The Best and the Brightest Have Become the Venal and the Vacuous


W.J. Astore

Over at, retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich asks a telling question: Why does Washington continue to rely on policy “experts,” the “best and brightest” as they were called during the Vietnam War, even when events prove their advice to be consistently wrong?

As Bacevich puts it (with considerable relish):

“Policy intellectuals — eggheads presuming to instruct the mere mortals who actually run for office — are a blight on the republic. Like some invasive species, they infest present-day Washington, where their presence strangles common sense and has brought to the verge of extinction the simple ability to perceive reality. A benign appearance — well-dressed types testifying before Congress, pontificating in print and on TV, or even filling key positions in the executive branch — belies a malign impact. They are like Asian carp let loose in the Great Lakes.”

One of the big drawbacks of a Hillary Clinton vs. Jeb Bush joust in 2016 is that both candidates will be relying on the same neocon “experts” who got us into Afghanistan and Iraq and the ongoing, seemingly endless, war on terror.  What Washington needs most of all is fresh blood and fresher thinking; what 2016 promises is retread candidates and recycled pundits.

The problem is that these pundits rarely admit that they’re wrong.  Even when they do, their admissions run false. They say things like: “We were wrong for the right reason [about Iraq and WMD],” a sentiment echoed by George W. Bush in his memoir that “There are things we got wrong in Iraq, but the cause is eternally right.”  So, as long as your cause is “eternally right” (fighting against Communism in Vietnam; against terror in the Middle East), it doesn’t matter how many things you get wrong (such as how many innocents you end up killing, especially if they’re foreigners).

Their mantra is something like this: Never admit your wrong.  And never apologize. Instead, double down on talking tough and committing troops.

As Bacevich notes:

The present-day successors to Bundy, Rostow, and Huntington subscribe to their own reigning verities.  Chief among them is this: that a phenomenon called terrorism or Islamic radicalism, inspired by a small group of fanatic ideologues hidden away in various quarters of the Greater Middle East, poses an existential threat not simply to America and its allies, but — yes, it’s still with us — to the very idea of freedom itself.  That assertion comes with an essential corollary dusted off and imported from the Cold War: the only hope of avoiding this cataclysmic outcome is for the United States to vigorously resist the terrorist/Islamist threat wherever it rears its ugly head….

The fact that the enterprise itself has become utterly amorphous may actually facilitate such efforts.  Once widely known as the Global War on Terror, or GWOT, it has been transformed into the War with No Name.  A little bit like the famous Supreme Court opinion on pornography: we can’t define it, we just know it when we see it, with ISIS the latest manifestation to capture Washington’s attention.

All that we can say for sure about this nameless undertaking is that it continues with no end in sight.  It has become a sort of slow-motion Vietnam, stimulating remarkably little honest reflection regarding its course thus far or prospects for the future.  If there is an actual Brains Trust at work in Washington, it operates on autopilot.  Today, the second- and third-generation bastard offspring of RAND that clutter northwest Washington — the Center for this, the Institute for that — spin their wheels debating latter day equivalents of Strategic Hamlets, with nary a thought given to more fundamental concerns.”

Tough talk by “experts” with no skin in the game has proved to be a recipe for disaster in slow-motion.  The best and the brightest have become the venal and the vacuous.  Bacevich is right: We can do better, America.

5 thoughts on “The Best and the Brightest Have Become the Venal and the Vacuous

  1. My kneejerk reaction to this column was to simply post: “You didn’t need to go beyond the headline! That says it all.” But feeling generous, I’ll add: 1.) these “experts” are, of course, hired guns. They’ll spout off favorably–or should I say clap their fore-flippers like trained seals?–for a Democratic or Republican policymaker. Whoever pays their fee. And as we saw during the WMD fiasco, if their initial “findings” don’t please the boss, they’ll be instructed to manufacture something that looks good; 2.) I’m about 2/3 through reading Christian Appy’s “American Reckoning–The Vietnam War and Our National Identity” and it’s very instructive on the shenanigans of MacGeorge Bundy, et al. Though I opposed that war tooth and nail, including from within the enlisted ranks of the US Army, I was too young to follow the behind the scenes planting of the seeds of that war as they unfolded starting in the 1950s; 3.) finally, I can state this with absolute certainty: “the War With No Name” appears to young Muslim men around the world as “a War Against Islam.” This will bring the world untold grief for a long, long time to come.

  2. Maybe we should start by asking how many people believe that the reason the U.S. is waging all these wars is because our politicians were given erroneous advice? I don’t. I think we’re waging these wars because our politicians were given bribes and kick-backs by the War Industry, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the oil corporations, and probably a few other centers of the ultra-rich. Their motive is not to bring democracy, save the people or improve the region. Their motive is to use the U.S. military as a collection of goons and thugs to act as their protection while they steal all the resources from the region. So if we assume that these wars have nothing to do with ideology, or understanding of history, or the belief of the advisors or the politicians, then who cares whether it’s a liberal or conservative who is elected. Both parties support these wars not because of ideology, but because they get paid enormous bribes to do so. We should stop trying to pretend that our politicians are engaged in high-level academic debate about the middle east, and start seeing them for what they are: bag men for the Wall Street mob.

    • But, but…Ms. Butterfield! Haven’t you heard? The United States Senate is THE GREATEST DELIBERATIVE BODY IN THE WORLD!! Lord, the drivel we were fed growing up, eh?!? This is referred to as “laughing to keep from crying.”

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