“They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing!” was Talleyrand’s alleged description of French elites as they returned home in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars and the Revolution. Unable to conceive that their own actions might have cast France into chaos, these elites oscillated between pretending the Revolution never happened and taking revenge on participants. Needless to say, these same elites were rather surprised when Napoleon returned to power, aided by masses of defecting soldiers and commoners.
For the French aristocracy, this blindness to events was partly produced by social isolation. Trapped in their own bubbles of aristocratic discourse, desiring to hear only flattery, and listening to only the views of other aristocrats, many elites could neither grasp the social changes occurring nor realise they were irreversible. Compounding matters was the fact that the truth was uncomfortable, and people do not like to accept uncomfortable truths.
Unfortunately, the same basic dynamic of “elite blindness” pervades our political-media elites today. For instance, America’s Democratic Party prefers to blame Russia, sexism, the Electoral College or a lone Susan Sarandon for losing elections rather than their own policies. Likewise, Republicans would instead take shelter in electoral fraud or other conspiracies instead of addressing the fundamentals of the American economic-industrial decline. In Britain, the major parties did their best for decades to pretend that the influx of European labour had no adverse effects on the working class, and they desperately wanted to believe that British people would support staying in the EU. It took an awful lot of self-delusion for so many to be so wrong.
Contemporary policy elites tend to learn very slowly, if at all. By this, I don’t mean they fail to absorb new information, far from it. Rather, information is internalised and understood according to the logics and desires of specific institutions, allied media, and interest groups, which provides a buffer to reality. Hence, the overwhelmingly Europhile elites of Britain were not only unable to predict Brexit, they literally couldn’t understand the “common” person’s rationale for supporting it. This incapacity of elites to make accurate assessments of political problems persists everywhere.
It took a stunning degree of wilful ignorance for post-Cold War economists to think that running huge trade deficits with China’s protectionist, fascist economy represented a victory for the free market and was beneficial for the West. Yet this they did, even as Chinese competition eviscerated the Western working class. When the weight of evidence finally forced some of globalisation’s leading mouthpieces to admit that Chinese protectionism was a bad thing, they nonetheless claimed there was no turning back. Thus, even when they are wrong, elites are eventually right or claim they will be, given more time.
Recall the year 2011, when NATO forces were already overstretched by fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet somehow still managed to enter into more wars in Libya and Syria. One wonders if the elites were playing a numbers game, hoping they would eventually win one if they fought enough wars. This would explain why the American appetite for conflict with Iran has not abated either. “Just one more” could be the mantra.
Such mistakes aren’t limited to the West’s Middle Eastern or China policies. Recently, a former U.S. official notedthat the State Department refused to sanction Russia for attacking its neighbours because they wanted Putin’s cooperation on human rights and global stability. Apparently, it took almost a human lifespan for this so-called expert to realise Putin wasn’t interested.
At times, the failure of our elites to learn is downright worrying, partly because it is hard to imagine what exactly they are seeing when they observe the world. Take White House spokeswoman Jan Psaki, who responded to reports that the Taliban were winning the war by suggesting that this jihadi death squad should “consider their role in the international community.” Does she think the people who strap suicide vests to teenagers are confused about their goals? Does she think they care what Americans think, particularly once they see their US-sponsored enemies fleeing?
Surely I’m not alone in experiencing a fascinated bewilderment at the words of General Sir Nick Carter, the UK’s chief of defence, who cautioned against calling the Taliban the “enemy” because he wasn’t sure they were. Never mind that he also extolled their “honour” whilst the BBC was reporting on “door-to-door” manhunts in Kabul or that he claimed the Taliban want a country “inclusive for all.” Here we have a British general who spent 20 years fighting the Taliban, only to be unsure as to whether they are the enemy. Did it take him 20 years to come to a preliminary verdict, and does he need another 20 to be certain? I suppose the Taliban only murder gays, atheists, journalists, police, uppity women, activists, or anyone that doesn’t obey them. Perhaps they could be our friends.
But if General Carter is a slow learner, he is not alone atop of NATO’s loftiest heights. When the ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan – “ISIS-K” – claimed responsibility for a bombing at Kabul Airport, the Americans promised to strike back. Having not made themselves hated enough with drone strikes and civilian casualties thus far, the American counter-attack was a drone strike that caused civilian casualties, including children.
The sight of tiny coffins and a funeral crowd chanting “Death to America” was entirely predictable, yet apparently not predicted by anyone who matters. And what was this strike meant to accomplish? Was ISIS-K supposed to be trembling as they watched people clinging to American cargo planes? Was this strike supposed to deter ISIS-K from more attacks, even though levelling half of Syria has not done so, and ISIS exists in Afghanistan purely to fight?
I would like to say that the West will simply ignore Afghanistan now and cease playing a great game for which our political class is mentally unfit. Alas, that probably won’t happen. We should note with some alarm the admission by an American general that he is open to cooperating with the Taliban to help attack ISIS-K. This is reminiscent of General Petraeus urging American cooperation with Al-Qaeda to attack ISIS in Syria. Yes, General Petraeus, who holds an Ivy League PhD, suggested helping Al-Qaeda, because only elites think giving assistance to terrorists and human rights abusers doesn’t always backfire.
Speaking of assistance, if you thought the Taliban might be made accountable to Afghans for any humanitarian disasters they cause, think again. Britain has already earmarked more foreign aid for Afghanistan, which their wise elites believe won’t be used by the Taliban. American national security adviser Jake Sullivan was a little more honest, admittingthat the Taliban might get direct aid from the USA.
Either way, the West has neither learned anything by propping up dictatorships around the world nor forgotten its ability to violently topple them. Thus, we may see the Taliban gain respectability, like the Saudis, or we could pay Al-Qaeda or ISIS to attack them. Apparently, treating these regimes to a dignified silence is not an option. Regardless, I cannot imagine what troubles the elites will ensnare us in next, and neither can they. That’s the problem.
“Learned nothing, forgotten nothing” is an under-used idiom.