The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Modern American Way

Let’s talk about the American way in the context of the assassination strategy used against the Taliban, for the last 8 years.

First, a simple fact: this strategy hasn’t worked worth a damn against the Taliban. They’re winning, the US is losing.

The argument for it would be that killing leaders messes up the Taliban. This is marginally true at best.  Loss of a leader may cause a slight delay and occasional fights within the Taliban, but it doesn’t stop them from getting stronger and continuing to win.

Americans think that good leaders are hard to come by because modern America produces bad leaders regularly, and rarely produces even marginally competent leaders.

Or, to be more accurate, average leaders are not sufficient to make anything in America work because America is set up to force people to do the wrong thing and people who care about doing the right thing are systematically kept out and forced out if they make it in.

The Taliban doesn’t need brilliant leaders, all it needs is leaders able to execute its strategy, and its’ strategy is simple enough that your average leader can implement it, whereas the US strategy couldn’t be executed by a Napoleon.

Killing leaders at the cost of bombing weddings and funerals and killing civilians does not work in the context of counter-insurgency unless your strategy is scorched earth, which the US’s is not. There is also an opportunity cost to anys treategy.

This is the same strategy the Israelis have used for decades against the Palestinians and Hezbollah

You’ll notice that the problem has not gone away.

Americans think leaders matter far more than they actually do. In the context of an actual ideological movement with substantial popular support, there’s always another one. And, in fact, he’s somewhat more likely to be competent than whoever he replaced.

Take a look at the evolution of Hezbollah’s leadership to see how this works. The leadership keeps getting more competent, not less competent, as does the organization. The Israelis act as a nice Darwinian force, making sure the most able wind up on top and that strategies which don’t work end, because the people executing them die. Likewise the Taliban is more deadly now than it was 2 years ago, 2 years ago it was more deadly than 2 years before that, and so forth.

The war should have ended years ago, and the assassination strategy is not producing results.

But by all means, keep trying a strategy which hasn’t worked for 8 years. It’s the American way, if at first, second, third, fourth, tenth a strategy doesn’t work—do it harder. Doesn’t matter whether it’s taxes, warmaking, healthcare or anything else: the easy stupid way is always the right way, even after it hasn’t worked, over and over again.



The Fed’s Increase in the Discount Rate


America’s Future: My Baseline Scenario


  1. nihil obstet

    Americans think that good leaders are hard to come by because modern America produces bad leaders regularly, and rarely produces even marginally competent leaders.

    I’d say it’s more that American leaders insist that good leaders are hard to come by because that’s the justification for extreme inequality. The inequality then insures that the leaders produced will have ample toadying-up/sneering-down skills, but not necessarily competence in the area where they’re supposedly leading. And as you imply, the real agenda of this leadership differs significantly from the purported agenda.

  2. Ian Welsh

    I should add that this article, as written, was refused for publication in an a-list blog which had never censored me before (I quit the blog as a result). This is the sort of thing you can’t say in American discourse, even on left wing blogs.

    Which is one reason why America is going down.

    Get out if you can. The next couple decades are going to be really, truly, shitty in America.

  3. This is the same strategy the Israelis have used for decades against the Palestinians and Hezbollah

    The people who have pushed a rejectionist attitude towards the Palestinians and pushed it very hard are the same people who run the mainstream foreign policy discussion on all matters in the USA. It’s all of a piece.

  4. And this “classic” song is apropos of the title of this post.

  5. Sadly, you are right Ian, this is not the kind of stuff you can say in ‘polite company.’ As much as it pains me, I am doing everything I can to get out. Never thought I would live to see the day where I would write something like that, much less think it, or act on it. Gets me a little teary eyed. But it’s clear that our politics are broken, and broken beyond repair.

  6. alyosha

    A month or two ago, there was an editorial in the LA Times which discussed the abysmal financial situation in California, in relation to the four main candidates for governor in the 2010 election (one Democrat, Jerry Brown, and three Republicans). Of the candidates with government experience, it noted that they were promising very little, just nipping around the edges of our very serious problems here. One or two of the Republicans are outsiders and issue forth the standard GOP bromides, which sound good (to some), but the editorial quickly dispatched them more or less as dreamers spouting conventional, unrealistic platitudes.

    It lamented that Brown, who was governor a couple decades ago, is the best the Democrats can do. Whether it’s his age or his decades of experience taking its toll, he has long since lost his drive to make major changes.

    Finally (and this is the point of all of this), the editorial brought up the name of Democrat Bill Lockyer, who is well known state-wide, has held high office before, and could probably easily become governor if he wanted to. Lockyer candidly told the Times that the structure of government is so crippled that it works against anyone getting anything done. Not interested.

  7. Soling


    Can you elaborate on what “the next couple decades are going to be really, truly, shitty in America” means for someone like me? I am in my mid-40s with three small children. My wife and I both have professional jobs and still do quite well even in this economy. However we, like you, find the state of politics etc. in the USA very frightening. My wife and I have discussed leaving for Canada but it is a scary proposition for a couple who has never lived outside the US. But is it less scary than what might be coming? We would consider a radical move like leaving the country mostly for our children, to get them somewhere with decent quality of life ~ education, healthcare, and a real safety net. Rather than the casino economy we live in now where you can lose everything on a roll of the dice (job loss, injury, anything really!) Your thoughts would be very valuable to us. It really is a daunting thought for us, having family, friends, everyone we know and love here in the US.

  8. Ian Welsh


    I am reluctant to give specific advice to specific people whose circumstances I don’t know well. However I would certainly say that you should have jobs lined up before you move.

    My baseline scenario is that:

    1) employment is not going to recover to pre-great recession levels for at least a generation, maybe more, in terms of % of people employed. The late Clinton economy is the best you or I will see in our working lives.

    2) Politics will continue to be dominated by monied interests and that dominance will increase, rather than decrease. They will use their power to fight over the shrinking pie, rather than to increase it, and will make any real systemic restructuring of the economy essentially impossible.

    3) a right wing “populist” will get in after Obama. Since the only sort of stimulus they can do is war stimulus, they will pick a war with someone. Who, I’m not sure.

    4) Under both Democrats and Republicans the deterioration of civil liberties will continue.

    5) Median standards of living will take at least a 20% drop within 10 years or so. Maybe more. Not sure exactly when, but if anything, the % may be an underestimate.

    6) Resource nationalism will continue to rise as will 1/1 deals between countries. China has already restricted rare earth sales, for example. Countries will start insisting on doing the value add in their own countries rather than shipping raw materials overseas, if they have the ability to do this.

    7) As state and local governments loose their ability to govern (a process which will proceed in cycles), there will be cyclical of cuts in basic services, including police, road repair, schooling and so on. Get thee to a very affluent neighbourhood, if you can.

    8) Entitlements will be cut, perhaps openly, perhaps through statistical tricks, but it will be done. There is a bipartisan consensus on this, and when Republicans get in charge they will be able to find enough Dems to sign off this time. (If Obama can, he’ll do it before then, but Republicans want to use this against him.)

    9) There will be another major economic crisis, probably within 8 years. In principle it could happen within a year, the timing depends on political actions I’m not sure how to predict. I consider this nearly inevitable.

    In the longer term I expect severe water shortages, for both people and crops, in large areas of the world including big chunks of the US, China and India. Climate instability will continue to increase, and in about 10 years (according to a friend whose judgement has been good on this) various sinks will be overloaded and we’ll start seeing some really serious global warming increases on top of the instability.

  9. Celsius 233

    IMO, the thing that keeps strengthening the Taliban is the huge civilian losses we incur on their population. Just yesterday there were 33 killed in an attack on a convoy of civilians. It just goes on and on.
    McCrystal just keeps apologizing out of one side of his mouth while ordering massacres out of the other side.
    At some point apologies and money aren’t going to be enough.
    Unlike us; the Afghan’s have a code of honor which they actually live by and die to uphold.
    We could learn something from these tough as hell mofos!

  10. Celsius 233

    @ Soling

    I’ve been an expat for 7 years for some of the reasons you are considering a move.
    My only advice is to start researching now for your potential move in the future.
    Be aware, it may come sooner than you think.
    Know the things that are truly (and I can’t emphasize that too much) important to you, your wife and what you hope for your children.
    Travel when possible to where you think you might like to go and avoid the tourist areas 100%; that won’t be where you’ll want to live. Trust me on that.
    Follow your heart and you’ll be okay. 😉

  11. b.

    Again, you are arguing within a concept of “working strategy”. That is besides the point. The US is no longer illegally “at war” (having obtained UN “buy in” after the fact), the US is not engaged in an occupation, it is not waging “war on drugs”, it is not assissting a client regime, and it is not fighting terrorism. There is no grand strategy, only paid-per-day kabuki.

    The US is engaged in facilitating the conversion of public tax revenue into private profits, through the National Security Racket. Any dysfunction, any corruption, any malf, any failure you observe is a desirable outcome of this process because it increases, not decreases, the pace and duration of that conversion process. Whether it is Betrayus or Blankfein, the “players” and their peers continue to benefit. If domestic hysteria increases, if foreign opposition increases, then that is a perfectly acceptable – even desirable – outcome.

    If you focus on the financial incentives – follow the money – even the collective indulgence of torturers and their enables becomes profitable – see here

    Chris Floyd quotes Alan Cox: The Purpose of a System is What It Does. If you want to predict the end result of the self-reinforcing devolution of organizations and societies, the phrase describes both the financial industry and the defense industry – the twin towers of the US unipolar moment.

    It is impossible to make a man contemplate depravity if his profits depend on it. It is apparently impossible to get a society to end its own depravity if a sufficiently influential minority benefits from it. This is not some kind of “planned economy” disaster capitalism, it is brainless disaster opportunism. Individually and collectively, the “leaders” of the various packs have less agency than termites, but ever more voracious appetites. There is no master race, there is no master plan, there are no masters of the universe, there is only man-sized greed and stupidity, scaled up a million times. What is the purpose of systems selected to serve individual dysfunction? Endsieg? This is the tyranny of nobody – perfect responsibility diffusion, codified in articles of incorporation, nobody in charge and everybody pushing along.

    Servitude is just another word for something left to loose. To borrow a phrase, it is damn hard to find somebody to make a fist if the have-somes all their fingers in the pie, and all the have-noughts have their fingers in the dike.

  12. someofparts

    Thanks for reliable doses of reality. Just want to say I’ve been taking it all to heart and making preparations accordingly. Maybe when the worst happens, my friends and I will survive it. I even dare to hope that, with the right planning, I’ll still have some cheap way to stay online. When it gets down to basics, I find staying hooked up to the cyber mother-lode of information more important than just about anything beyond the bare necessities.

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