Knee slapper du jour: George Will writes of the new Bob Woodward book:
The book does not demonstrate that the president is in a state of denial. His almost exclusive and increasingly grating reliance on the rhetoric of unwavering resolve may be mistaken. It certainly has undermined his reputation as a realist.
Reputation as a realist? Lordy, what does that man smoke?
The right wing of the Republican Party has a problem with the truth. The American press corps has an addiction to euphemisms.
Bob Woodward called his book “State of Denial.” The press around the book raises the question of whether President George W. Bush and his highest officials–Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condi Rice– are unable to face the truth (“in denial”).
Yet the sort of anecdote Woodward tells, and the new information surfacing on Tenet’s briefing of Rice and Hastert’s inaction on Foley– all these do not point to denial or lack of realism. They point to lying and to deliberately spinning and misleading the US public.
I say there’s lying, there’s denial, there’s lying about denial, and there’s denial of denial, and thus one walks the road from simple ignorance to complete and utter fantasy.
Make no mistake; the Bushies were already halfway down that road when they took power. The people who marched into the White House in January 2001 were mostly ignorant of the world. Even their foreign policy “experts” lacked direct, hands-on knowledge of the world, but instead were “expert” in academic and ideological theory about the world. But they were so certain of the superiority of their own judgments they brushed aside the warnings from the outgoing Clintonites about al Qaeda. Instead, the Bushies re-focused American foreign policy on “state sponsors” of terror and considered “personal,” stateless organizations like al Qaeda to be minor threats.
Josh Marshall wrote in Foreign Affairs, November/December 2003:
A key example [of Bush foreign policy] is the belief that states, rather than individuals or groups, remain the essential force in international affairs. It is now widely known that the incoming Bush administration initially downgraded its predecessor’s focus on al Qaeda and other nonstate terrorist groups. To the extent that it was concerned about unconventional weapons and asymmetric threats, its focus was on rogue states and state-centric policy solutions such as missile defense. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon altered those priorities overnight, putting al Qaeda and Islamist terrorism at the top of the nation’s agenda. But according to the authors, the epochal events failed to alter how most high administration officials understood the world. The emphasis on states, for example, remained. As Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith said, the reliance of terrorists on state sponsors was the “principal strategic thought underlying our strategy in the war on terrorism.”
So, by the time they got into power, the Bushies already had transformed simple ignorance into a dangerously delusional worldview. And in the months after September 11, they transformed the coverups of their failure into a shining fantasy of wisdom, strength, and (Dubya’s favorite word) resolve.
The Washington Pundit Corps, and most reporters covering national events, got swept up into the fantasy. Now that a few of the lies have been exposed, some of them are having moments of clarity. Some are stumbling about in wonder at what, to them, is an utterly transformed landscape that in fact had been under their feet all along.
George Will is a good example. He has come to understand that the Bush Administration is Seriously Screwed Up. Some parts of today’s column are actually quite sharp.
While leading the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in the summer of 2003, David Kay received a phone call from “Scooter” Libby, Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, who wanted a particular place searched: “The vice president wants to know if you’ve looked at this area. We have indications — and here are the geocoordinates — that something’s buried there.” Kay and his experts located the area on the map. It was in the middle of Lebanon.
This story from Bob Woodward’s “State of Denial” would be hilarious were it not about war. The vignette is dismaying because it seems symptomatic of a blinkering monomania that may have prevented obsessed persons from facing facts.
Well, yes. But then Will pulls back into comfortable aphorisms about dysfunctional government, and he wonders what has become of the President’s “reputation” as a “realist.”
I want to mention Will’s last paragraph before I move on:
“Where’s the leader?” Bush, according to Woodward, has exclaimed in dismay about the Iraqi government’s dithering. “Where’s George Washington? Where’s Thomas Jefferson? Where’s John Adams, for crying out loud?” For a president to ask that question about Iraq, that tribal stew, is enough to cause one to ask it about the United States.
Bush’s is the voice of a child crying that the Easter Bunny forgot to hide the eggs, or whatever the Easter Bunny does (tell you the truth, I was never clear about what the Easter Bunny is supposed to do). And this is the same guy who today calls his critics “naive.”
Juan Cole’s post makes a vital point — that coverups are coverups, and a coverup is not evidence of self-delusion, but of lying. But sometimes coverups are part of the denial process, too. As Professor Cole also points out, Bush’s refusal to acknowledge the growing insurgency had policy implications —
If you can’t announce that there is an insurgency, then you cannot order an effective counter-insurgency policy. The failure of the Bush administration all along in Iraq to publicly acknowledge how bad the situation was has cost thousands of US soldiers’ their lives. They died because Bush was treading water instead of coming on television and saying, there is an insurgency, and here are the five practical things we are going to do to combat it.
I think that in 2003 the Bushies could easily have gotten away with taking immediate counterinsurgency measures without acknowledging the insurgency. They could have called it something else, anything else, but an insurgency. They could have pretended that whatever counterinsurgency measures they were taking were part of their plan all along. In 2003, they could have gotten away with that, easily.
And if Bush was fully cognizant of the insurgency in 2003, even if he wouldn’t admit to it in public, one would think he would have been keenly interested in getting it under control before the 2004 election campaign heated up. Instead, the Bushies launched the “transfer of sovereignty” farce — play-pretend progress, if you will — to misdirect the public and press from the insurgency.
For example, the Bushies could have immediately stepped up training of Iraqi military and police forces. Instead, after John Kerry made an issue of such training, and after it was revealed the Administration’s claims about the readiness of Iraqi self-defense forces were, um, lies, then the administration overhauled the training program to get Iraqis trained faster. They announced this in January 2005.
‘Course, we saw this on Sixty Minutes last Sunday:
Wallace: President Bush says over and over, as Iraqi forces stand up, U.S. Forces will stand down. The number of Iraqis in uniform today, I understand, is up to 300,000?
Woodward: They’ve stood up from essentially zero to 300,000. This is the military and the police.
Wallace: But U.S. Forces are not standing down. The attacks keep coming.
Woodward: They’ve stood up and up and up, and we haven’t stood down. And it’s worse.
Well, so much for troop training. But the point is that just because the Administration is dishonest with us doesn’t mean they aren’t doin’ a job foolin’ themselves, too.
I want to go back to the Josh Marshall article in Foreign Affairs (a review of America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy by Ivo H. Daalder, James M. Lindsay):
Days before the United States launched Operation Iraqi Freedom this past March, a well-known intellectual close to the White House walked me through the necessity and promise of the coming invasion. Whatever rancor it caused in the short term, he said, would pale in comparison to the payoff that would follow. In the months and years to come, Iraqis who had suffered under Saddam Hussein’s tyranny would write books and testify to the brutality of the regime, the bankruptcy of the Arab nationalism that stood idly by while they suffered, and the improvement of their lives. That testimony and the reality of an Iraqi state where basic human rights were respected would shatter the anti-Americanism that fills the Muslim Middle East and start a wave of change that would sweep over the region.
It was a breathtaking vision, and one that was difficult to dismiss out of hand. But from the vantage point of late 2003, it seems little better than a fantasy. To be sure, the war did eliminate a dangerous and evil regime. But the Bush administration greatly exaggerated the scale and imminence of the danger Saddam posed, while dramatically underestimating the cost and burden of the postwar occupation. The prewar links between Iraq and terrorism proved to be as minimal as skeptics had charged. And the Iraqis’ feelings toward their liberators turned out to be more ambivalent than Washington had assumed, the regional ripple effects less extensive, and the diplomatic damage of the whole episode worse and longer lasting.
There’s not-knowing, and then there’s delusion. Yesterday some flaming idiot claimed we anti-war liberals were guilty of “hindsight bias” — â€œLiberalsâ€™ assertion that they â€˜knew all alongâ€™ that the war in Iraq would go badly are guilty of the hindsight bias.â€ — meaning we didn’t really predict how badly the war would go, we just think we did. I quickly found an old Paul Krugman column from 2002 that laid out some pretty stark predictions. A commenter added a Howard Dean speech from February 2002 in which Gov. Dean warned “there is a very real danger that war in Iraq will fuel the fires of international terror.” This Molly Ivins column from early March 2003 presents what has proved to be a realistic assessment of the pre-war situation. This suggests to me that at least some anti-war liberals had a realistic understanding of how badly the occupation might turn out.
True, not everyone opposed to the war realized how badly it would get. But neither did they predict the effort would end well. Can you show me people who were gung-ho for the invasion who were fully cognizant of the risks? From the Right, we mostly got predictions that the Iraqis would greet us with flowers, and the invasion would pay for itself from oil revenue. Another pre-invasion Molly Ivins column reported,
The long, shifting rationale for war with Iraq advanced by the Bush administration changes almost weekly — regime change, weapons of mass destruction, disarmament, already-seen-this-movie, non-compliance (of how many U.N. resolutions is Israel now in “material breach?” And what a meaningless phrase that is), zero tolerance, the liberation of Iraq and the recently popular connected-to-Al Qaeda. But the capper in the whole bunch, the one just advanced by Bush last week, is: We’re going to war with Iraq in order to achieve peace between Israel and Palestine. I know we have some advanced thinkers in Washington, but put me down as a skeptic on that one.
For the past several years our nation has been hamstrung by rightie psycho-pathologies. Al Qaeda was no big deal, until suddenly it was. Then rightie delusions stampeded us into Iraq and got us stuck there. Rightie denial refused to consider the reality of insurgency until it was too late to get it under control. Rightie ideology stands in the way of solutions to global warming and pressing domestic concerns like our failing health care system. We, the People can’t even have a calm, rational, fact-based discussion about anything because we are drowned out by the shrieking, irrational hysteria of the Right. Their lies, spin, delusions, and denial are riding us all to ruin.
Sometimes I think not only are the lunatics running the asylum, but they’ve also rounded up anyone who seems sane and locked them up in the basement.
Even now, faced with some pretty bare-assed (so to speak) evidence that a Republican congressman solicited sex from teenage boys, too many righties are shutting their eyes and refusing to acknowledge the screwup. See, for example, this rightie blog post and the comments to it; beyond pathetic.
According to Buddhist teaching we’re all cocooned in many layers of delusion. The meditation practices of many sects are intended to peel away the layers. Here’s a common experience — a monk or lay student peels away one layer of bullshit and discovers … more bullshit. When he asks the senior monks if there isn’t something else in there that isn’t bullshit, they smile serenely (or giggle) and advise the newbie to just keep peeling.
I think the nation needs to do some peeling, as well.