“Stupid” is a commonplace term casually used in every day conversation. Much less so in writing – especially when the subject is political personalities. It is heavily weighted with inhibition. Why this hesitation? Why at a time when manifest stupidity in speech and action is rampant?
“Stupid” is both blunt and conclusive. Straight-forward. It does not welcome qualification or discussion. It implies: matter settled, closed. Moreover, it suggests a character flaw as well as low intelligence. That somehow makes us uncomfortable. So we prefer: dense, slow, thick, dim or dim-witted; or elaborate euphemisms, e.g. “not the sharpest tool in the kit,” or “none too swift” or “slow on the uptake.” In addition, there are those that refer directly to intelligence: moron, imbecile, idiot. They, too, are in currency but suffer from the disability of taking in vain a descriptive word that refers to the poor souls who are born with mental deficiencies.
“Stupid” is used as an epithet 95% of the time. Not as a depiction of someone’s Intelligence Quotient (IQ). To do so in the latter sense is to complicate matters. Intelligence, as we now are aware, is a broad concept that covers 5 or 6 or 7 mental attributes whose correlations are quite low. So, almost no one thinks that through before throwing the word around. To the degree that one might consider meanings, it implies lack of logic – the core characteristic of conventional IQ intelligence.
Squirt kerosene on a simmering barbecue – that’s stupid. Sending more troops to Afghanistan when you’ve failed miserably to achieve your (undefined) objective over the past 15 years with much larger contingents is stupid, i.e. illogical. Threatening North Korea with a military strike by a naval task force and sending said task force in the opposite direction is stupid, i.e. illogical. Silently letting Turkey provide crucial backing to ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria while decrying terrorist acts in France or England is stupid, i.e. illogical. Bestowing praise and honors on the Saudi leaders as declared brothers in the “war on terror” when in fact these very persons have done more to propagate the fanatical creed that inspires and justifies acts of terror is stupid, i.e. “illogical.”
These instances of stupid behavior draw us to the connections between intelligence and knowledge – between “stupidity” and “ignorance.” Stupid (illogical) behavior is more likely when you don’t know what you’re doing because important information is missing. In the examples cited, though, the information at the heart of logical thinking is known to the parties taking those actions. Not just accessible – it is lodged (somewhere) in the brain of the actor. “Dumb”* in popular usage is the word that combines “stupid” and “ignorant” – with the connotation that the ignorance is willful. That is a pertinent notion to which we’ll return.
Assuming that the “stupid’ actors are not mentally deficient, why do they act as if they are? That is the persistent question that crops us as we see and read the antics of public officials, commentators, and a host of celebrity personalities. Several explanations, not excuses, come to mind.
One is that there exists an implicit logic that is not acknowledged but salient for the person(s) involved. The Pentagon brass may well be less concerned about “winning” in Afghanistan, whatever that means, than they are living with the intolerable perception that they “lost.” No general cum security policy-maker wants to be saddled with the label of “loser.” That sensitivity can become institutionally generalized; Generals Mattis and McMaster are in little danger of being blamed personally for failure in Afghanistan. What seems to count is that they do not want the U.S. military to be stigmatized as a failure. They are acutely aware of how much the image of the uniformed military suffered as a result of America losing its first war in Vietnam. It follows that they might hope against hope that the outcome can be fudged enough so as to escape that fate.**
There is a practical side to this concern, too. Failure, as perceived in the public eye, could tarnish the resplendent image so successfully cultivated during the “war on terror” era. That could translate into less support for bigger budgets, less lucrative consultancies after retirement, and less acclaim. And a weaker voice in policy debates.
If one were to postulate that these are cardinal objectives, then campaigning to send several thousand more troops on a strategically pointless mission is logical – and the plan’s promoters not as stupid as they appear. What of senior policy-makers in and around the White House who do not share those particular interests? They, indeed, are stupid.
A second reality to keep in mind is that governments are plural nouns – or, pronouns with multiple antecedents. The numerous organizations, bureaucracies and individuals involved in decision-making typically lead to a convoluted process wherein it is easy to lose track of purposes, priorities and coordination. Where little discipline is imposed by the chief, the greater the chances that the result will be contradictory, disjointed, sub-optimal and often poorly executed policies. That’s why the White House cried havoc about North Korea’s threat while the presumed coercive instrument sailed blissfully in the opposite direction heading for an extended shore leave.
Finally, we should recognize that rigorous thinking is far from the norm - at the highest levels of government as well as in everyday life. It takes a combination of education/training, intellectual integrity, a cultivated sense of responsibility, discomfort with deciding on the basis of skimpy or suspect information, and an ingrained preference for knowing why you’re doing something instead of flying by the seat of your pants. True, when practiced and reinforced, rigorous thinking can become habitual – just like other modes of human behavior. There are multiple influences, though, that militate against that habit taking root and being sustained. They include the lure of celebrity, time pressures due to an excess of travel and/or summonses to mind-numbing TV interviews, long-tedious-inconclusive meetings (such as those presided over by Susan Rice which drove Chuck Hagel out of government), endless bureaucratic games-playing, distracted Chief Executives who demand ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers to complex issues. Altogether, the tumult can soften the toughest mind. Weaker minds simply latch onto whatever conventional wisdom and catch phrases are floating around in order to remain minimally functional in the kaleidoscopic setting of most administrations.
All of these patterns with attendant adverse consequences are more likely to crystallize into stupid acts when the man nominally in charge lacks the intelligence, emotional stability, self-awareness and/or advisors to recognize either the requirements for sound policy-making or for implementation. A lack of capacity to accept responsibility and to be held accountable exacerbates matters.
“Willful ignorance,” or “studied ignorance,” is an increasingly familiar phenomenon. Not just in Washington but among heads of large organizations of all stripes (e.g. universities). The inclination to avoid acquiring knowledge about a matter either at hand or looming is not necessarily a sign of stupidity. Here, too, there may be hidden considerations at play. American foreign policymakers may wish to mask the Kabul government’s faltering popular support because doing so means a fundamental rethink of aims- an agonizing reappraisal for which they are unprepared intellectually, politically, and diplomatically.
Making no effort to uncover the facts only becomes “stupid” where the responsible official then does things, as a consequence, that harm his interests. That has been the case in Syria where Barack Obama refused to come to terms with the uncomfortable truth that the “rebels” were overwhelmingly Salafist jihadis. In this case, an admission of that cardinal truth would pose the stark choice between continuing to back an al-Qaeda-led cause or reversing course in tilting toward the Assad regime. The President lacked the courage to deal with wide-ranging ramifications of that; so he deluded himself in pursuing a will-o’wisp that existed only in the imaginings of those who were keen on an American military intervention.
By surrounding himself with a rogue Secretary of Defense, a strategically disoriented Secretary of State, a self-absorbed, unpracticed National Security Advisor, and a rabid UN Ambassador, Obama fostered an environment that enabled his escapist behavior. So, too, did his ritual deference to the warped liturgy of the foreign policy Establishment that they represented.
“Willful ignorance” is a feature of our times. It is discernible everywhere – at every level of society. One explanation lies in the undue value placed on convenience and comfort; political, intellectual, emotional, diplomatic – even physical. Sublimation follows. The intricacies of Syrian politics look all the more daunting when your mind is distracted by the siren song from the South Seas sounding in the background of your mind.
For a President to avoid acting “stupidly,” he need not have an exceptional IQ – or score remarkably high on other dimensions of intelligence. Two things are most important: he must be honest with himself; and he must put in place a policy system that is both logical in process and self-aware as to why decisions are taken with what end in mind. To borrow an analogy from the football terminology favored in the corridors of Washington power: you can win a championship with a simply competent quarterback if the other pieces are in place and he follows a disciplined script. (Bart Starr of the old Green Bay Packers). An emotionally handicapped or narcissistic quarterback – however talented – will cripple a team sooner or later. One who suffers from the latter condition(s), along with a lack of athletic talent, is a guarantor of disaster. “Stupidity” will be the least of the derogatory terms applied to the ensuing performance; that word should be reserved for those who chose him.
Moral: we should not hesitate to call things as they are. Feigned politeness in situations marked by systematic deceit, ill-will and harm to the nation serves no good purpose. Concerned about the proverbial “dignity of the office?” Take your shoes off before entering the Oval Office.
If “stupidity” displayed by stupid people is what we observe, virtue lies in calling it by its name.
The foregoing discussion pertains directly to government leaders. What of those non-official members of the “foreign affairs community” – the think tank pundits, the media personalities, the op ed columnists? These days, the thinking of most mirrors that of those in government positions. The unstated or unconfirmed premises, the partial or selective information, the logical flaws. The main differences are that they write/speak at far greater length, compose longer sentences, and use polysyllabic words. The level of intellectual rigor, though, is pretty much the same.
The explanations offered above are less applicable to this group. In pondering this question, we find ourselves in deep waters. We will plunge into them at a later time.
Back to today’s White House. Vietnam is the central reference point for McMaster’s strategic perspective. He wrote his doctoral dissertation at the University of North Carolina on the topic – the work that has given him the reputation of being the best mind in the Army – the embodiment of the “soldier-scholar.” The book’s thesis is that the uniformed military’s leaders failed in their duty by not remonstrating against Lyndon Johnson’s misrepresentations of conditions in Vietnam. The premise is that they had an accurate, unbiased understanding while Johnson was a chronic liar who had his political image foremost in mind. This is a very dubious proposition. The top United States’ commanders in Vietnam were as blind to realities as were the civilians in Washington. Their lying about capabilities (theirs and the Communists), the battlefield picture, and what was going down politically became proverbial. The daily briefing at command headquarters in Saigon was universally called the “5 O’clock Follies” by the press corps.**
The commander of U.S. forces, General William Westmoreland, was notorious for his upbeat testimony to Congress and other public statements which bore only the faintest connection to reality. The conventional soldier epitomized, Westmoreland never understood what he was up against. He did not help his reputation by suppressing Intelligence estimates regarding the size of the forces confronting him.
Has McMaster observed the lessons that he drew from his study of the military’s Vietnam experience? If so, he would be stressing to the President and his associates the following: there is no way to topple Assad other than to intervene with several hundred thousand American troops; persisting in the attempt to set up a Sunni protectorate under American auspices in the Syrian-Iraqi desert is a fool’s errand with no strategic rationale; continual Turkish sustenance for ISIS (as well as al-Nusra) greatly exacerbates the challenge of suppressing it; permanent bases (or toll roads manned by Blackwater-like thugs) in Syria and/or Iraq will worsen threats to American security while providing little tangible advantage; the choices in Afghanistan are between withdrawing now with mission unaccomplished or withdrawing later with mission unaccomplished at far greater cost; Russia does not pose a military threat to its European neighbors in terms of its security interests, capabilities, intent or deterrence calculations. On all of these matters, McMaster – like Secretary of Defense General James Mattis – has rendered quite the opposite advice (as far as we know) while publicly fostering a fantasy view of them.
In so doing, they are perpetuating the set of American policies (in the Greater Middle East) pursued since the “war on terror’s” initiation in 2001. That exercise calls to mind the WW II submarine hunter who innovated by drilling a hole in the bottom of his boat to better track his prey – the main difference being that the U-boat hunter knew how to swim.
How to characterize this behavior? It certainly is short-sighted. We can say that the policies have not been fully thought through; that they are misguided in not crisply defining objectives, not setting priorities, and not rigorously linking means to ends. It is negligent rather than outright stupid. That is to say, officials had the mental capacity to get these logical connections right; but they were inclined not to use it in choosing the course of least effort and least resistance.
Is this ignorance? No. Is it willful ignorance cum sublimation – yes, in part. Is acting in this manner stupid? Strategically, yes. In careerist, political and organizational terms? – perhaps not. It is simply dishonest and runs the risk of self brain-washing. Is it stupid to take that risk? Yes. At that stage in the flight from rationality, being lauded as “the best brain in the Army” promises no salvation. Quite the opposite. Your policies – if not you individually – are doomed.
This pattern has something to do with uncritical commitment to an inheritance of established national goals which have taken on the aura of self-evident – if not gospel - truth. Those goals may well be unrealistic. Is that itself an indication of stupidity? No – just bad judgment. However, the efforts to reach those goals deserve the designation of stupid when: 1) the resources requisite for success are clearly absent; 2) the odds on achieving success have been skewed so as to obscure how improbable the outcome sought actually is; and/or 3) flawed logic is used in relating means to the stated end. Think of Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iran, Ukraine.
Bad judgment itself may stem from adherence to a rigid doctrine or ideology. (Goal: secure U.S. strategic hegemony globally; doctrine: full spectrum military dominance in every region; priority policy objective: access to an archipelago of bases). The act of adhesion can be seen signaling ignorance or lack of perception – but no low IQ intelligence.
*”Dumb” as a pejorative has been out of favor for some time. It sounds stale to the post-modern ear. Only be adding the suffix “SOB” or bastard does it make any impact. That may be changing, though. The comeback of “dumb” could well have something to do with the fact that it rhymes with “Trump.” The German spelling “Drump” has even truer resonance.
** “During the Vietnam War, a daily press briefing occurred in Saigon that was sponsored by the United States Public Affairs Office in the Rex Hotel. The term, “Five O’clock Follies,” was the derogatory name given to these military press briefings. These briefings by military officials released accounts of the war on air and in the battlefield that assured the American people that the United States had a firm hold on communism.”
The whole tragic story of irresponsibility in high places was recounted in detail by David Halberstam in his classic: The Best & The Brightest
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