Morgenthau and Iraq

March 6, 2007

Did anyone else think of Iraq when reading about Morgenthau’s theory of a “coherent system of irrationality” (a wonderful oxymoron, I thought).

He was using the US war in Indochina as his example, but you can’t escape the parallels with the US experience in Iraq: “the imposition upon the empirical world of a simplistic and a priori picture of the world derived from folklore and ideological assumption … the refusal to correct this picture of the world in the light of experience; the persistence in a foreign policy derived from the misperception of reality and the use of intelligence for the purpose not of adapting policy to reality but of reinterpreting reality to fit policy; the egotism of the policy makers widening the gap between perception and policy, on the one hand, and reality, on the other; finally, the urge to close the gap at least subjectively by action, any kind of action, that creates the illusion of mastery over a recalcitrant reality.”

It really works when when you think back on the poor planning and execution of the war in Iraq, the creative use of WMD intelligence and the role of personalities such as Rumsfeld…

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4 Responses to “Morgenthau and Iraq”

  1. G. Daniel Says:

    The comment sounds alarmingly right for Iraq. However today like yesterday it would be wrong to take the leaders, and their cohort of advisor, for idiots.

    Any decision-making is a process of perception and interpretation. Things might be better if we were gods, seeing and hearing it all. We are only humans and sciences and theories are the best tool we came up with so far to interpret what we perceived of the world. The question for the Bush administration, and the problem of realism, is how do you make sure that you do not mistake interpretation of reality with reality itself?
    Realism has this annoying tendency to be presented as “the world as it is, with its brutality laid bare”. But every theoretical system is a more or less homogeneous assemblage of narratives on reality. The problem arise when one forget that the narratives are not reality itself. This opens wide the door for misinterpretation. By claiming such close proximity to reality realism is the porter of misinterpretation hotel. Let’s hope that the Bush’s administration will check itself out soon.

    But at the end of the day my cynical side cannot help think that their policies are guided by a convenient confluence of his group/tribe(s) financial interest and a belief in the notion of Pax-America. And the two are mutually reinforcing each other. Another example of how your personal experience/agenda can influence your theoretical preferences.


  2. Philip, thank you for your reminder. Then the coherent system can help us understand “the rationality of the irrationality.” “Irrational” action or behavior is not really as irrational as it may seem. I think realist theories were formed in a time when social scientists were too confident in getting to the (single) truth of the world. But as the world is too complicated and many of the social scientists’ projects have failed to provide a perfect account of our world, we have to admit the difficulties to formulate a flawless theory in social sciences. The exception may be economic theories explaining and predicting market behavior.

    Thought I can’t provide a professional analysis, I do want to claim that states such as Cuba, N.Korea, and Iran and their leaders are never irrational. There is only miscalculation – partly because of misperception – in world politics but no “irrational” actors that we cannot understand their behavior and actions.

    Daniel, I agree that narratives are not reality itself. “Truths but not truth” – I forgot who said this… [Frankie]

  3. wooi yee Says:

    In the movie “Fog of the War”, Mr. McNamara said “We only see what we believe.” I think in many cases, ideology and moral principles did make politician become a blind man. They can’t make rational judgement out of it. That’s why Morgenthau stresses that moral is irrelevant to states/statesmen.


  4. Thank you, Wooiyee. You encourage me to read Morgenthau’s principles again.

    My interpretation of Morgenthau is that he does not say that moral is “irrelevant” to states/statesmen.

    For Morgenthau, prudence is more important. In his words, prudence is “the supreme virtue in politics.” In fact, “[b]oth individual and state must judge political action by universal moral principles.” But in case the defence of such principles is considered to deter a national “successful political action,” the principles can be abandoned.

    More importantly, Morgenthau also says that “successful political action” should be justified by the moral principle of national survival. Put simply, for a nation, the most important thing is to survive. This is the most critical principle among the moral principles that should be considered by a nation.


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