Denial of Denial

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?

Juan Cole calls it:

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” — “Liberals’ assertion that they ‘knew all along’ that the war in Iraq would go badly are guilty of the hindsight bias.” — 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.

19 thoughts on “Denial of Denial

  1. Well…I always liked that there Emma Peel…

    But I think it’s about time for some Bells to Peal around here…It’s more like the Students are in charge of the BD classroom…

  2. maha, everything you say is true, but it’s not in the past tense. It’s still happening, and the psychosis will take us to Iran and nuclear weapons.

    Even billmon isn’t quite up to thinking it’s possible, but he’s still thinking about it every day.

  3. If a war in Iran starts to become a reality, I, for one, will do want I can do to organize the biggest anti-war protest march I can–even at 61 and with a chronic disease and two bad knees. I recently read that Molly Ivins is fighting cancer for the third time. I don’t want her to go meet her maker without seeing that there are some real Americans out here. I’m so very tired of having lunatics running this country.

  4. The “hindsight bias” claim is false. There were many articles before the war that were prescient. One was by John Dower in the New York Times on Oct 27, 2002. He compared the occupation of Japan with what was likely to happen in an occupation of Iraq. “Japan was spared the religious, ethnic, regional and tribal animosities that are likely to erupt in a post-war Iraq…there was not one instance of Japanese terror against the occupation forces. Does anyone really imagine this would be the case in an occupied Iraq?”
    Then there was an article in the New York Review of Books in November, 2002 by William D. Nordhaus. He predicted the cost of a war in Iraq to be between $120 billion and $1.6 trillion. An article in Foreign Policy in late 2002 by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, “An Unnecessary War”, said that Saddam Hussein could be contained.
    In the October 5, 2006 issue of the New York Review of Books, in an article by Joan Didion on Dick Cheney, we learn that in 1991, Cheney thought an invasion of Iraq would probably lead to a civil war.

  5. No the fat lady has not gotten up to sing yet . But I was thinking about Condi- all her ‘no one could imagine’s and it’s just ‘incomprehensible’s. Those words imply that somone has an inability to think . They all mean that. So if she admittedly cannot think maybe she is just not qualified for the job. Or is an inability to think also a form of denial? You could go on about this forever but really…. it is just lying. Talking about oneself in the third person is a way to detach yourself from responsibility.

  6. I cannot agree that the primary Iraq war pusher was or is delusional, though that could be said about those who drank or drink the kool-aid. I simply think GWB is very much like the screechy righties, himself a kool-aid drinker, sipping daily from the cup prepared by the Dick.
    I have long believed that Dick Cheney is out and out evil, worshiping only at the altar of money, whether he heads the Defense Department [first Gulf War, personally promising Saudi Arabia we would put our troops in that holy land for only a short time], Halliburton [mid-nineties, enjoying the bottom-line benefit of slave and child labor by doing under-the-radar business with the military junta of Myanmar], or, since 2000, running his puppet GWB to purposefully create enough turmoil and divisiveness in the Mid-East [and in America] to allow his first and only love [corporate/oil interests] to establish a lock of power over all peoples of the world.

    Human life, human rights, American soldiers, the law itself….. all are simply thought of as dispensible pawns in Cheney’s evil game.

    In my view of things, evil falls of its own weight….eventually….because love expands while evil contracts and twists around itself, choking off renewal, especially by its use of secrecy.
    The heartless edifice of power which Cheney spend years building is crumbling as we watch…..

  7. Hang in there Bonnie,
    As Pazuzu is rising in Iraq, a political earth quake will cause a political tsunami sweeping them from power.
    With Woodwards new book, the Republican party in full crisis, and the President’s “approval” in the dumpster. There is way too much happening at one time, and this administration is a one trick pony.Too many fires and no firemen……

  8. Out of morbid curiosity, just might this ‘well-known intellectual close to the White House’ happen to be?

  9. Foleygate and Iraq share lies verging on self-delusion and the unchecked abuse of power.

    Washington is no stranger to the arrogance of power, BUT it’s so over-the-top this time — and that has a lot to do with there not having been any real Democratic opposition. The Republicans knew they could get away with anything, and that feeling of entitlement just grew and grew.

    Completely unable to function without their protective sense of entitlement, House leaders hold one press conference after the other, each more ridiculous than the last. I used to think that, if nothing else, conservatives were about not whining, accepting responsibility, and taking your punishment. I must have been misinformed.

    Now, their endless series of press conferences is surreal and disgusting — they should be collected into a book, “WE’VE GOT SOME EXPLAININ’ TO DO: The 2006 House GOP Sets the Record Straight.” This could be the cover picture.

  10. It aint like we aint been here before. In the first Gulf War the senior Bush – in the process of putting together a true coalition that the nitwit Bush distains (though he love to throw around the word ‘coalition’) but I was saying, the senior Bush found out just how much paranoia there was, even among the Saudis who thought Sadam might just take them out next. These folks will NOT tolerate an ‘occupation’ force. In Gulf War One, we had to commit with the Arab States to a narrow mission; liberate Kuwait and LEAVE! Yes, there were token forces left in Saudi and Kuwait land, but no permanent force capable of taking on the Boy Scouts.

    Our current administration sees this like post-WW2 Germany, and Korea, where there will be large permanent military bases to ensure the stability of a puppet regime. Ooops. The threat of a permanent US presence in that Islamic ‘holy land’ is a lightning rod that keeps drawing bigger and bigger strikes. Can any modern force prevail? What lessons does history provide besides ‘Nam?

    The USSR tried to occupy Afghanistan. They employed represive techniques that even Rumsfield would not consider. They had to withdraw in defeat and it is one reason they USSR went bankrupt – and is no more!

    We have slashed our wrists and are bleeding greenbacks. We could go bankrupt and extinct if we don’t wise up.

  11. The world is the one in denial: over the incredible grand strategy of Our Dear Leader George W. Bush.

    Sun Tzu said “when you are competent appear incompetent”.
    Colbert said “Finally a person who understands our presidents strategy”.

  12. A very good column.
    The part about the righties drowning out the voices of reason is so spot on. I remember having a bad feeling when the drums on Iraq started pounding. I did not say anything to anyone because of the rabid ways of the right. My mom is from France, the anti french fever was running really high and a french resturaunt in our town got vandalized. I was afraid for my mom and then, found myself silenced by the confussion of what was happening to my country.
    The other thing, about Bush asking where is Jefferson? Where is Washington? Well, these guys came together as a group fighting off tyranny. It started quite awhile before the war of independence. It took awhile to get the people of the colonies to start being the majority who wanted independence. And it took our best people years to craft together a government. But, all of it was done of free will.
    Iraq is at the sudden point of guns. One day there is Saddam and the next no one. They are expected to suddenly come together, bring thier best together and craft a government. This wasn’t even done of the Iraqi’s free will. If they wanted liberty they would have come together and overthrown and started a government of thier own making.
    Our culture is so different from the middle east. Don’t you think our style of government would work for a people who can’t even get along with religion? And in a bad nieghborhood?
    It has to come from them, thier desire and thier want. And it has to be a government that is right for thier culture.
    It’s so obvious but, the stupid righties and the bushies and this administration just can’t seem to see it.

  13. Donna,

    I agree with you about Cheney but I think your selling him just a bit short. Sure he is driven by money however I think his ultimate goal was the power that the money could buy him – $ was just the method to his madness. His stint at Halliburton gave him the money and corporate prestige (though I can’t imagine why – the Dresser acquisition deal he made while quail hunting cost Halliburton gazillions – he ought to stop hunting, or at least stop drinking while hunting).

    With his Halliburton credentials and political resume, and together with his like-minded cronies, the stage was set for a return. Together, all they needed was a maleable putz which they found in George W Bush. Add in sex, lies and videota, (oh sorry-that was a movie) and you had the perfect storm (oops another movie). Bush didn’t pick Cheney – it was the other way around.

    For truly evil people like Cheney, it’s the power. I’ve always wanted to puke when he told interviewers that he had no presidential ambitions. What’s the expression – stupid like a fox? He knew he had the best of both worlds. Knowing he could never be elected, he could be the ‘genius’ behind the most powerful man in the world, and there would always be the possibility he could inherit the presidency if, God Forbid, the president should die or become disabled (I would argue that our president is disabled but that’s a topic for a different post). I believe that he believes that he is the most powerful man in the world. Correct me if I’m wrong but aren’t there other (in)famous people that considered themselves genius?

    I’m sure history will give him credit for all that he did and does. Be careful what you wish for…….

  14. 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.”

    What is missing from the above explanation given by one intellectual to another with regard to the positive aspects of the U.S. invading Iraq?

    It disregards the reality that no nation goes to war for the welfare of another nation. The only reason a nation goes to war is to benefit itself. Therefore, the discussion disregarded human nature.

    Another glaring omission was that when all the “wonderfulness” took place that tens of thousands of civilian Iraqis would be murdered in the process. While some people may refer to the loss of life as collateral damage, it was a given that innocent Iraqis would be killed. This was widely considered a troubling but minor aspect of the war on terror. The problem continued to exist that Iraq had not attacked the U.S. nor was it capable of doing so. The end would justify the means even though the means was murder.

    The case for self-defense collapsed when there were no weapons of mass destruction found, and when the Iraqi nuclear weapons program was nothing more than a piece of paper hidden in an Iraqi scientist’s garden, (the last remnant of an Iraqi dream of military parity with Israel, before economic sanctions and no fly zones.)

    The war strategy pointed more toward pre-meditation, than it being a war of self-defense, as it was sold. Its true purpose was to profit a small cadre of leaders who “knew” that, at least, they would benefit in power and money.

    There were also no discussions about the meaning of state sovereignty, the fact that the majority of Iraqis were not outraged enough to overthrow their oppressive government, and did not request an invasion to act as a catalyst for revolution.

  15. We’re accused of “hindsight bias?” This from people who have their heads up their asses. THAT’S what I call hindsight bias.
    Jesus, if they won’t go away, can’t they just STFU? Please? Just for a day or two…
    The braying of these asses should be counted as torture. Ooops, I forgot, thats allowed now.
    I want reperation from each and every registered Republican. Let them pay for fixing the country they have not just broken, but shattered.

  16. Cut and run: a phrase used to disparage the motives of a political opponent.

    Or: Cut your losses

    Or: Don’t throw good money after bad

    Or: Who will be the last soldier to die for nothing?

    Or: When a strategy is not working, change the strategy not the tactics.

    Or: the “plan” to loot Iraq was a poorly conceived idea promoted by right wing writers and publishers, most of whom have never been in a fight in their entire lives, let alone a war.

    Or: Stay the course, even though the course is stupid.

    Or: Bravery is easy from behind a desk in an airconditioned office.

    Or: We need to reconsider why the Iraqis brought this war down upon themselves.

    Or: Where are the flowers and friendly greetings?

    Or: How many more must die for a bad idea to begin with, and a worse idea to continue?

    Or: Is being smart enough to abandon a bad idea, a bad idea?

    Or: What idiot ordered this mess in the first place? What idiot said, “I need the power to go to war, in order to preserve the peace?” Nice double-talk. Translation: “Give me the biggest guns you have, so I can play with them, but only if I need to. Ha, ha, ha. Suckers.”

  17. Suppose you are on the Board of Directors for a major company. You are presented with a report; the facts show that a colossal blunder- an investment that will never pay off – is costing the company – say – 2 billion dollars per week. The CEO is determined not to admit his mistake, and wants to commit even greater funds to the loosing proposition.

    What do you do? As a voter, you ARE on the the Board of Directors.

  18. I hardly blogged at all about the war, either in the run-up stage or early on. Looking through letters to the editor and other writings, I did somewhat – mildly – overestimate the risk of initial military resistance (which I could feel my brain trying to forget over the subsequent years, but not quite succeeding). Otherwise, while I never had an especially detailed prediction, my general sense was 1) we wouldn’t find WMDs, and it would turn out that there had been even more lies and distortions about that; 2) TeamBush would bungle the whole thing, making laughable errors that would lead to pointless deaths; 3) most likely we’d end up bogged down fighting an endless insurgency that would inevitably lead to various atrocities committed by our people which would further fuel the . . .

    I completely missed the civil war and terrorist-recruitment-poster bits – but honestly, I have such horrible judgment that if I came that close, we’re talking the equivalent to the part of the eye exam where it’s just one big E. Hindsight bias, my ass!

    I think we need an easy little book that talks about what and how lots of (reasonably) foresighted people thought during the march to war – why they got it right – and generalizes it into some basic lessons and habits of thought. For the next time, y’know – whether that’s another war or some other craziness.

    “It disregards the reality that no nation goes to war for the welfare of another nation.”

    I think knowing actual American history – esp. around a century ago) helped some of us a good bit. It makes realities like the above a little harder to disregard.

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