Iran’s Unpardonable and Unpardoned Incompetence Exposes Same in America’s Ruling Class

Our ruling class’s judgment that America’s killing of terror master Qassem Soleimani united Iran’s people behind its regime is characteristic of their incompetence. Instead, because the Islamic Republic’s armed forces incompetently shot down an airliner full of students as the mullahs were engaged in the pseudo-sophisticated pretense of retaliation against the United States, and because they incredibly denied having done so, growing domestic protests are placing the regime in jeopardy. As Iranians shout for the Islamic Republic’s end as never before, the state’s media are reporting more honestly than ever, and fewer partisans than ever are supporting the regime.

The lesson? Human beings can tolerate almost anything from rulers except demonstrations of incompetence.

Habits of obedience, the majesty of office, the lure of patronage, as well as repression, powerfully shield any ruling class. The Islamic Republic had promised its people that religious scholars would rule righteously. Instead, the mullahs delivered corruption, privation, and endless war.

Contempt builds over decades as ordinary people watch the powerful stumbling over themselves and attempting to cover this up with transparent lies—even as they enrich themselves and look down on the rest. Acts of war impose continuous, unpredictable tests on the regimes involved in them. When rulers fail these tests, any straw may break the proverbial camel’s back.

At all times and in all places, incompetent rule is difficult to defend and impossible to forgive.

The Chinese call the rejection of failed rulers the loss of “the mandate of heaven.” Americans have taken to calling our rulers “losers.” As we watch what may be the Islamic Republic’s meltdown, Americans should consider how the incompetence of our ruling class over decades has placed our own republic on the edge of failure.

By 1950 George Kennan had already noted that as the United States became the world’s premier military and economic power, and as the managers of U.S. national security had grown wealthier, the American people had become ever less secure. In our time, as generals, ambassadors, and assorted officials declaim their expertise, the American people react mostly with disgust.

The present erasure of boundaries between war and peace, our endless wars, came about because turn-of-the-20th-century statesmen from Elihu Root, Nicholas Murray Butler, and Woodrow Wilson began to identify America’s interests with their own ideals for mankind, and transmitted their priorities to their bipartisan successors into our time.

Intentionally confusing America’s interest with abstract ideals and the interests of foreigners, they imagined possibilities and convergences of purpose that do not exist. They thought, spoke, and acted in a language about international affairs so imprecise that it estranges us from reality and short-changes the calculus of ends and means. It guarantees incompetence.

The Constitution pledges the U.S. government to “the common defense.” To the American people, that means peace.

Since 1917, our ruling class has promised that the wars it was waging were well designed to deliver peace. But because our ruling class waged them by Progressivism’s supposed wisdom, these wars have delivered involvement in other countries’ business coupled with neglect of our own.

To make war—to kill and be killed—while pretending to be doing police work, nation-building, or enforcing international law, as the U.S. government did in Korea, Vietnam, and the first Persian Gulf War; and pretending to make war, as it has done since 2001 in every corner of the world without designating an enemy or having reasonable plans for victory, is to act as sorcerers’ apprentices.

Incompetence is too kind of a description. In 2001, al-Qaeda’s violent Islamism involved only some 400 men, nearly all engaged in a domestic Afghan quarrel. Today some 30,000 such fighters infest the globe.

What the U.S. national security establishment has achieved, impotent imperialism, recalls Montesquieu’s judgment on late imperial Rome’s policy: “In the end, there was no people so small that it could not do them harm.”

The U.S. national security establishment’s failures, followed by its members’ profitable retirements on corporate boards, has earned them rejection as corrupt incompetents. Their haughty wrapping of themselves in transparent pretenses of patriotic commitment and expertise has made them contemptible.

Inevitably, rulers’ incompetence tends to discredit the regime as well. The American people have been reticent to rebel against it wholesale because America’s national security establishment has so successfully wrapped itself in the American flag, because the connection between rejection of rulers and rejection of the regime is so natural, and because our patriotism is so deep.

Americans are protesting in the voting booth. No one, however, denies that the American Republic now has fewer friends than enemies among the American people, and that the vast rest are doing what people everywhere do when they realize that their rulers are inept and corrupt: first, they go limp. Enthusiasm turns to acceptance, acceptance to passivity, and passivity to one or another measure of estrangement.

That estrangement is sure to grow so long as our national security establishment continues to rule their roost. It’s them or the Republic. Whoever wishes America well must yearn that it be rousted therefrom. The sooner the better.

About Angelo Codevilla

Angelo M. Codevilla is a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute, professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University and the author of To Make And Keep Peace (Hoover Institution Press, 2014).

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