It’s been famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Although that sterling quote has been casually attributed to a variety of people—to everyone from Winston Churchill to Bismarck to Walter Lippman—it was, in fact, George Santayana, the American philosopher, who said it.
As for learning from history, what lessons have we gleaned from the Iraq war: That nothing works as planned? That the U.S. shouldn’t meddle in Middle Eastern politics? That intelligence gathering is infinitely more unreliable than it’s made out to be? That just because some bearded, rag-headed dudes seem primitive by our standards doesn’t mean they aren’t savvier, tougher, shrewder, wiser and more capable than the guys in the coats and ties?
While those are all valid observations, the lesson I prefer to take away from the Iraqi debacle is related to the Ivy League, and is inspired by a remark made by John Nance Garner, Truman’s vice-president. When asked to describe the office of the vice-presidency, Nance bluntly answered, “It’s not worth a bucket of warm piss.” And in my view, that’s how we should regard an Ivy League education as it pertains to making important public policy or foreign affairs decisions.
Consider: Virtually every civilian mistake in Iraq—every false assumption, unforced error, embarrassing miscalculation, public relations fiasco, policy setback, municipal disaster, and monumental fuck-up—was traceable to a decision made by a glib, self-assured U.S government official with an Ivy League degree.
George W. Bush: The only president in history to hold degrees from both Yale and Harvard. The man believed every simple-minded thing he was told, he attacked the wrong country, he left a nation in shambles, and he turned a balanced budget into a deficit that ran into the trillions….and still lost the war.
Donald Rumsfeld: An ego-maniac who ruled the Department of Defense as his own personal fiefdom, who trusted only those who agreed with his own views and ridiculed those who didn’t, who made one egregiously wrong-minded decision after another, yet cavalierly passed the buck when anything failed. A Princeton grad.
Dick Cheney: The administration’s pre-eminent chicken-hawk (had insisted that American men go fight in Vietnam, so long as he wasn’t one of them), a saber-rattling toy soldier who bullied aides, misrepresented the facts, compromised the CIA, neutered the State Department, and convinced President Bush that “Curveball” was a valuable intelligence asset instead of the slick, pathological con man he was. A Yale grad.
L. Paul Bremer: He abruptly disbanded the Iraqi army, resulting in 250,000 soldiers having no jobs and receiving no paychecks—but still possessing their weapons—and insisted on the de-Baathification of the Iraqi government, resulting in everyone who knew how to do anything—how to process a document, manage an agency, run a public utility (insuring that electricity and water remain available) being thrown out of work and being replaced by American-approved lackeys who didn’t have a clue. Bremer holds degrees from Yale and Harvard.
Paul Wolfowitz: With a straight face, he told a congressional committee that the Iraq occupation would cost the American public nothing because the war would “pay for itself” with Iraqi oil revenues. If there were any justice in this world, Wolfowitz would have been publicly horsewhipped. Instead, he was appointed chairman of the World Bank. A Cornell grad.
Lewis “Scooter” Libby: One of the administration’s most vigorous behind-the-scenes boosters and cheerleaders, a convicted felon who served as Dick Cheney’s chief advisor, trusted confidant and bag man. An alumnus of Yale, Cheney’s alma mater.
John Yoo: The lawyer whose convoluted interpretations of the Constitution provided the administration with the legal basis for using torture and acting without the approval of Congress. Yoo holds degrees from Yale and Harvard.
Alberto Gonzales: The 80th U.S. Attorney General, who, like Yoo, served as the administration’s unofficial Minister of Obfuscation and Compliance. Nicknamed “Alfred E. Neuman” because of his denseness and goofy demeanor, Gonzales is likely to go down as one of the weakest Attorneys General in history. A graduate of Harvard Law School.
The problem with these Ivy Leaguers isn’t necessarily their lack of brain power; obviously, guys like Wolfowitz (who graduated with a degree in mathematics) aren’t stupid. Rather, the problem is one of attitude. The educated elites who run the country are crippled by the deadly trifecta of hubris, ambition, and American exceptionalism. Put simply, they’re blinded by their own (and America’s)sense of entitlement.
An Ivy League education may be terrific for academia, for the arts and sciences, but it’s not the pool you want to draw from for public policy or international relations. For those enterprises, you need people who exhibit modesty and humility. You need people with empathy.
And not to go after too obvious and overused a target, but just consider the Nazis. The Nazis were not only intelligent, some of them were positively brilliant. Indeed, no one ever said that the problem with the Nazis was that they “just weren’t smart enough.” Their “problem” lay elsewhere.