The Obama government is being severely criticised for its failure to prevent the young Nigerian of the Christmas Day attack from flying to the United States. Some critics assume that the Kingdom of the Netherlands recently joined the American Federal union as the fifty first state, and that Amsterdam airport like Boston or Chicago is under direct control of our government. Their ethnocentrism is telling. The anger at the lapse reflects a persistent American belief: if we are not invulnerable to the misfortunes that beset other nations, we should be.

The performance of the Bush administration before 11 September of 2001 was miserable. A judge denied the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s request to listen to the telephone of one of the later 11 September attackers, on grounds that the FBI kept asking for wire tap warrants in cases it could not sustain. President Bush himself instructed his National Security Advisor, Dr. Rice, that he had heard enough of Al Quaeda’s threats and wished to hear no more.

The American combination of arrogant complacency and administrative ineptitude has historical precedents. Before the Civil War, southerners in national government deliberately concentrated military resources in the states that later seceded. The northerners did nothing about it.In 1941 the US expected a Japanese attack—but not at our Pacific strongpoint, Pearl Harbor. The FBI intercepted telephone calls from Japan to its consulate in Honolulu asking for the anchorages of the American warships.—but did not tell the Navy. The intelligence officer of the Pacific Fleet informed his Admiral two days before the event that he had lost track of the Japanese carriers. The Admiral: “Do you mean, they could be rounding Diamond Head at any moment?” (Diamond Head is just outside Pearl Harbor.) Some hours before the attack, a US ship sank a Japanese submarine attempting to enter the harbor, but the report was not forwarded to the command. US radar one hour before the Japanese planes arrived detected planes coming from the northwest, but the data was interpreted as US planes from California—which was northeast. The admirals conducted no patrols to the northwest. They explained that they thought of an attack on their headquarters as inconceivable. Apparently, everyone else did so too.

The organizational ineptitude and misjudgement shown at Pearl Harbour were not uniquely American. In the crisis of 1914, the British and French and Russian foreign and war ministries were ignorant of German intentions. No one was prepared (despite the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian war) for the technological inferno that ensued.The French and British during the 1938 Czech crisis did not know that the German generals were planning a coup in case Hitler initiated a war which they considered premature. The western powers were shocked by the German-Soviet pact of 1939, despite evidence for months that it was possible. In the war, the French generals could not imagine a German attack in northeastern France. The Germans in 1940 did not anticipate the effectiveness of British air defense—and abandoned the bombing of British airfields when it was about to be surmounted. In 1941, Stalin refused urgent advice from both Churchill and his own generals that a German attack was imminent. The German army was unprepared for winter war in Russia, despite Napoleon’s experience. The American generals told Roosevelt that the USSR was certain to collapse. At war in Europe three years later, they did not envisage the German winter offensive in the Ardennes.

The post-war world, from 1945 was full of similar errors on all sides. Some were of fundamental political judgement, others were produced by consummate ignorance, still others by the internal conflicts and a self-defeating division of labor in the military and political apparatus. Much of what the US attempted failed. Military operations and covert campaigns, each, provoked embittered resistance. Supposedly relying on its very developed wits, Israel has gone from military victory to political self defeat in an accelerating rhythm. The Soviet incursions into Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979 were political catastrophes. The obsessive demand of the American unilateralists for ever more force periodically wearies an American public hardly conspicuous for critical reflection—but nothing interrupts the cycle for long.

Millennial American certainty and European wariness, national pride and historical diffidence, democratic consensus and tyrannical fiction, military enthusiasm and sullen pacifism contend continuously. Frequently, contention gives way to an unholy union of ideological opposites. East and West, north and south, geopolitics, ostensibly conducted with illusionless realism has been inextricably joined to cognitive distortion and psychological deformation. The bureaucrats, military officers, politicians nominally in charge are repeatedly overwhelmed by circumstances they cannot master, and which they involuntarily called into being. Just why what they do is designated as a response to “intelligence” is unclear. Whatever our modern elites have possessed of intelligence in the literal sense of the word remains a very scarce good. Some person or persons should be intelligent enough to think about it.

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