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Wishcraft as Statecraft a.k.a The “And a Pony!” Doctrine

A short and cranky diatribe.

Adam Elkus and his amigo Dan Trombly of Slouching Towards Colombia have been busy  poking holes into the ill-considered and/or poorly reasoned strategic conceptions of victory-free but credible influence. Dan gets very close to something important, something worth contemplating for the welfare of our Republic:

…..Rather than a world where normal victory and political decision through force of arms give way to a world of credible influence, I see this concept ushering in a world where America’s objectives remain expansive – seeking to create social and political change – but where “twentieth century” warfare continues as usual, obscured by multilateral efforts and prosecuted as much as possible by local forces. Because the objectives are essentially unchanged – overthrow of criminal regimes, integration of societies into a dynamic liberal international order, protection of civilians – one of my real fears about the Defense Strategic Guidance is that, confronted with conflicts and challenges to our interests, and with a paradigm of military aims just as expansive as before, we will slouch inevitably towards unsustainable ways of war. Already, the new objectives of civilian protection are blurring into the old objectives of democracy promotion and liberalization – just look at the title of the new State Department Office of Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights.

When a statesman selects Ends that have no rational relationship to available Ways and Means we might take that as a sign of possible incompetence as a strategist.

While that’s not good it is at least normal – most politicians in a democratic society are on average, poor strategists but pretty good intuitive tacticians. After all, acquiring and keeping political power for long periods of time requires more than luck and a large checkbook. While there are always some buffoons decorating the halls of Congress, as individuals, Members of Congress are usually pretty shrewd and a minority are exceptional people.

If the Ends selected are fantastically broad open-ended, undefined or, worse, undefinable, convoluted and insensible in their context, we are left with two even less savory conclusions:

First, that the statesman has a fundamental political immaturity and narcissism the leads them to articulate their emotively generated whims as policy objectives without regard to empirical reality. Sort of a wishcraft of state that substitutes rhetorical expressions and sloganeering for thought and analysis. We see this effect on a much larger scale in the ideological atmosphere of totalitarian regimes where 2+2= 5 and only Right-deviationist mathematician, counterrevolutionary wreckers would dare suggest the answer is 4. Geopolitical goals that are created by political fantasists – like the creation of a modern, liberal democratic state in Afghanistan in a few years time – can be appended with “And a Pony!” and still be just as likely to come to pass.

American statesmen seem to be particularly predisposed to this condition in foreign affairs (and arguably, in fiscal affairs as well). Perhaps this is an intellectual legacy of Wilsonian excess but the problem was not acute until the past decade and a half, which indicates that the driving force may be, in part, generational. Men and women born into a time of record-breaking standards of living have reached the apex of power and they are no more inclined to act with restraint, responsibility or realism now than they did in ’68.

The second conclusion is that the Ends are purposefully incoherent and recklessly broad because the real strategic objective is not in our relations with country X, but for the statesman to wrest for their faction as large a grant of unaccountable power as possible.

6 Responses to “Wishcraft as Statecraft a.k.a The “And a Pony!” Doctrine”

  1. MikeF Says:


  2. Madhu Says:

    Aargh. My comment didn’t “take.” I’ll do a post on it instead. Must learn to write comment elsewhere and then copy and post in a comments section….
    – Madhu

  3. Madhu Says:

    Okay, a third time. Look up Andrew Bacevich’s American Empire (on Clinton era FP expansionism) and Peter Feaver’s post at Shadow Government on “8 myths of American Grand Strategy” or something like that. He says ther has been a coherent strategy post Soviet Union but if you read his five pillars, it is endless social engineering of the entire planet. Seriously. Hope this takes 🙂
    Isn’t it annoying when you provide a valuable free service and people like me complain! Well, I love to complain so don’t take it seriously. Actually, I have had a request from loved ones to “knock it off,” because when the subject of American foreign policy comes up, I am a “bore.” “Where is the old positive Madhu?” they say. Okay, point taken, dear loved ones.

  4. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    Hi Mark –
    Cranky indeed. (Does the extra space now provided on hitting “enter” foretell an extra space in the comment? Not taking chances on that yet.)
    I’m not familiar with the agency in question, but, in general bureaucratic terms, I can see a number of other possible explanations. The power grab may simply be within the bureaucracy. This makes things more confusing for us outsiders, and harder to get things done for the insiders, but it doesn’t fundamentally alter the larger power relations I think you’re talking about.
    Another: At high government levels, generalities seem to be all they can handle, sometimes with good reason. I’m engaged in a discussion of the Defense Strategic Guidance over at the Nuclear Diner Forum now, and one of my frustrations is that that guidance isn’t more specific. Like, one example for each mission, please? Nine pages for the whole military strategy of the United States?But I also can see why that wasn’t done: any nation mentioned would immediatly start looking for the “real” meaning. Will it be attacked? What does the US think it’s doing wrong?  
    OTOH, it’s fine to raise questions about this sort of thing. Diatribe approved, but taken as such.

  5. Chris Says:

    There’s a rather good example of this happening at the moment around the passage of SOPA/PIPA, bills intended to limit online piracy. Setting aside your views on whether supporting old style copyright in a digital age is a good idea or not, it encapsulates the rejection of reality seen by policy makers who serve tactical, rather than strategic goals.
    With the goal of “fixing copyright” policy makers are looking to make changes to the funamental structure of the internet which could, ultimately, break it (sounds like hyperbole, but isnt), but will certainly make it much less secure for the average user. Also, in preperation for the bill, solutions have also been arrived at within the technical community to work around any sites blocked by SOPA.
    So you have a bill which, if it passes, might fundamentally damage the underlying structure of the most impressive piece of communications technology in human history, and which won’t work anyway because its implimentation is flawed. Yet its still going ahead, with the pony being “loads more jobs” which the MPAA and RIAA promise will definitely happen, according to statistics which have been widely discredited.
    My favourite part of this is that members of the US Government have gone out of their way to avoid getting technical information on the impact of the bill and have openly gloried in their own lack of understanding of how the internet works.
    So yes, if your bill doesnt fit reality, reconstruct reality around fake stats from lobbyists and ignoring people who actually know what they’re talking about.

  6. Larry Dunbar Says:

    “in part, generational.”

    No doubt, but as you said before, “While that’s not good it is at least normal “. It’s the 25-year-olds who are writing this crap, while 40-year-olds are the head of the administration body, so what generation is really in charge, the old-fart generation?

    I suggest that they (the “old-farts”) are in command, which is about force, instead of control, which is mostly about velocity.

    Even God has no control over his people, but He can sure swat them if he wanted to, just saying….

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