By Donella Meadows
–December 18, 1986–
The perfect word for U.S. policy in Iran and Nicaragua is folly.
In The March of Folly Barbara Tuchman defines government folly as “the pursuit of policy contrary to the self-interest of the state.” To put it bluntly, folly is official stupidity.
As examples Tuchman describes the corruption of the Renaissance Popes, which provoked the Protestant secession; the blindness of King George’s Britain, which caused the loss of its American colonies; and the arrogance of the United States in Vietnam.
History can now add to the list of follies the payment of arms to ransom hostages from terrorists, a sure way of generating more hostages and terrorists. President Reagan has said many times that paying off terrorists is a self-defeating policy. But he, or people working for him, did it anyway. And that was just the beginning, the smallest part of the folly.
The large parts were the attempt to use arms to buy favor in Iran, the use of the money to fund the Nicaraguan contras, and the deception of the American people.
Folly, according to Tuchman, is not merely carrying out a counterproductive policy, but doing so over a long time, in spite of evidence that it is not working. Folly is “assessing a situation in terms of preconceived notions while ignoring any contrary signs; not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts; refusing to benefit from experience.”
For four decades now our government has tried to fight communism by propping up oppressive regimes and undermining leftists, not only in Iran and Nicaragua, but in Vietnam, Chile, South Africa, many other places. In doing so it has condoned assassination, corruption, and every possible violation of human rights. It has kept secrets from its own people and disobeyed its own laws.
Critics of these policies are labeled unpatriotic, but they are not questioning the goal of promoting freedom. They are saying this way of doing it won’t work. Whenever we fight for democracy with undemocratic methods, our national prestige is weakened, and we strengthen the forces we are trying to oppose.
American folly in Iran began when the CIA undercut the leftist Mossadegh in the 1950s and then supported the Shah as Iran’s dictator, a ruler who used secret police and political imprisonment, who shamelessly enriched himself, who was uninterested in free elections or a free press.
Under the Shah the Iranians learned fear and obedience, not freedom. They had powerful U.S. weapons, but no experience of democracy, no internal strength to resist Soviets or mullahs. After 40 years of our Iranian policy, there is no sign of democracy or friendliness to the United States in Iran.
In Nicaragua we set up the dictator Somoza, who, in the words of Franklin Roosevelt, was “an s.o.b, but at least our s.o.b”. When the Nicaraguans finally created a government of their choice, we didn’t like that choice. Rather than come to terms with it, negotiate with it, strengthen the strong private sector remaining within it, we befriended the contras, a group of roughnecks who have no support from their own people and who would collapse without our help.
The administration has not endeared itself to the Nicaraguan people with this policy. It has forced the Sandanistas to turn to the Soviets. And given the skullduggery that was necessary to support the contras over the opposition of Congress and the people, it has deepened the distrust of our own citizens in our own government.
That’s folly. There are plenty of other examples in our history, including the painful one of Vietnam. If we weren’t “assessing the situation in terms of preconceived notions while ignoring the contrary signs”, we would have learned by now that we cannot impose a government on others by force; that we cannot defend freedom by supporting oppressors; that a democracy cannot succeed with a policy it has to hide from its own people.
In short, we can’t defeat communism by adopting the very practices we most despise and fear in communism.
The good news is that we are not consistent in our folly. In forsaking Marcos and the white regime in South Africa, we sided with the people against their oppressors. In approaching China we recognized that not all leftist regimes are in one camp, that some have been chosen by their own people, and that we can get along with them.
There is more good news. After 40 years of Cold War, despite our mistakes, the Soviets have gained influence beyond their own borders over only 6% of the world’s people and 6% of the world’s GNP. Their influence peaked in the 1950s and has shown no momentum since. They have folly deeply embedded in their system. They can’t win, except by our own folly.
Our strength is not in our weapons or our deviousness. Our strength is in our founding principles — defending human rights, telling the truth, operating in the open, respecting opposing views, trusting people to choose their own leaders. To the extent we operate by those principles, we will surely prevail. When we throw them away, for any purpose whatsoever, we commit folly.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1986