When a nation as powerful as the United States bases policy on bogus history, it can become a grave danger to others and to itself. Yet, that is what now goes on daily in Official Washington, with senior officials routinely citing false narratives and elite journalists accepting myths as truth.
Take for example one of the favorite "lessons" from the recent past: that in 1989, as soon as the Soviet Union left Afghanistan, the United States foolishly turned its back on that central Asian nation setting the stage for the rise of the Taliban in the mid-1990s and for al-Qaeda's 9/11 attacks in 2001.
This "history" was cited again on Wednesday by President Barack Obama's nominee to be U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan C. Crocker. In testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Crocker said the supposed U.S. abandonment of Afghanistan in 1989 had "disastrous consequences" and "we cannot afford to do so again."
In other words, Crocker implied, the United States must stick with its current counter-insurgency war and the "nation-building" that goes with it, even if that requires the continued commitment of a large military force and the expenditure of billions of dollars each month.
The New York Times reported Crocker's comments about the alleged 1989 abandonment without challenge, indeed, the Times hailed his testimony an "unvarnished assessment." As for the senators, the Washington Post described Crocker's confirmation hearing as "a virtual love-fest."
No one wanted to suggest that Crocker might be lying. After all, he, along with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Gen. David Petraeus, walk on water as far as Official Washington is concerned. The trio is credited with another favorite Washington myth, the "successful surge" in Iraq, where Crocker served as ambassador while Petraeus was the military commander and Gates ran the Pentagon.
Official Washington also has bought into a third deadly myth, the certainty that Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi has American blood on his hands for his purported role in blowing Pan Am 103 out of the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988, a terrorist attack that killed 270 people.
All three of these dubious certainties are cited in the major U.S. news media as flat fact -- and thus a factor in determining war policy -- even though they are either untrue or in serious doubt.
Tom Hanks' History
Regarding Crocker's testimony about the Afghan abandonment, it is simply accepted in Washington's power circles that the United States did cut off assistance to the Afghan mujahedeen immediately after the Soviet army departed on Feb. 15, 1989. That "history" has even been popularized by Tom Hanks in the movie, "Charlie Wilson's War" -- and who would question Tom Hanks?
Defense Secretary Gates hammered home the same point in late 2009 as he sold the case for the "surge" of 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. On a flight to the war zone, he told a group of credulous reporters "that we are not going to repeat the situation in 1989."
But one has to assume that Gates and Crocker know the real history, that the United States did not terminate its covert support for the Afghan mujahedeen immediately after the Soviets left. In fact, we know for a fact that Gates is aware of the real history because he recounted it in his 1996 memoir, From the Shadows.
Here's what the history actually shows: In 1988, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev promised to remove Soviet troops from Afghanistan and sought a negotiated settlement. He hoped for a unity government that would include elements of Najibullah's Soviet-backed regime in Kabul and the CIA-backed Islamic fundamentalist rebels.
Gates, who was then deputy CIA director, opposed Gorbachev's plan, disbelieving that the Soviets would really depart and insisting that -- if they did -- the CIA's mujahedeen could quickly defeat Najibullah's army.
Inside the Reagan administration, Gates' judgment was opposed by State Department analysts who foresaw a drawn-out struggle. Deputy Secretary of State John Whitehead and the department's intelligence chief Morton Abramowitz warned that Najibullah's army might hold on longer than the CIA expected.
But Gates pushed the CIA analysis of a rapid Najibullah collapse and prevailed in the policy debates. In his memoir, Gates recalled briefing Secretary of State George Shultz and his senior aides about the CIA's prediction prior to Shultz flying to Moscow in February 1988.