Mugged by Reality

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Bush Administration, conservatism, Iraq War

Today’s Paul Krugman column:

In a coordinated public relations offensive, the White House is using reliably friendly pundits — amazingly, they still exist — to put out the word that President Bush is as upbeat and confident as ever. It might even be true.

What I don’t understand is why we’re supposed to consider Mr. Bush’s continuing confidence a good thing.

Remember, Mr. Bush was confident six years ago when he promised to bring in Osama, dead or alive. He was confident four years ago, when he told the insurgents to bring it on. He was confident two years ago, when he told Brownie that he was doing a heckuva job.

Now Iraq is a bloody quagmire, Afghanistan is deteriorating and the Bush administration’s own National Intelligence Estimate admits, in effect, that thanks to Mr. Bush’s poor leadership America is losing the struggle with Al Qaeda. Yet Mr. Bush remains confident.

What I don’t understand is why we’re supposed to consider Mr. Bush’s continuing confidence a good thing. Well, let’s think about that. I don’t think most Americans are all that confident in Mr. Bush’s “confidence.” But he’s still got his base. And that would be the pseudo conservatives who have mired the nation in the bog of their many social pathologies. The game he’s playing is to contrast himself with the “defeatists” targeted to be scapegoats.

If you missed Keith Olbermann’s special comment last night, you can see the video and read the transcript at Crooks and Liars. In brief, the White House blames the Iraq War’s opponents for the failures of the war.

The fault, brought down — as if a sermon from this mount of hypocrisy and slaughter, by a nearly anonymous Under-Secretary of Defense — the fault has tonight been laid on the doorstep of Senator Hillary Clinton and, by extension, at the doorstep of every American — the now vast majority of us — who have dared to criticize this war, or protest it, or merely ask questions about it, or simply, plaintively, innocently, honestly, plead, “don’t take my son; don’t take my daughter.”

Senator Clinton has been sent — and someone has leaked to the Associated Press — a letter, sent in reply to hers, asking if there exists, an actual plan for evacuating U.S. troops from Iraq.

This extraordinary document was written by an Under-Secretary of Defense named Eric Edelman.

“Premature and public discussion of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq,” Edelman writes, “reinforces enemy propaganda that the United States will abandon its allies in Iraq, much as we are perceived to have done in Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia.” Edelman adds: “such talk understandably unnerves the very same Iraqi allies we are asking to assume enormous personal risks.”

After that Keith gets a tad miffed. Don’t miss it.

In today’s Washington Post, Eugene Robinson also takes note of Bush’s boundless optimism. Robinson points to the Oval Office pep talk given to nine conservative pundits last week. The pundits described Bush’s demeanor as “sunny,” “upbeat,” “energized,” and “good-humored.” Robinson comments,

Excuse me? I guess he must be in an even better mood since the feckless Iraqi government announced its decision to take the whole month of August off while U.S. troops continue fighting and dying in Baghdad’s 130-degree summer heat.

It’s almost as if Bush were trying to apply the principles of cognitive therapy, the system psychiatrist Aaron T. Beck developed in the 1960s. Beck found that getting patients to banish negative thoughts and develop patterns of positive thinking was helpful in pulling them out of depression. However, Beck was trying to get the patients to see themselves and the world realistically, whereas Bush has left realism far behind.

Beside scapegoating lefties, the other explanation for Bush’s confidence goes back to the subject of the first Wisdom of Doubt post. Our culture has developed a pathological aversion to doubt. Being without doubt is celebrated as a virtue, a strength, a source of moral character. Our President, for example, is a man without doubt, and he seems to think this is what makes him a great president.

Recently Peter Birkenhead wrote a piece for Salon called “Better to Be Hamlet Than King George.” We have created a culture, he said, that confuses leadership with “an almost psychotic form of false optimism.” I’d leave out the “almost.” The Bush Administration, Birkenhead continued, is riddled with people who lack the wisdom of doubt, the grace of humility, and the simple ability to learn from mistakes.

Let’s face it, George Bush doesn’t have to doubt himself, any more than Donald Trump or Tom Cruise or Mitt Romney do. We live in a culture where they will never be forced to examine their prejudices or flaws. Of course, they have been denied the true confidence of people who are brave enough to face their doubts and who know there are worse things than feeling insecure. Like, say, feeling too secure. Pumped up by steroidic pseudo-confidence and anesthetized by doubt-free sentimentality, they are incapable of feeling anything authentic and experiencing the world. But that hasn’t stopped them, and won’t stop others, from succeeding in a society that is more enamored of a non-reality-based conception of leadership than previous generations were.

So here we have Mr. Bush, at the nadir (so far) of his presidency, putting on a demonstration of absolute doubtlessness in front of the faithful scribes. This makes perfect sense, if you understand how they think. To most of us, of course, it’s insanity.

Robinson continues,

“Bush gives the impression that he is more steadfast on the war than many in his own administration and that, if need be, he’ll be the last hawk standing,” wrote Lowry. The president says the results of his recent troop escalation will be evaluated by Gen. David Petraeus, wrote Barone, and not by “the polls.”

Translation: Everybody’s out of step but me.

One of the more unnerving reports out of the president’s seminar with the pundits came from Brooks, who quoted Bush as saying: “It’s more of a theological perspective. I do believe there is an Almighty, and I believe a gift of that Almighty to all is freedom. And I will tell you that is a principle that no one can convince me that doesn’t exist.”

Those last couple of sentences are doozies, huh? Although the American invasion brought many things to Iraq, so far “freedom” seems in short supply. But (as I’ve argued elsewhere) what Bush is talking about is more an idea of freedom than freedom itself.

It’s also a long-established cornerstone of Wingnutism that liberty comes from God, not government, and for years wingnuts predictably would throw a fit if one argued for the government’s role in the protection of civil liberty. (Of course, if they really believed that they wouldn’t have seen a need for sending armies here and there to effect “regime change” and install “freedom,” or at least an idea of it.) The notion that liberty is a moral entitlement for being human is mostly a legacy of the Enlightenment, which was not a happy era for religious conservatives of the time. But today’s religious conservatives are not above using government to impose their notions of “liberty” — namely, the liberty to oppress the rest of us. They just don’t like government’s protection of civil liberty when government protects other people from them.

Eugene Robinson continues,

It’s bad enough that Osama bin Laden is still out there plotting bloody acts of terrorism, convinced that God wants him to slay the infidels. Now we know that the president of the United States believes God has chosen him to bring freedom to the world, that he refuses to acknowledge setbacks in his crusade and that he flat-out doesn’t care what “the polls” — meaning the American people — might think. I’m having trouble seeing the bright side. I think I need cognitive therapy.

You and me both, Eugene. But in today’s Los Angeles Times, Rosa Brooks argues that Bush has imposed his idea of reality on the world, in spite of his blunders.

In a much-quoted 2004 New York Times Magazine article, journalist Ron Suskind described a 2002 conversation with a senior Bush advisor — widely assumed to be Karl Rove — who added an extra gloss to Kristol’s aphorism, making it clear that “reality” can mean different things to different people.

As Suskind relates the story: “The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’ ” …

… If empires can choose to create their own realities, why hasn’t Bush’s American Empire created a stable, more peaceful world? Why aren’t we safer than we were before 9/11? The neocons deluded themselves into imagining they could control reality, but in the end, aren’t they the ones who’ve just been mugged? But it’s not that simple.

In a very real sense, Suskind’s “senior Bush advisor” has been proved more right than wrong. The administration did create realities to match its darkest visions, reshaping the world with remarkable speed and thoroughness.

In 2001, administration stalwarts suggested that Osama bin Laden rivaled Hitler in the danger he posed to U.S. security and insisted that Al Qaeda’s power was so great that nothing short of a “global war on terror” was required.

At that time, most experts say, this description of Al Qaeda simply wasn’t true. It was little more than an obscure group of extremist thugs, well financed and intermittently lethal but relatively limited in their global and regional political pull. On 9/11, they got lucky — but despite the unexpected success of their attack on the U.S., they did not pose an imminent mortal threat to the nation.

Today, things are different. Thanks to U.S. policies, Al Qaeda has become the vast global threat the administration imagined it to be in 2001. Our ham-handed detention and interrogation tactics and our ill-advised invasion of Iraq have alienated vast swathes of the Islamic world, fueling extremism and anti-Americanism. Today, Al Qaeda is no longer a single organization. Now it’s a franchise, with new gangs of terrorists around the world proudly seizing the “Al Qaeda” affiliation.

Other neocon fantasies have also come true. In 2003, there was no alliance between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, and no Al Qaeda-linked terrorist groups in Iraq. Today, thanks to the administration’s actions, Iraq has become a prime training and recruiting ground for Al Qaeda, and the NIE has declared Al Qaeda in Iraq one of the greatest threats to U.S. peace and security.

Welcome to the neocons’ reality.

Suskind’s senior Bush aide was right all along. When an empire acts, it creates new realities — for better or for worse — and all the rest us are left to study those new realities. And, unfortunately, to live with them.

Be sure to read Michael Hirsch’s most recent Newsweek.com column, “Let’s Not Kid Ourselves.” I don’t think most of us are, actually. Unfortunately, those in charge of government are still living in La La Land.

Update:
See also Glenn Greenwald

Speaking of which, in a post almost immediately preceding Kudlow’s, Jonah Goldberg laid down his Lofty Principles of American Warfare: namely, we must favor democracy in the world because it “is morally preferable to tyranny”; our wars must keep in mind “America’s sense of decency”; “Americans want to feel good about their wars, particularly their wars of choice”; to beat terrorism, we need “something,” and “Our something must be freedom”; and when waging war, Americans “need to be reassured they are the good guys.”

And with these inspiring principals in mind, what does Jonah think we should now in Iraq?

    As a matter of analysis and prescription, I’m all in favor of the war in Iraq becoming less “liberal” — as you folks are using the term around here — and more realistic, i.e. ruthless. No fan of “liberalizing” Iraq can be against winning there first.

Absolutely. The problem we have in the Muslim world is that we have not been sufficiently “ruthless” in our wars. We need to make sure that we are the good guys and on the side of freedom and maintain our sense of decency. And to do this, we must — after four straight years of decimating that country — increase our ruthlessness.

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12 Comments

11 Comments

  1. tc  •  Jul 20, 2007 @9:30 am

    Bush is a confidence man, that’s for sure.

  2. moonbat  •  Jul 20, 2007 @12:57 pm

    Greenwald has another great post (appearing the day before the one you linked to) about this:

    “This has been the great unexamined issue of the Bush presidency — the extent to which Bush’s unwavering commitment to Middle East militarism is, as Bush himself has made clear, rooted in theological and religious convictions, not in pragmatic or geopolitical concerns. That Bush’s foreign policy decision-making is grounded in absolute moral and theological convictions and therefore immune from re-examination or change is an argument I examine at length in A Tragic Legacy because it is one of the principal — and most dangerous — forces driving the Bush presidency. ”

    That video from Olbermann is a knock out.

  3. erinyes  •  Jul 20, 2007 @6:41 pm

    A couple of thoughts,
    The righties I know are VERY pissed at Bush. The reason they are pissed is everything costs more, and there is no end in sight.
    Another reason is that Bush claims to be a Christian, and he is not acting like one. This is the reality. Most of them will vote for Ron Paul in the next election.If his name is not on the ballot, they will write him in.

    The righties I know don’t give 2 shits for the people of Iraq.
    They care only about their personal finances, which are in the crapper.

    Bush is pro immigration, this pisses the righties off.
    Bush is pro immigration because he can get the immigrants into the armed forces, thereby accelerating the “path to citizenship”, and with more consumers, the stock market has more participants and a bigger volume, we also have a near slave labor work force with immigrants.

    Bush has shit in his own back yard, he is an albatross around the neck of the American nation and his party.Bush must be removed.
    If anyone saw Tammy Fay on Larry King last night, she is what our nation will resemble if we don’t dump Bush / Cheney ASAP.
    Tammy ( I feel real sorry for the lady) is suffering from stage 4 cancer and looks like a walking skeleton.

    Jonah Goldberg is a pantywaist, pussy assed momma’s boy.
    Send his ass to combat.He needs to be mugged by reality…or something
    End of comment.

  4. erinyes  •  Jul 20, 2007 @6:43 pm

    http://www.newswithviews.com/Devvy/kidd288.htm
    Here is a “wingnut”opinion.

  5. erinyes  •  Jul 20, 2007 @7:47 pm
  6. deepsouth  •  Jul 20, 2007 @8:53 pm

    The neoconservative canon is all about the necessity to be more ruthless and brutal, with all that breathless rhetoric about slamming people up against the wall etc. As far as I can tell , this is their little erotic fantasy, as, of course, most of these “guys” are bookish types , not Chuck Norris types, and most have NOT served in the military. Curious. One book lays the blame for the current state of culture at the feet of feminists , homosexuals and psychotherapists, who have somehow mysteriously stolen the manhood of — well, of THEM. Duh-oh. And the schools are full of Marxists. And there’s no such thing of PTSD, those guys are just sissies. Progressives have mistakenly ignored these guys, writing them off as crackpots. But now , they’re running the show.

  7. Doug Hughes  •  Jul 20, 2007 @9:01 pm

    I once saw Tony Snow use the word ‘Empire’ and bit it off and substitue ‘nation’.. My opinion is that ‘Empire’ is a word that’s a common term inside the administration. Iraq is front and center in that vision because IF we can dominate in the Middle East, then in that vision, we can economically rule the entire industrialized world. We would not need to conquor anyone who needs oil. The phrase ‘We’re an Empire now’ was used in the citation about the Senior WH Official {Rove) in the interviewwith Ron Suskind.

    The region is inhabited by Arabs, mostly Muslim of 3 main groups, Suni, Shite, and Kurds. The have age-old vendettas going and they don’t mind if women and children are maimed. But they do seem to agree on one thing. Infidels will NOT be allowed to dominate the region. Which brings to mind the true meaning of the ‘ruthless’ doctrine. European countries are realistic when conquored; they capitulate. We have conquored Iraq and if they won’t say ‘uncle’, we need to apply the same ruthless morality we did on Native Americans when they tried to keep land we did not know was valuable when we deeded it to them.

    I would love to see some research on the ‘Empire’ mentality. If it can be substantiated in memos, etc, then it needs to be front and center in the Democrats vocabulary in the sentance. “We are NOT gioing to be an empire.” With examples of HOW they will dismantle the laws and mechanisms which supported the concept. Because I do NOT think Americans want to be an Empire.

  8. Swami  •  Jul 21, 2007 @1:09 am

    In the big picture Bush will be a no count relegated to the dust bin of history. There is nothing in his character to distinguish him above the grade of a glorified thug. He can delude himself with visions of trailblazing greatness on the world stage,but the reality is that mediocrity will always be his master. He’s a nowhere man with nothing to offer.

  9. c u n d gulag  •  Jul 21, 2007 @8:47 am

    What spewed from Jonah’s mouth is truly amazing.
    How do these people live with themselves?
    I guess the Bush Crime Family needs thier Capo’s.
    Does any editor at the LA Times even read this @$$hole’s column’s? Why does it even have one.
    BTW – he was born in 1969 , which means he’s young enough to serve in the war he supports. But, then, you remember what he said…
    Moral coward.

  10. Tracy  •  Jul 21, 2007 @3:53 pm

    No al Qaeda in Iraq before the invasion? My ass.

    It’s cute and all to be partisan, hate Bush and be against the war but quit lying about Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The man had al Qaeda both in the North and in Baghdad. Tariq Aziz admitted and our troops found them there. Check http://www.regimeofterror.com, read Linda Robinson’s book. Do your homework. You people are why liberals aren’t taking seriously.

    So partisan that you are lying to cover up tyrants. Unbelievable.

  11. maha  •  Jul 21, 2007 @4:48 pm

    Tracy — the facts are that al Qaeda was not in Baghdad — that is a lie, m’dear — and the only terrorists even loosely connected to al Qaeda were in Iraqi Kurdistan where Saddam Hussein could not get to them.. See “Jeez, Righties Are So Gullible” for details.

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