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Why the U.S. Never Learns from Foreign Policy Failures

Thomas Pickering explains [1] that the Trump administration’s Iran policy is doomed to fail on its own terms:

The policy of maximum pressure and unachievable demands is based on deeply flawed assumptions about Iran and the wise use of American power.

Pickering is describing Trump’s Iran policy here, but he could just as easily be talking about the president’s handling of many other issues. The Trump administration insists on demanding that other governments capitulate, make sweeping concessions that would overturn most of their current policies, and then punishes them if the other side refuses to comply with insane ultimatums. No one responds well to being dictated to, and that is particularly true of regimes that have made opposition to the U.S. a major part of their reigning ideology. Maximum pressure usually just provokes maximum resistance, and it leads to more of the behavior that the pressure campaign was supposed to stop.

Later on in his column, Pickering reviews the sorry record of U.S.-sponsored regime change and then asks:

When will we ever learn?

If the last two decades are anything to go by, the answer is never. Our policymakers rarely, if ever, learn much of anything from our government’s past blunders and crimes. If they acknowledge that previous policies failed, they are reluctant to admit that the policies were certain to fail. It is much more common for policymakers and pundits to blame the failure of our policies abroad on the inadequacies of our proxies and allies or the designs of our adversaries. The fact that these policies can be undone so easily by obvious and foreseeable problems does not seem to matter. There are not many that are willing to accept that a policy failed because it was inherently unsound.

“We” never learn because so many of our political leaders and analysts don’t think that our failed policies were wrong in themselves. The only thing that they are interested in knowing is how to implement the same bad ideas more “effectively” the next time. These are the people that still think that preventive war and regime change are appropriate policy options when done the “right” way. Real learning is impossible without a willingness to question and then discard faulty assumptions, and far too many of our policymakers and political leaders won’t ever get rid of certain assumptions about the U.S. role in the world. Once someone takes for granted that the U.S. has both the right and the authority to meddle in the affairs of other states and dictate their policies to them on pain of collective punishment and/or war, he is likely to see the pursuit of regime change in other lands as being almost synonymous with American “leadership” itself.

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13 Comments To "Why the U.S. Never Learns from Foreign Policy Failures"

#1 Comment By GregR On August 29, 2018 @ 6:33 pm

While I appreciate your optimism I am far more cynical. Our leaders won’t learn for the same reason tobacco companies rejected evidence that smoking is bad for you.

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” Upton Sinclair.

The largest donor to re-election campaigns are the military industrial complex, and it is always in their best interest to start or continue more wars. Since they are the ones that control the money, it is always in the interest of elected representatives to support starting or continuing wars.

There is no money to be made in peace. Everything else, sadly, is just window dressing.

#2 Comment By Tim On August 29, 2018 @ 6:55 pm

A sound conclusion based on accumulated evidence is hard to refute. But 2 decades? Nah, more like 5, at least for those who remember Vietnam, a case in which political affiliation ultimately didn’t matter to those pursuing the inevitable conclusion of the mistakes they believed they could set right. LBJ got us into it and Nixon, having committed treason by secretly undermining the peace negotiations while running in ’68, ‘finished the job’ by keeping us there 4 more years, at a huge cost in American lives that far exceeded the casualty toll in the more recent debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan.

#3 Comment By Fazal Majid On August 29, 2018 @ 7:23 pm

The real reason why is because the US is so rich even George W Bush’s $2 Trillion blunder in Iraq is something a $20T economy can shrug off. How long that remains the case against a resurgent China is anyone’s guess.

#4 Comment By b. On August 29, 2018 @ 7:37 pm

“When will we ever learn?”

When will war cease to be profitable for those that have, or claim, War Powers?

#5 Comment By b. On August 29, 2018 @ 7:42 pm

“our political leaders and analysts don’t think that our failed policies were wrong in themselves”

One should not mistake the useful “bolt-on” careerists that might or might not be true believers in the Great Gamble with the profiteers that have the actual power. The oligarchs and the arms manufacturers do not care whether the policies are wrong or right, failed or successful, as long as there is blood money to be made. If anything, failure in perpetuity is a guarantor of future cash flow and continued rent extraction.

#6 Comment By Mark B. On August 29, 2018 @ 10:01 pm

Mr. Larison is an American Republican in the original sense of the word in my view. But I get the feeling he does not realize that when it comes to foreign policy, the US is not a republic. It is an empire. It only is a republic at home.

When it comes to their relationship with the world, empires do not learn. They bully. Why should the policy makers learn? They are the invincable empire. They can bully and pounce without consequences, no matter the outcome.
Learning is for weaklings who need that in order to survive.

Empires do not learn, they fall. Either military or financially.

Till that day comes, no learning!

#7 Comment By lemon soda On August 29, 2018 @ 10:18 pm

Good to hear from Tom Pickering. I’m very glad his generation retains its voice and contributes to the foreign policy debate. Sometimes it seems like it’s all punk kids and neocons who either don’t know what the hell they’re talking about or are lobbying for a foreign country. More Pickering please, and less of the other stuff.

#8 Comment By James On August 29, 2018 @ 11:24 pm

As a general rule for understanding public policies, I insist that there are no persistent “failed” policies. Policies that do not achieve their desired outcomes for the actual powers-that-be are quickly changed. If you want to know why the U.S. policies have been what they have been for the past sixty years, you need only comply with that invaluable rule of inquiry in politics: follow the money.

When you do so, I believe you will find U.S. policies in the Middle East to have been wildly successful, so successful that the gains they have produced for the movers and shakers in the petrochemical, financial, and weapons industries (which is approximately to say, for those who have the greatest influence in determining U.S. foreign policies) must surely be counted in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

So U.S. soldiers get killed, so Palestinians get insulted, robbed, and confined to a set of squalid concentration areas, so the “peace process” never gets far from square one, etc., etc. — none of this makes the policies failures; these things are all surface froth, costs not born by the policy makers themselves but by the cannon-fodder masses, the bovine taxpayers at large, and foreigners who count for nothing.

~Robert Higgs

#9 Comment By Franklin On August 30, 2018 @ 12:02 am

As Robert Higgs said:

As a general rule for understanding public policies, I insist that there are no persistent “failed” policies. Policies that do not achieve their desired outcomes for the actual powers-that-be are quickly changed. If you want to know why the U.S. policies have been what they have been for the past sixty years, you need only comply with that invaluable rule of inquiry in politics: follow the money.

When you do so, I believe you will find U.S. policies in the Middle East to have been wildly successful, so successful that the gains they have produced for the movers and shakers in the petrochemical, financial, and weapons industries (which is approximately to say, for those who have the greatest influence in determining U.S. foreign policies) must surely be counted in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

So U.S. soldiers get killed, so Palestinians get insulted, robbed, and confined to a set of squalid concentration areas, so the “peace process” never gets far from square one, etc., etc. — none of this makes the policies failures; these things are all surface froth, costs not born by the policy makers themselves but by the cannon-fodder masses, the bovine taxpayers at large, and foreigners who count for nothing.

#10 Comment By Fran Macadam On August 30, 2018 @ 4:04 am

” when it comes to foreign policy, the US is not a republic. It is an empire. It only is a republic at home.”

And that republic, insofar as it exists in truncated fashion, simply is too small to be as important to the imperialists as an empire much larger, and its domestic interests too contrary to that empire,to be allowed sway over policy.

#11 Comment By lex salica On August 30, 2018 @ 7:31 am

We don’t learn from our foreign policy failures because we abolished the stocks and public whippings.

#12 Comment By treachery On August 30, 2018 @ 7:36 am

I think it’s because we allow people whose interests are not America’s to become involved in the foreign policy process. Because their interests are not ours, they continually push us in the direction of what may be failure by America’s lights, but success by the lights of the foreign country they’re working for.

It’s a danger that the founders were well aware of and warned of but that we have not diligently worked to prevent.

#13 Comment By pax On August 30, 2018 @ 9:11 am

The best investment in the west. The war-party lobbyists invest a few million to pliable politicians and get enormous returns. Their millions pale by the billions albeit trillions we spend on the wars they want, which are not in America’s interest. Not only do we throw away our GDP for their purposes, we lose life and limbs. How corrupt and amoral is this process?