The Definition of Insanity

Earlier this month, the Washington Post published an op-ed by Jack Devine, former CIA deputy director of operations and chief of the CIA Afghan Task Force. When I read it, I thought it was perhaps the most insane op-ed I’d ever come across. But leave it to David Broder, “Dean of the Washington Press Corps,” to try to one-up it just three weeks later.

Let’s take Devine’s piece first. Devine argues that our top priority in Afghanistan must be capturing or killing bin Laden. Devine asks, “We have entered into two problematic wars and have expended a great deal of blood and treasure since Sept. 11. What was it all about, if not capturing bin Laden?”

I think I know now why invading Iraq was “problematic.” You see, bin Laden wasn’t in Iraq. No wonder we can’t find the guy.

But wait a minute… back in 2002, when the Bush administration was selling America on the benefits of invading Iraq, it was all about WMDs, and mushroom clouds as smoking guns. When it turned out there were no WMDs, the Bush administration realized the war was actually about building a stable democracy in the middle east. Now that the new, improved rationale has itself turned to ashes, Devine offers the silliest and most ahistorical yet: we invaded Iraq to capture bin Laden. The good news — for Devine — is that, if you accept his premise, capturing or killing bin Laden will mean we’ve won in Iraq.

If only that meant we’d be leaving Iraq, it might redeem Devine’s bizarre claim. But it doesn’t.

Devine’s reasoning degenerates further as he plows on. He argues that if “elements within the Pakistani government [are] an impediment to [bin Laden's] capture, we should forget about nation-building in Afghanistan and, like Sherman marching across Georgia during the Civil War, march our army across eastern Afghanistan, pressing forward even into Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier, and continue the march until we capture him.”

Let’s put this a little more plainly. Devine is proposing that if Pakistan thwarts us, we should destroy Afghanistan.

(I gave that restatement its own paragraph because Devine’s proposal is so breathtaking it really needs to be set apart and observed for a moment, unadorned.)

If we were talking about individuals, I believe Devine’s approach would be known as executing a hostage. At the national level, I don’t know how to describe a threat to destroy Country A in order to punish Country B other than to call it state terrorism. Sherman’s March, after all, otherwise known as a “scorched earth” campaign, otherwise known as “total war,” was a campaign of infrastructure destruction intended to break the south’s will to fight. It involved the annihilation of railroads, bridges, farms, and manufacturing infrastructure. Sherman’s army provided for itself by taking whatever it needed from the southern farms it pillaged and destroyed. This was called “foraging.”

This is what Devine urges we do to Afghanistan. To punish Pakistan. At least when Sherman did it, he was destroying the territory of the population whose will the North sought to break.

But wait, as the Ginsu commercial used to say — there’s still more! Devine doesn’t want the US army to do a Sherman’s March across Afghanistan only. He wants the army to “press forward” into Pakistan and “continue the march” until we capture bin Laden. I’d like to think that, if bin Laden doesn’t turn up during the march (maybe he’s in Iraq after all?), our armies would stop marching before they invaded India or China. But Devine doesn’t say, and because he seems enamored of the notion of destroying one country to punish another, one is left to wonder.

One of my favorite aspects of Devine’s piece is his linguistic dexterity. Not once does he use the word “invade” or any derivation thereof. Instead, we will simply “march” and “press forward” and “continue.” Euphemisms, Orwellian doublespeak, and other such mealymouthedness are hallmarks of this species of op-ed because they serve to conceal the naked brutality of the author’s proposal. It would be much more difficult for the Devines of the world to call for “destroying” or “invading” Pakistan, or “burning it to the ground.” Orwell wrote masterfully about this style of obfuscation in his essay Politics and the English Language:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.


The Orwellianisms get thicker as Devine goes on, so thick that one senses the judgment they’re most effectively suppressing is his own. “We should advise the Pakistani government of our intention in no uncertain terms” means we should threaten to invade and destroy the country. In response to this threat, Pakistani officials would “surely fuss,” which doesn’t sound like all that much (babies fuss, right? and they never hurt anyone) until you consider that Pakistan has nuclear weapons. Anyway, Devine soothes us, Pakistani officials also “fussed” in response to a recent uptick in Predator drone attacks. Which is extremely reassuring for anyone who believes Pakistan’s reaction to covert drone strikes is a reliable predictor of how the country would respond to an overt invasion with the explicit aim of destroying it.

If any of this sounds worrisome to you, fear not; “it’s a pretty good bet that we would have bin Laden’s head on a platter before we got anywhere near the Pakistani border.” It’s good to know we would only be destroying Afghanistan and wouldn’t have to “continue” any further, because for a moment, I had this nagging sense that our invasions of even non-nuclear-armed countries have sometimes gone not precisely in accordance with the predictions of invasion cheerleaders. And look, Devine isn’t a complete madman. He acknowledges that “this is not traditionally how we deal with important allies, and it is not a formula for routine diplomatic discourse.” Prudent of him to place a restraining hand on any hotheads out there who would argue for the efficacy of applying his model to other nuclear-armed allies, like Britain or France. He recognizes, after all, that these are “exceptional circumstances,” but notes that, in exceptional circumstances, “hardball is called for,” “hardball” being the traditionally favored nomenclature for threats to invade and destroy nuclear-armed, allied nations.

Finally, sensitive always that some nervous nelly might be reading his piece, he reassures readers that “I also suspect the fallout would be far less damaging and more ephemeral than many might suggest.” Amusing use of the word “fallout” under the circumstances, though I’m reasonably confident Devine didn’t intend the effect. The main thing to remember is that our threat to destroy Afghanistan and invade and destroy Pakistan, and the invasion and destruction itself, would be ephemeral, as such operations historically always are. Really, the worst that might happen from Pakistani fussing is that we could get our hair mussed.



Just in case you got overly giddy at the prospect of laying waste to two countries, Devine brings it all into focus again, reminding us that the whole thing is just about bin Laden, because “putting him to rest would provide a truly meaningful rationale for leaving” (I love that euphemism, “putting him to rest.” It’s almost kind). He even acknowledges that “the most recent publicly available intelligence reports show that there are few al-Qaeda terrorists remaining in the region; many have moved elsewhere, including to Yemen.”

So Devine wants to lay waste to at least two countries, one of them an ally and nuclear-armed, not even in pursuit of al Qaeda, but merely in pursuit of a single man. Seems like a sensible, proportionate plan to me. Anyway, what could possibly go wrong?

And now, Broder.

There’s less to say about Broder’s piece, but only because he expresses his insanity more succinctly than does Devine. First, he lays out his premise: war and peace are the only forces influencing the economy that the president can control. Second, his evidence: World War II resolved the Great Depression. Finally, his slam dunk conclusion: Obama should take America to war with Iran (Congressional declarations of war are so pre 9/11) because war with Iran will improve America’s economy.

There are several things I love about Broder’s piece.

First, I love the euphemisms. Like Devine, Broder would never be so gauche and unsophisticated as to use a word like “invasion” to describe an invasion, and we should pause for a moment in recognition of the talent it takes to pen a whole op-ed about invading a country without once mentioning an actual invasion. Instead, Broder argues for “challenging Iran’s ambition” and “orchestrating a showdown” and “confronting the threat” and “containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.” None of that sounds so bad, does it? I admit I’d feel a little better if Broder could reassure me, as Devine does, that Iran wouldn’t “fuss” overly much in response, and that it’s a “good bet” the whole thing would never happen anyway, or, if it does, that the effects would be “ephemeral,” but given that the chief effect of invading Iran would almost certainly be nothing more than an economic uptick, perhaps such reassurances would be redundant.

Another part I love is the traditional boilerplate disclaimer: “I am not suggesting, of course, that the president incite a war to get reelected.” This is such a nimble dodge that I really think we should honor the mind behind it by calling such mealymouthedness “Broderian.” You see, Broder doesn’t suggest that the president “incite” a war only because Broder has already done such splendid work in inciting it himself.

Broder spends his whole article calculating the politics that will be in play in 2012, argues that “orchestrating a showdown with the mullahs… will help [Obama] politically,” and concludes that an invasion of Iran will be good for the US economy. Then he assures us in his last paragraph, almost as a weird afterthought, that hey, it’s not all about the economy and politics, that we should remember too that “Iran is the greatest threat to the world in the young century.” Oh, and that if Obama invades Iran, he “will have made the world safer and may be regarded as one of the most successful presidents in history.”

Is there a benefit an invasion of Iran wouldn’t achieve? Broder seems to have covered everything he could think of: improve the economy, political gain to the president, good for national security, good for non-proliferation, historical icon status for the president. Incite? When food is as tasty, abundant, and nutritious as Broder promises, and he’s done such fine work in stoking appetites, diners don’t need to be incited. They’ll be knocking down the restaurant doors.

Still, let no one suggest that Broder wants war to be “incited.” That would be crass and unfair. After all, he explicitly says he is not calling for incitement, and in the complicated, sophisticated business of calling for war in an op-ed, it’s understood that the one-line disclaimer trumps everything else in the op-ed itself. Or at least that’s how it works on the TV shows the Broders of the world get invited on after the wars actually begin, at which point everyone (most of all, the op-ed writer himself) has forgotten everything else he wrote, and the writer gets to waive his disclaimer like a bank robber holding a bundle of loot in one hand and a get-out-jail-free card in the other.

But my favorite part of the whole thing is Broder’s argument itself: war is good for the economy. You know what I’m going to say, right? It’s so stunningly obvious, I know I don’t need to. Still:

We’ve been at war in Afghanistan since 2001. In Iraq since 2003. Broder’s own paper reports that we have covert forces operating in 75 countries. And in the midst of all this warfare, our economy plunged into what has become widely known as the Great Recession.

But in the mind of David Broder, none of this is relevant. Our trillion dollar deficit and 13 trillion dollar national debt don’t even exist. Bloodshed and death don’t even merit a casual mention. He skips past all of it, past the Cold War, Vietnam, and Korea, too, to locate a historically unique instance of a global recession meeting a global war, then uses it to argue that war is ipso facto good for the economy.

You could argue that all the wars we’ve been waging for the last decade didn’t cause the recession. But even if all that war hasn’t hurt the economy, it’s a hell of a logical leap to suggest that one more war would cause economic improvement. And yet that’s precisely what Broder argues.

No one wants to be called a warmonger, and certainly no one ever cops to the charge. But when someone demonstrates this much ability to ignore glaringly obvious evidence that utterly undercuts his rationale for war, when he blithely ticks off numerous imagined benefits of war and not once mentions blood — not even the blood of his countrymen — as part of his calculus, it’s fair to ask if the person in question might be suffering from a morbid attachment to war itself.

What Broder is calling for is so insane, and so potentially destructive, that the personal disgrace he ought to feel for having suggested it is nearly beside the point. Still, I wish someone would take him gently by the arm and lead him into a quiet retirement before he embarrasses himself further, or, worse, gets someone to actually take him seriously. Given the lineup on the Post’s op-ed page, however, and given that Broder’s piece provides such a perfect companion to Devine’s, I expect Broder will be around for as long as the lunatics are running the asylum.

Do you think my references to insanity are too much? I use them deliberately. Einstein said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Have another look at Devine’s and Broder’s pieces, and tell me these men are other than by definition insane.