Friday, August 08, 2003

Going Ted Postol

The trouble is, the evil part is so much easier than the genius part. Every three-year old dreams of conquest and empire, but then they kick the wrong uncle in the shins. Unfortunately, the current crop of would-be masters of the universe disposes of a lot more firepower than a toddler and their comeuppance is likely to involve blood rather than tears. In either case, however, wishful thinking leads to a drastic overestimation of real capabilities.

In theory, disciplined but unscrupulous individuals can exploit the power of fantasy to move masses of people without falling for their own line. In practice, even technically sophisticated people don’t seem to be able to keep the two sets of books straight. Back in the 80s, for example, the rational reason to promote antiballistic missile defense was to outmaneuver the Soviets. In the context of that strategy, it made sense to tout the prospects of a successful system even in the face of a near-total scientific consensus that the whole idea was nonsense. The Reds are long gone and the prospects of a working system remain essentially zero, but the dream of perfect safety lives on, recruiting new threats—North Korea, terrorists, perhaps China—to justify what is really a childish and extremely aggressive dream of irresponsible power. By now, it is pretty clear that many in the current regime actually believe in ABMs despite the simultaneous recognition that tests results must be faked to keep the project going.

This sort of thing has happened a lot in the last hundred years. Alfred von Schlieffen could never make his famous plan work even in a map exercise, and the grand dreams of the even more feckless Austrian Franz Conrad von Huetzendorff were similarly dead before arrival. The logistical experts of Hitler’s Wehrmacht calculated that the panzers would run out of gas before they reached Moscow. That didn’t matter to the high command for whom, as usual, hope was indeed the plan. Similarly, the Japanese discounted the results of the war games they conducted in the run up to the Battle of Midway. The umpires ruled that the result of the simulation, the loss of four aircraft carriers, was simply impossible. Authoritarian regimes appear to be especially prone to this pathology. The absence of a free press and serious political opposition makes it easy to fool the populace and therefore yourself. As America becomes steadily more authoritarian, we can expect its leaders to believe their own propaganda more and more.

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