It's the Stupidity, Stupid

When the U.S. bungles, the world sees a conspiracy. The story may be simpler

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I had dinner in New York City with a Chinese friend who makes huge business deals on the mainland. She was just back from Beijing. "Business is business," she said, when I asked the obvious question. "Politics is politics." And so a multimillion-dollar sale proceeded smoothly even as NATO bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and the Cox report detailed Chinese nuclear espionage in America.

But her eyes clouded when she talked about the funeral in Beijing for the three Chinese killed in the embassy attack. Her words became bruised, accusatory. I asked, "Do you really believe the Americans did it deliberately?" "Absolutely!" she said. "Makes no sense," I replied. "Why would we do such a thing?" "Ah," she said, "there had to be a deeper reason: CIA out to subvert..." Her line of conspiratorial inference trailed off. "Possibly," I allowed. "But more likely the reason was stupidity. Just look at all the adjacent stupidities--like hitting that K.L.A. camp thinking it was a Serb military base even though Western media had done stories about how the Kosovars had taken it over. Or hitting the Belgrade hospital, or that prison, or almost bombing a Swiss diplomatic reception."

My Chinese friend would not budge. The options on the dinner table were 1) conspiracy--which, after all, answers human nature's need to blame a hidden hand, a deeper complexity of cause, and 2) stupidity, that great but underappreciated presence in human history.

I think I backed the more plausible option. In fact, the allies' war in Yugoslavia has begun to acquire an alarming dimension of stupidity--from the manifest inability of NATO to read a Belgrade street map or phone book (lemme see, would it be under E for embassy or C for China?) to a certain overall Ben Tre logic (named for the Vietnamese town about which an American officer said, "It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it"), and drifting further on to an even deeper moral obtuseness.

Stupidity is one of my favorite subjects. "It is always amazing," Jean Cocteau wrote, "no matter how often one encounters it." Like sleep, stupidity is a universal, surreal and mysterious phenomenon, a brownout, the mind passing through a tunnel. Sometimes stupidity is hilarious; most of the world's jokes are told by one ethnic group about the stupidity of another ethnic group. In its sinister forms, stupidity turns up as evil's incompetent half brother--evil without supernatural prestige. The "Evil Empire" was, in a more practical sense, the stupid empire; systemic stupidity, not evil or good, brought the Soviet Union down.

The greater the enormity committed, of course, the less we are willing to attribute it to sheer, blind dumbness. We expect history to be imposing, complex, with an elaborate machinery of cause and effect. But great history may get made by stupidity (the colossal stupidity, for example, of the Japanese in attacking Pearl Harbor, thereby bringing America into the war).

Things get complicated when stupidity and conspiracy go into business together--as they like to do. Remember the Watergate plots hatched in the White House basement: Nixon's "plumbers" had the low cunning of Daffy Duck thinking hard. Impressive: an entire Administration brought down by an immense yet pissant doofusness, culminating in Nixon's inexplicable failure to burn the tapes.

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