article, sorry. Bill Lind seems unable to understand what strategic theory is. Still attempting to make his reified 4GW notions into reality.”

From my perspective Bill Lind’s 4th Generation War explanation for the long string of US defeats by non-state opponents matches up well with the facts.

To be sure, our taking seriously Lind’s “4GW notions” would necessarily lead to (1) a different US foreign policy and (2) a radically scaled-back flow of money to the shadow military-industrial state and their hired politicians.

So might it be, seydlitz89, that your discomfort is less with Lind’s “4GW notions” than it is with (1) or (2), or both?

#13 Comment By Frand Liebkind On February 16, 2016 @ 12:55 pm

Ironic, isn’t it, that many of the late Col Boyd’s air combat theories have become establishment doctrine, almost half a century later. I can only assume that Boyd was sharp enough to realize that they have little application to today’s fourth generation warfare. But I may be wrong.

#14 Comment By cdugga On February 16, 2016 @ 3:25 pm

Democratic government is supposed to be answerable to the people. But there are 2 big problems with that. One, the people have to stay informed and know what the issues are as well as what potential representatives believe. Is there any reason to move on to the second big problem? Okay, just for discussion, the second problem is that the first problem allows for all the following problems forever after amen. Holding our representatives accountable requires that we hold ourselves accountable for electing the correct representative. Ain’t gonna happen, simply because the correct representative, the one telling us that we are the ones responsible, is never going to be elected. The one that will get elected is the one that says others, like immigrants, blacks, elites and those who are not true christians, true patriots, or core americans, are the cause of all our policy and economic problems. That’s the guy we want to lead us. We may get him. And he might do what we want, but it is unlikely he will do anything we need to have done to bring back america. Bringing back america is our job after all, and who wants that responsibility. The supposed anti-establishment candidates are simply the ones that say they will take care of the problems we allowed to happen. And we already know they won’t or can’t because we would never demand so much from ourselves.

#15 Comment By Iowa Scribe On February 16, 2016 @ 4:56 pm

We are nearning the end of “the rule of political spoilsmen,” but are we also nearing the end of the American experiment or, perhaps, even the catastrophic interruption of the progress of human civilization?

71:3.10 The ideals of statehood must be attained by evolution, by the slow growth of civic consciousness, the recognition of the obligation and privilege of social service. At first men assume the burdens of government as a duty, following the end of the administration of political spoilsmen, but later on they seek such ministry as a privilege, as the greatest honor. The status of any level of civilization is faithfully portrayed by the caliber of its citizens who volunteer to accept the responsibilities of statehood.

#16 Comment By stephen laudig On February 18, 2016 @ 1:52 am

for the US political and military establishments…. “there’s no success like failure… failure’s no success at all”. There are many, many causes, the one highlighted this year is an electoral law system that only allows for “coke and pepsi” and holds up, in effect bails out or life-supports, the two moribund parties [one may actually die this year, and the other will follow shortly thereafter, extinction of the dinosaurs] by not allowing replacements to grow. cheers.

#17 Comment By seydlitz89 On February 18, 2016 @ 8:30 am

@ Kurt Gayle

Regarding 4GW I think you putting the wheelless cart before the dead horse. 4GW started as a list of speculations published in an article in the Marine Corps Gazette in 1989, that is there wasn’t originally any “theory” at all. In 1991, Martin van Creveld published the “The Transformation of War” (TTW) since he needed to divorce war from politics for political/propaganda reasons (Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land). Formerly MvC had promoted Clausewitzian strategic theory, had in fact presented a paper in 1986 entitled “The Eternal Clausewitz”. TTW provided 4GW with some actual “theory”, although Lind claims that 4GW actually exists (reification) and is not theory at all.
Lind also talks about the “moral being the highest level of war” and claims that’s Boyd’s view, but according to Chet Richards Boyd never said anything of the kind. We had a long discussion on this back on the sonshi forum about a decade ago.

Clausewitz became a problem for Dick Cheney and the Neocons since strategic theory links political purpose (not limited to those of “the state”) with military aims achieved through military means. Too often states or other political entities wish to hide their actual involvement (not to mention their goals) in wars and thus 4GW comes in handy as a cover for that, but useless in understanding strategy . . . read the Sachs article . . .

I would also add that 4GW became a useful excuse for US military incompetence since the generals could claim, “How could we have won, it was 4GW!”.

As to Boyd, OODA loops don’t really provide anything other than a model for friction above the tactical . . .

The Russians don’t fall for any of this, following instead Svechin, the great Russian Clausewitzian strategic theorist and understanding the uses and limits of organised violence. They understand the nature of the conflict they are involved in in Syria and are acting strategically, something the US hasn’t been able to achieve since the end of the Cold War/First Gulf War . . . that is since the rise of 4GW confusion . . .

#18 Comment By Kurt Gayle On February 18, 2016 @ 3:29 pm

Thank you, seydlitz89, for taking the time to give so much background history regarding this discussion of Fourth Generation War, etc.
For those of us who find William Lind’s 4GW arguments convincing, it’s very useful to read counter-positions presented so well by someone as well-versed in the subject as you obviously are. Sincerely. Thank you.

#19 Comment By Strateshooer On February 19, 2016 @ 5:36 am

The establishment has a foundation.It is called the Federal Reserve Bank of America.Take away the foundation and the establishment will fall.
abolish the FED and let citizens experience a sense of freedom again.

#20 Comment By peter connor On February 19, 2016 @ 6:20 pm

“Lame article, sorry. Bill Lind seems unable to understand what strategic theory is. Still attempting to make his reified 4GW notions into reality.”
The reality has been hitting us in the face for more than 60 years…but as Lind points out, reality means nothing to Washington insiders, or other devotees of country wrecking military-industrial profiteering.
I will make this very simple for you, seydlitz89. If the people of a country you are trying to occupy or control don’t want you there, it will be ruinously expensive for you to stay there, and eventually you will leave. Got it?

#21 Comment By seydlitz89 On February 19, 2016 @ 6:44 pm

@ Kurt Gayle

Thank you for the kind words. Sadly the Cheneyite rot is so deep at this point that we’ll simply have to ride it out . . . Svechin wrote about the corrupting influence of a political elite overwhelmed by its own decadence and delusions that it confuses its own interests with those of the country that it rules . . . 4GW is part of/has become a pawn of that larger phenomenon . . . the greater confusion . . .

#22 Comment By ObiJohn On February 21, 2016 @ 3:05 am

The problem here is that our political leaders, by and large, do not understand grand strategy or military strategy, and do not wish to do so and risk opprobrium from other elites. Elite culture insists acceptance to the belief that violence solves nothing, and never can. Unfortunately, our foes disagree, with the backing of history. We lost in Iraq because Obama ceded victory by abandoning the battlefield, as if saying a war was over could possibly end it on favorable terms… the same mistake we made in Vietnam. Rather, the problem in the Middle East is that we haven’t killed enough extremists… the mistake we didn’t make in WWII… and so the battle-hardened jihadis that remain believe they can win if they only endure. So far, they seem to be right. The real problem here is the creation of an elite that is isolated… from ordinary Americans, from the realities of the global economy, from their own failure as leaders due to their dysfunctional worldview based on a life of privilege, freedom from want, and a belief that all of that is deserved istead of the result of winning the birth lottery. Their unconscious embrace of socialist policies is more about their unease of their fortunate privilege, and it stops when the pain starts… they call for the elimination of private property but insist their iPads are exempt as ‘personal’ property rather than private property. They call for equality of opportunity but aren’t willing to give up their spot at an Ivy League university. They call for more taxes but incorporate in Ireland, or dock their yacht in Rhode Island to avoid Massachusetts taxes. They no longer support enlightened self-interest but instead push for restrictions on freedom of speech, call for more gun control, and seek to restrict political opposition… all in the name of peace and freedom and happiness. They are the modern Marie Antoinettes, and the mob is sharpening the pitchforks.

#23 Comment By Eric On February 24, 2016 @ 8:15 am

seydlitz89 “The Russians don’t fall for any of this, following instead Svechin, the great Russian Clausewitzian strategic theorist and understanding the uses and limits of organised violence” Svechin? Really? Most of his work was borrowed from the pre 1914 Nikolai General Staff Academy. The bigger Soviet thinker at the time was Verhovsky. Someone got very excited about Svechin at Fort Leavenworth in the late 1970s/early 1980s (probably because someone decided to translate him) but in the Russian context he’s a relative minor figure – no one follows him.

#24 Comment By GlobalMisanthrope On February 25, 2016 @ 9:41 am

I assume, then, that you will endorse Senator Sanders.

#25 Comment By Yuri On February 25, 2016 @ 7:51 pm

Barnhardt Axiom.