Summary: Our foreign policy consists largely of repeating mistakes from the past. This post examines two example — one from a decade ago, one from today — along with a comment by Machiavelli chastising our folly. This is the 2nd of 3 posts today about our FAILure to learn, each with a lesson from the past that we have ignored to great cost. If American’s leaders won’t learn, its citizens can.
For an individual or people to profit from experience it must be remembered (avoid anterograde amnesia). Greatness for a nation requires learning from history (avoid retrograde amnesia). We seem to have both kinds of amnesia. We live in the now, playing on the information highway. We have the ability to do better. Remember our past; every day is a teachable moment.
Our leaders’ refusal to learn
This post gives another example of our leaders’ fascination with failed tactics: helping anti-American insurgents to overthrow regimes of our rivals. We’ve repeatedly done so since President Carter authorized Operation Cyclone, helping set the Middle East aflame by overthrowing secular regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and (in progress) Syria — all replaced by jihadists. Future historians will think us mad.
A key part of this strategy has been listening to the siren songs of exiles. Such as Ahmed Chalabi, who sold Bush a fabric of lies about how easily he could govern Iraq as our puppet once we gave it to him. We held Iraq for 8 years before its government forced Bush to sign a Status of Forces agreement that booted us out.
Since we do not learn from experience (or even remember it) Congress prepares to respectfully listen to Maryam Rajavi, a co-leader of the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) — a group on the State Department’s list of terrorist groups from 1997 to 2012 — removed after a multi-million dollar program of payments to influential DC figures (the free market in selling America) despite its history of anti-Americanism and (of course) terrorism. She’ll urge Congress to overthrow Iran’s elected government — again. Its people still hate us for doing so in 1953, and installing a tyrant. Will doing so a second time win any friends in Iran or elsewhere?
Advice from Machiavelli
We’re too smart to learn from history, or we would have heard the many warnings about listening to exiles. Such as this passage from Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy (~1517), Book II, chapter 31.
And it does not appear to me to be foreign to this subject to discuss among other matters how dangerous a thing it is to believe those who have been driven out of their country…
It ought to be considered, therefore, how vain are the faith and promises of those who find themselves deprived of their country. For, as to their faith, it has to be borne in mind that anytime they can return to their country by other means than yours, they will leave you and look to the other, notwithstanding whatever promises they had made you.
As to their vain hopes and promises, such is the extreme desire in them to return home, that they naturally believe many things that are false and add many others by art, so that between those they believe and those they say they believe, they fill you with hope, so that relying on them you will incur expenses in vain, or you undertake an enterprise in which you ruin yourself.
The previously mentioned example of Alexander is enough for me, but in addition, that of Themistocles, the Athenian, who, having been declared a rebel, fled to Darius in Asia, where he promised him so much if he should want to assault Greece, that Darius turned to that enterprise. Themistocles, not being able to observe these promises, he poisoned himself, either from shame or from fear of punishment. And if this error was made by Themistocles, a most excellent man, it ought to be considered how much more those men err who, because of less virtu, allow themselves to be drawn by their desires and passions.
A Prince, therefore, ought to go slowly in undertaking an enterprise upon the representations of an exile, for most of the times he will be left either with shame or very grave injury.
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For More Information
- COIN, another example of our difficulty learning from history or experience.
- Remembering is the first step to learning. Living in the now is ignorance.
- Keep fighting! We must not learn from our wars.
- Our escalation shows the key US military strategy: FAILure to learn — Iraq, again.
- Stark evidence from our past about our inability to learn today.