Incompetence and malice; Grand Inquest of the Nation; Jacques Barzun, RIP


View 747 Friday, October 26, 2012

Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence. Napoleon Bonaparte

I first used this quote sometime in the Genie era. I think I first saw it in one of the works of Ortega y Gasset, but it might have been told by de Jouvenal. The story is told that there was a problem in Paris while the Emperor was on campaign. When it was reported as treason, Bonaparte made that comment. I’ve known about this since undergraduate days, and it may be that I first learned it from George Mosse in his Western Civilization class. The Internet doesn’t seem to have caught up with that, which is why you can’t rely on the Internet, particularly when it comes to scholarship about the origin of aphorisms. There are too many claimants with partisans.

None of which is particularly relevant, but in my searches for when I first used this – certainly in View or Mail in 1998 but I suspect considerably earlier – I found a long forgotten Chaos Manor Report in which a reader made up a list of aphorisms he had learned from reading Chaos Manor. For those searching for useful phrases, I recommend Leadership Quotes.


Today’s news makes Napoleon’s quip more relevant each day. Indeed, the news strains the truth of his statement, and I have at least one reader who has long held that the Obama government is simply malicious, and I ought to admit it. My reply to him was that I suspected he had not spent much time in faculty lounges. Liberals do not believe they are evil. Indeed, the foundation of liberalism is that good intentions cannot be evil. Conservative intellectuals call that a negation of the importance of prudence. That is to say, in a classical education the primary virtues are Prudence, Temperance, Courage, and Justice. Prudence is a due regard for the possible consequences of your courageous actions in pursuit of justice. Liberalism in essence says that if your intentions are good, your actions are not evil. Perhaps incompetent, but then the world is complex, and there are always unintentional consequences to what you do. The important thing is to act. Do something, even if it’s wrong. And of course once one starts down a road, it is difficult to admit that you are going in the wrong direction, and it becomes important to defend what you are doing, so that the unintended consequences become acts you should defend even though, had you known that would happen – well, you get the idea.

But as we learn that the CIA operatives in Benghazi wanted to go to the aid of the consulate when the attack began, and were told from Washington that they could not go – ordered to stand down – it becomes even more difficult to ascribe the entire mess in Benghazi to simple incompetence.

Leon Panetta is nether evil nor incompetent, or at least he wasn’t when I knew him as a California Congressman very friendly to the space development movement. His statement that we do not send forces into unknown threat situations is a generality that is often true; but it does provide a clue as to the White House reasoning in the Benghazi crisis. I see a glimmering: they were terrified of another Black Hawk Down incident. If we sent in a helicopter team from Italy it would be a one-way mission, victory or die: they’d have bingo fuel when they got to Benghazi and there wasn’t any safe place to go other than the consulate grounds. And the political consequences of something like Black Hawk Down would be horrible. Political managers never make bets like that. Montrose’s toast is not for them.** And once one goes down that road, it is difficult to turn back. Don’t throw good money after bad. Cut your losses. Some hands you have to fold even if you had to make the first blind bet. Etc.

I don’t know. I do know that the more information we have of the Benghazi fiasco, the more strain that puts on applying Bonaparte’s aphorism to that situation.

As to Panetta’s generality, there are always exceptions to it. The Brits decided that they would cut their losses – and removed their consulate from Benghazi well in advance of September 11. That would be, in my judgment, the signal for a major decision: how badly do we want that consulate to stay open? What would it cost to make it secure? Because once we decide that we will keep it open, we need to arrange for its security, up to and including stationing resources capable of dealing with organized terrorist attacks with crew served weapons. If that turns out to be too expensive, then get out. The Brits made their decision.


The House of Representatives is the Grand inquest of the Nation. I would suppose that the death of an ambassador on duty followed by inadequate accounts from the Executive Department would warrant a Grand Inquest. I can understand that the House might be unwilling to open that inquest pending a national election.


Jacques Barzun, RIP

I never met Jacques Barzun, but he had more influence on my life than most people I knew. I read his Teacher in America when I was in high school, and periodically reread it, much of what I think I know about both the value and methods of education came from that book, and I recommend it to everyone. He was America’s best public intellectual, and he will be remembered for a very long time. His intellectual history From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present is one of those books that every aspirant to the intellectual life should read at leas once in his life.


Dragon set to splash down Sunday noon

First paying mission. Good Job SpaceX.


An important event in the development of commercial space. Hurrah for the Commercial Space Act.


My thanks to all those who have subscribed or renewed during the current pledge drive. The drive ends tomorrow – I run a pledge drive when KUSC has their pledge drives since this place operates on the Public Radio model. It’s free to all but it stays open only if we get enough subscriptions. My thanks to all those who responded.

If you have not subscribed, or if you haven’t renewed in a while, this would be a great time to do it! Subscribe now.


** “He either fears his fate too much, Or his desserts are small, Who dares not put it to the touch, To win or lose it all.” James Graham, Marquis of Montrose




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