Conventional Wisdom


Conventional Wisdom (CW) is a term coined by the economist John Kenneth Galbraith in The Affluent Society, to describe certain ideas or explanations that are generally accepted as true by the public. In recent years it has gone beyond being the driving, to being the only, force in American politics and policy debates (the term debate is used really loosely in the classical grammar, logic, rhetoric sense).

The CW since 1991 is that the United States as the only world’s superpower has certain obligations. The obligations are fungible depending upon the media dialog of the moment. We can fix poverty, AIDS, genocide, terrorists, drug lords, just pick your favorite from a tableau of the usual suspects, and if we can’t fix it we will certainly spend prodigiously while trying. Behind all the trying is the coercive might of the world’s most powerful military machine. The United States may no longer be the world’s wealthiest nation, but we can apply some powerful leverage when the "leadership" decides.

In 1992 Robert Parry wrote presciently about this:

Yet even as America’s economic wealth is drained the smashing military victory of the U.S.-led coalition forces in the Persian Gulf established the United States as the undisputed military power in the post-Cold War era. High-tech American weaponry crushed Saddam Hussein’s army, inflicting tens of thousands of dead while holding U.S. casualties to a bare minimum.

With the impressive American military victory, the war marked a historic widening in the relative power between the First and Third worlds. The qualitative difference between the American arsenal of force multiplier weapons (designed to counter a massive Soviet invasion of Europe) and what is available to Third World countries was comparable to a fight between one army with machine guns and the other using bows and arrows. No Third World nation, not even one as heavily militarized as Iraq, could think it stands any chance against American might, whatever the merits of the cause at stake.

The American military power that President Bush [the first] unsheathed in the Arabian Desert was an awesome warning to the poorer nations that, as Bush put it, "what we say goes". The president envisioned the crushing bloody defeat of Iraq as the first policing action of a new world order which would place international law at the center of relations between nations.

But amid the CW-silly American political debate there is no guarantee that the United States will use its terrifying military power wisely or even within the tenets of the United Nations charter. A trivialized absorption with the latest CW, mixed with the cynical application of advertising skills, could make America a dangerous home for these massively destructive weapons. They could be brought to bear to prop up pro-U.S dictators facing domestic unrest, or to overthrows troublesome enemies who somehow angered the protectors of this ill-defined new world order.

The only meaningful check on possible abuse of America’s awesome military might in this unipolar world is the sophistication and vibrancy of the nation’s democratic institutions. Issues as grave as war and peace demand a thorough debate by a population given as much relevant information as possible, not a country governed by a tyranny of conventional wisdom, not an opinion elite satisfied with viewing enemies as comic book villains.

Without a recommitment to its own democratic values and an appreciation of other people’s history, the United States could flick on its unprecedented killing machine casually. It could grind up some geopolitical nuisance who simply found himself on the wrong side of the Washington CW, a punching bag of the talk show pundits. The nation would awake with blood-covered hands, realizing too late that it had slaughtered the wrong people."

~ Fooling America 1992 p 19—20

On the eve of Saddam Hussein’s execution these words forewarn of the demise of our Democratic Republic as an Imperial Presidency commits military force ad hoc. The current Iraq debacle has taken this to the penultimate as lies, dressed up as truth with Conventional Wisdom, lead us to tragedy.