The Castle and the Forest Sauvage

Why do fools and scoundrels rule? To take one example, why did the George W. Bush Administration decide to invade Iraq, and then why did so many Democratic as well as Republican politicians go along with that decision, and why did so many liberal as well as conservative media figures encourage and justify that decision? It was clear to many informed outsiders that Iraq was impoverished by sanctions and no threat to the United States, was ideologically unaligned with Al Qaeda and not coordinating with them, had weapons programs that were unimpressive to begin with and had been substantially destroyed during the 1990s UN inspections. But insiders- even insiders who profess relatively anti-war beliefs today- almost all supported the war, and the more insidery they were, the more they supported it.

Is it that it takes a fool or a scoundrel to get close to power, since the fools and scoundrels that are already there will only trust one of their own kind? Or is it that power or proximity to power makes you a fool and a scoundrel? I imagine both are equally true.

Imagine a castle surrounded by agricultural land. The Castle was established where the land is richest, to allow the inhabitants easily and comfortably to support themselves, while the land further away is of poorer quality and is more exposed to raiders and bandits from the Forest Sauvage beyond.


Over time, many of the more clever and industrious peasants end up closer to the Castle, where though they must compete over a more narrow space, they benefit not only from the richer soil but from greater safety, and easy transport and trade with the Castle.

The peasants in the poorer agricultural land must decide if their personal advantages make it worthwhile to travel inward and fight it out with those who are already there, or stay where they are, and make do.

But those who are already within the Castle do not chiefly benefit from being clever or industrious. They benefit from being able to control the drawbridge over the moat, and the portcullis into the castle gate, and most of all they benefit from already being inside.

So surely sometimes it is to the Castle-dwellers’ benefit for the peasants to be clever and industrious, so that there is more food and tradeables to be had, but sometimes it is not to their benefit, since peasants who are too clever might find it preferable install themselves into the castle instead. And surely the bandits and raiders of the Forest Sauvage might, under some circumstances, be a danger and a problem, but under other circumstances be quite helpful in preventing the peasants from becoming too uppity and dangerous.

And what happens when the residents of the Castle are very good at working the gate and the drawbridge, and favoring the peasants who appear most helpful but still entirely harmless, to come inside with their flour and eggs and beer and bacon but not with spears and pikes? Surely those peasants who do best are those who are greatest at convincing the castle-dwellers that they have nothing to fear, and the Castle-dwellers do best when they cultivate such sycophants.

So meritocracy might rule when it comes to who ends up nearer or further from the castle (or then it might again not), but it will never determine who is allowed to come over the drawbridge, in through the gate, and allowed to see the Castle’s inside.



11 thoughts on “The Castle and the Forest Sauvage

  1. The idea behind invading Iraq was to set up a stable democracy in the region, to act as an ideological anchor for western values in the region, and as a counter balance to Iran (the largest sponsor of terrorism). Maybe some revenge as well, and something to do with the hegemony of the dollar, if you believe the conspiracy theories. WMDs were largely a pretext. As the war is essentially ongoing, it’s is a trillion dollar plus social experiment to try to get the Middle East to Denmark. I don’t have high hopes that it will work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Do you think all the writers advocating for the war (like Chait or Yglesias or Hitchens or Friedman) thought a stable democracy/American client state was realistic? Maybe they did.
      It’s funny


      1. I don’t know enough about the writers you name to agree, and I am assuming the Friedman you name wasn’t Milton Friedman, who died in 2006 and who had mostly retreated from public view in 2003 when the war started. However, I do agree that our neocon leaders thought it was possible to lay on top of the tribal and Islamic culture in the Middle East what has taken millennia and innumerable revolutions and wars to achieve in the West. I distinctly remember listening to Rush and Hannity, echoing some G.W. Bush speeches, that every human yearns to be free, and it was somehow racist to assume that Middle Easterners were culturally and intellectually incapable of having a democracy. It was a strange reversal of the usual left/right debate. I still don’t know if most Americans really understand the utter rejection of our values in most of Islam (all while benefiting from our technological advances that come from them).

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m not going to re-litigate the Iraq War with our wise host, but I will say I think his post is unfair to the strongest arguments for the invasion:

    “It was clear to many informed outsiders that Iraq was impoverished by sanctions and no threat to the United States, was ideologically unaligned with Al Qaeda and not coordinating with them, had weapons programs that were unimpressive to begin with and had been substantially destroyed during the 1990s UN inspections.”

    It was just as clear to many informed outsiders as well as ‘insiders’ that Saddam was making more and more money by evading sanctions (and that the sanctions regime was becoming harder to maintain given the fickleness of international pressure); that Saddam would align with anyone as long as they served his interests (and his that included Al Qaeda offshoots operating in Kurdistan, although I agree these groups were no threat in the short-term to U.S. interests); that with enough money Saddam could start rebuilding his weapons programs (and more importantly, he acted like a man who wanted to rebuild his programs, even if they were non-existent.)

    Contrary to Mad Kalak I think just reading the text of the resolution to use force against Iraq explains our motives well:

    Only one reason out of many includes “setting up a stable democracy” (although the text of the resolution says we will “promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace [Saddam].” This was later highlighted by various ideologues who supported the invasion because they believed the Iraqis wanted to live free from tyranny. I guess I was one of those neo-con ideologues and I know a lot more about Arabs and Islam to say now that this goal was foolish (at least as a short-term ideal.)

    On the other hand, to this day the Kurds are eternally grateful for U.S. help and someday will probably have their own country thanks to our efforts. Will Kurdistan be worth our blood and treasure? Probably not, but they are a noble Islamic people and I think will be good allies to have in the future.

    What is most interesting about looking back on Iraq is how quickly everyone forgets the ‘good war’ in Afghanistan — if ever there was a backward country that was a worse candidate for nation-building, I can’t think of it (at least nation-building using 21st Century methods — as Mencius Moldbug likes to remind readers, the British did a nice job pacifying the place during Pink’s War because they were willing to be ruthless.)

    Anyway, I’m rambling a bit because Iraq gets me nostalgic — I’m obviously chastened by what’s happened to the Christians living there and for that reason alone if I could do it all over I might still remove Saddam but immediately install another Sunni strong-man who promised to protect minorities. Iraq needs the steady hand of a dictator/king for quite some time before they get used to democratic forms of government (probably true for much of the Middle-East.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What utter rot. Saddam was maybe making making a billion a year, from truck smuggling of oil and kickbacks: peanuts. A university budget – a small university.

      Since the US has a veto at the UN, sanctions were going to be relaxed when we decided to, not before.

      Saddam wasn’t allied with Al-Qaeda or related groups. On the other hand, today we are, in Syria, so I guess we should have attacked ourselves.

      If you could read, you could have read something about the Middle East and known in advance that the Arabs are about as ready for representative democracy as they are for pork chops. I knew. Why did you bother to have an opinion when you didn’t know anything?

      Go visit some cripples at the VA. Enjoy the fruit of your stupidity.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The overthrow of Saddam was publicly advocated in the 1990s by William Kristol, Robert Kagan, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, annd John Bolton, among others. According to Paul O’Neill, who served as George W. Bush’s Treasury Secretary, the means by which to organnize and justify such an invasion were under discussion at the Cabinet level from the beginning of the Bush administration. In the immediate aftermath of 9-11, Rumsfeld advocated the invasion of Iraq, describing the terrorist attack as “an opportunity.”

    On a slightly tangential note, in 2003 I met a guy — at a baby shower of all places — who had worked for Rumsfeld in Chicago when he was CEO of Searle. He described Rumseld as an executive of staggering arrogance and incompetence who wouldn’t or couldn’t follow simple logic in marketing annd pricing strategies. Rumsfeld did, however, have the political connections to get NutraSweet approved by the FDA, despite two previous rejections, and that’s what made Rumsfeld’s reputation as a business genius, and his fortune.

    We are not ruled by wise or sensible people.


  4. “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
    You give a child toy soldiers as a Christmas present. He isn’t going to turn them into UN Peacekeepers or the Swiss National Guard.

    Anyone remember the Pentagon Papers? They were a big deal and their senior editor was a guy named Leslie Gelb. Anyone reading the pentagon papers would have a pretty good idea that we didn’t know what the hell we were doing in Vietnam. The utterly obvious error was the notion that eliminating Bathists in Iraq was anything other than turning Iraq into a Shia suburb of Iran. Iran — member of the axis of evil.

    Who was against the Iraq adventure? The Academic Foreign Relations crowd. To wit: “In September 2002, thirty-three senior scholars who specialize in security affairs published a quarter-page ad on the New York Times op-ed page, declaring, “War with Iraq is Not in America’s National Interest.”

    You can read the original ad here.

    Most of the Above was published in:

    he academics got it. Here is the remarkable thing. Leslie Gelb was still around.

    He wrote: “For the critics were right.
    Unfortunately, I was not one of them. On subjects as sensitive and important as war and peace, people in glass houses should be careful how they throw stones. I was a strong supporter of the Iraq War. I was sure Saddam Hussein had chemical weapons because he had used them against Iran and Iraqi Kurds. He had also attacked Iran and Kuwait. And I believed that he either had or was close to achieving nuclear weapons capability, and I favored getting rid of him before that day.”

    At least he was willing to own up to it.

    Apparently there is a bifurcation between pure academics — which I assume means those with tenure. And The FR establishment that populate Think Tanks and government positions. Which includes military and civilian security positions as well. Not surprisingly, they are all in their same jobs. The academics because — thats what they do. As well as the practitioners.

    How can this be explained? There is no lobby for doing nothing. Would anyone get excited about, say, doing nothing. Instead of the stupid things we have been doing? It doesn’t look good on a resume. The academics? They don’t have to do dangerous stuff in the real world to advance their careers.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I am truly perplexed about this. I am leaning toward the view that it is a combination of incentives to “do something” or “do anything” once you are inside the castle. But maybe even more the absence of any constituency and hence incentives for doing nothing.

        In US finance, there is constant competition between — for example — banks and ‘shadow banks’. Or community banks vs regionals vs money center banks. It’s not that they are any better or worse than anyone else, but they are severely constrained by competitors. Regardless of their power, they certainly don’t feel powerful. And if they can get organized to do more than fight over defending their turf from other financial entities, it involves tax breaks or credits and what they regard as regulatory threats. After all that, long term planning is where to eat lunch. Without these constraints — they might actually do what they are popularly thought of doing. Colluding with the BIS, World Bank, IMF, Fed, and billionaires.

        I will say that cyber counter terrorism is potentially the most profitable defense business in the history of mankind. Compared to manufacturing airplanes, it is not capital intensive. And best of all, they ‘deliverable’ isn’t visible or measurable. An airplane has to actually fly at some point. Flynn comes from a military field intelligence background. My main problem with him is that he seems to fail to realize that Jihad attracts people because it appears to be fun.

        Our current military is a descendent of the cold war and WW 2 military. Spending money on bits and bytes seems a lot less dangerous. The last war the US won was WW 2, where we were willing to strategically firebomb major cities and their civilian populations. Stalin or Curtis LeMay would have simply leveled Syria. I remember a Petraeus quote to the effect that we can’t just ‘kill our way’ out of Iraq. I would argue if we aren’t willing to kill our way out of a problem, leave the military at home.


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