By David K. Shipler
Donald Trump, the hot-air balloon who floats and weaves untethered to facts, is poised to create foreign policies (there will be many simultaneously) based on his fantasies and myths, which he will sell convincingly to a plurality of adoring Americans and spineless Republicans in Congress. He is even less curious about the world than George W. Bush. Into this knowledge vacuum will flow the imaginary demons and fairies conjured up by officials in modern America’s most extreme right-wing government, which he is now assembling.
It will be a dangerous time. But let’s not pretend that fantasy-based foreign policy is unprecedented. It induced the United States to overthrow legitimate, nonthreatening governments and enter at least two losing wars: Vietnam and Iraq, with more to come, undoubtedly. Paranoia is one of America’s most prominent afflictions.
The New York Times columnist James Reston used to call the State Department the Fudge Factory, an apt name to any reporter who tried to cover it. Attempting to pin down a hard fact of policy was like nailing a custard pie to the wall. Only occasionally would you come across a candid foreign service officer, usually in a US embassy abroad, who would share insights openly into the country that you both were working to understand. I treasured those folks and still count one of them from the embassy in Moscow, Ken Yalowitz, as a close and trusted friend, who went on to become an ambassador himself, to Belarus and Georgia.
One key mission of both the State Department and intelligence agencies is to act as fact-gathering machines. They are populated with experienced people who speak the local languages, know local history, and are charged with reporting back to Washington. It’s hard to think that Trump will ever listen to them. Indeed, all signs point to ideological pressure for subordinates to avoid thinking differently from his latest tweets, lest they lose their positions.
This is likely to increase the weight of the fudge factor. It occurs not just at State but also at Defense, the CIA, and elsewhere, partly because officials are averse to open conversation with the American public through the press, but partly also when they succumb to an atmosphere of self-deception about a policy. At critical junctures, too many good people who value their careers have been malleable in what they perceive and report. Under ideological or political pressure from on high, they have manipulated the facts, tailored their observations, and withheld recommendations they sensed would damage their standing.
That happened in Saigon as the South Vietnamese army began to crumble in 1974 and early 1975. The South Vietnamese military position was eroding as Washington swirled with disaffection about the war. But stepping into the US embassy in Saigon was like walking into a time warp. None of that Washington disaffection could be felt, except in small pockets of honesty in the office of one or another diplomat or spy. Instead, you were carried back to an earlier, upbeat time, from the mid- to late 1960s, before all the defeats and disillusionments, when hopeful determination prevailed that South Vietnam could be secured against a North Vietnamese and Vietcong victory.
As the war was being lost, however, the official bubble of unreality at the Saigon embassy was inflated by the arrival of Graham Martin, the imperious US ambassador who brooked no dissent from his officers in the field. Some had their feet on the ground, but he ordered them to talk neither to reporters nor to Washington. He even had one transferred out of South Vietnam after the man evaded the chain of command to send a downbeat assessment directly to the State Department.
Martin also barred the CIA station chief, Thomas Polgar, from the weekly briefings of correspondents he had been conducting. Polgar had been refreshingly open about the battlefield reverses, the army’s corruption, and the slim chances of saving the South. Indeed, of all the government agencies I had mined for information—State, Defense, etc.—the CIA was the most forthright and informative. Its analysts produced clean assessments untainted by policy.
This purity did not extend to the CIA’s covert actions, of course—the assassinations, the overthrow of democratically elected governments, the kidnapping and torture of prisoners, which extended into the administration of Bush II. The dirty behavior has sullied the agency’s name. But CIA analysts were mostly a different breed from the covert operators—at least as far as I could determine by limited interviews of agency experts. They seemed actually interested in what was going on, and so, unlike some of their colleagues in other agencies, they did not try to fit the facts to an ideological or political precept.
Sometimes the manipulation of the truth—or, to put it more gently, the selection of which of many truths you use for policymaking—comes not so much out of fabrication as from a more diffuse worldview, one that history ultimately demonstrates as misguided. Vietnam was such a case, for in the throes of the Cold-War competition between communism and capitalism, or between leftist authoritarianism and liberal democracy, North Vietnam was sincerely seen in Washington as a pawn of Soviet and Chinese expansionism, an advancing lip of the red stain that panicky maps of the day depicted as the sinister spread of the communist menace.
That the North Vietnamese did not see themselves quite that way was lost on Washington. The point was emphasized during a remarkable 1997 conference in Hanoi where former American and North Vietnamese officials reviewed the war to ask whether opportunities to resolve it had been missed.
The North Vietnamese kept explaining, over and over again, that theirs was an anti-colonialist fight for independence, not an internationalist battle on behalf of communism. Their receipt of aid from the Soviet Union was pragmatic, and from their gargantuan Chinese neighbors it was unavoidable. Centuries of warfare and durable antipathy toward China should have been enough to show the Americans that North Vietnam would resist becoming a Chinese vassal state. But Cold-War ideology blinded the Washington policymakers; even years later, some at the 1997 conference, led by former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, had trouble getting their minds around the notion that they had been fighting an essentially nationalist movement.
The other disastrous war, Iraq, also came out of a nebulous anxiety following 9/11, but was then propelled by outright lies about Iraq’s supposed possession of “weapons of mass destruction,” meaning chemical and biological weapons, and efforts to acquire nuclear weaponry in the near future. Here, the CIA was culpable, yielding to pressure from political figures to distort the intelligence and suppress dissenting assessments.
It was interesting during the presidential campaign to watch both candidates trip over themselves to insist that they had opposed the Iraq war: Hillary Clinton by regretting her Senate vote to authorize the invasion, Trump by pretending that he’d never said, on Howard Stern’s radio show, “Yeah, I guess so,” when asked in 2002 whether he agreed that Iraq should be attacked. “You know, I wish the first time it was done correctly,” a reference to the Gulf War of 1990, which left Saddam Hussein in power.
Michael Morell, former deputy CIA director, has denied that the agency was pressed politically on the WMD assessment, but he also says, “Intelligence gets politicized all the time in this town.” Writing in his book The Great War of Our Time, he targets for special indictment Cheney’s chief of staff, Scooter Libby, for trying to get the CIA to withdraw a paper finding no evidence of a working relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda. Libby’s pressure, Morell declares, “was the most blatant attempt to politicize intelligence that I saw in 33 years in the business, and it would not be the last attempt by Libby to do so.”
In this and other areas of policy, Trump seems conveniently oblivious to context. Instead of placing the blame for the 2003 invasion squarely where it belongs—on President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and other Republican extremists—Trump indicts the intelligence agencies alone, a handy way of dismissing everything else they report, including the CIA’s recent finding that Russia had hacked Democratic National Committee emails, to Trump’s election advantage.
His effortless contempt for facts he doesn’t like could easily get us into a new war somewhere, sometime, as he whips up the public’s fears with phantoms of danger. Let’s just hope it’s not a war with China or Russia.Next: Trump on Israel.