Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Cognitive Dissidence

There's a lot of simply extraordinary stuff going on in Peter Baker's recent Washington Post article, not the least of which is the scene he describes between President Bush and one "Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a leader in the resistance to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak," who must have felt a sharp twang of remorse in having to meet with Bush at all. In it, Bush describes himself, in a "voice of exasperation," as a "dissident." At a time where many people mock Barack Obama's pledge to stay tough on Pakistan when events warrant, too few are talking about what sort of message it sends when Bush meets with foreign leaders and loudly belches for their pity.

But what's more extraordinary is the way Baker treats what he believes to be the root cause of Bush's problem:

In his speech that day, Bush vowed to order U.S. ambassadors in unfree nations to meet with dissidents and boasted that he had created a fund to help embattled human rights defenders. But the State Department did not send out the cable directing ambassadors to sit down with dissidents until two months later. And to this day, not a nickel has been transferred to the fund he touted.

Two and a half years after Bush pledged in his second inaugural address to spread democracy around the world, the grand project has bogged down in a bureaucratic and geopolitical morass, in the view of many activists, officials and even White House aides. Many in his administration never bought into the idea, and some undermined it, including his own vice president.
Oh, gee! You mean the President's ambitions got mired in a bureaucratic morass of insider in-fighting, ignored missives and officials that couldn't be bothered to meet with other officials? Well, land sakes, STOP THE PRESSES. What an unfathomable surprise! To his credit, Baker sees this as "a classic Washington tale of politics, inertia, rivalries and funding battles," but totally misses the point when he calls this moment "a case study in the frustrated ambition of a besieged presidency." The presidency is "besieged" and those "ambitions" frustrated for some perfectly good reasons!

And if you wanted a simple justification for wanting to "frustrate" the President's ambitions, there's many to choose from. Start with the fact that his Presidency is a foreign policy nightmare--his ideas are stupid and have done more harm than good. He pisses money away, right and left, which cannot please any real conservative, and the bulk of his domestic policies run counter to the public good, which isn't going to win you a lot of bipartisan support. Add to that the fact that he's got a poor follow-through rate, and a history of ducking responsibility when it suits him--the apotheosis of which came when--after years of badgering the public with reminders that he was the "Commander in Chief" and "the Decider"--he appointed a War Czar--A FUCKING WAR CZAR!--to manage all the wars he's grown bored of fighting and failing. In short, this is not a President whose capable of commanding a whole lot of respect for his initiatives, and three-quarters of the citizenry would fain agree.

Baker, unfortunately, is too busy recomposing Pagliacci on behalf of the White House to ask an even more vital question: Forget what Washington's bureaucratic morass is doing to the President--he's the least of anyone's worries--what is it doing to the country? Well, not to put to fine a point on it, but it's causing our fellow Americans to, uhm...well...die.

See, whenever I hear speak of the internecine nightmare that Washington has become--the territorial pissings, the interoffice rivalries, the bothersone primacy of ego-based protocols, I have a vivid memory of this:

I did get a response, and the response was that in the Bush administration I should, and my committee, counterterrorism security group, should report to the deputies committee, which is a sub-Cabinet level committee, and not to the principals and that, therefore, it was inappropriate for me to be asking for a principals' meeting. Instead, there would be a deputies meeting.


It slowed it down enormously, by months. First of all, the deputies committee didn't meet urgently in January or February.

Then when the deputies committee did meet, it took the issue of Al Qaida as part of a cluster of policy issues, including nuclear proliferation in South Asia, democratization in Pakistan, how to treat the various problems, including narcotics and other problems in Afghanistan, and launched on a series of deputies meetings extending over several months to address Al Qaida in the context of all of those inter-related issues.

That process probably ended, I think in July of 2001. So we were ready for a principals meeting in July. But the principals calendar was full and then they went on vacation, many of them in August, so we couldn't meet in August, and therefore the principals met in September.

That's just a snippet of the testimony proffered by former national security adviser Richard A. Clarke on the occasion of his appearance before the 9/11 Commission, in which he made it painfully clear that the primary reason the terror attacks succeeded was the very "bureaucratic and geopolitical morass" that Baker cites as "frustrating" the President's "ambition"--as if that was somehow important.

In fairness, President Bush hardly invented the morass. He's gone to great lengths to perfect it, though--as evidenced in some of the examples above, such as the Czarification of his wars--but that's not the truly galling thing. The truly galling thing is that when it's been convenient for Bush to use that "morass" as a way of escaping responsibility, he's been quick to do so.

Ironically, I can think of one glittering example of this. Go check out the transcript of Condoleezza Rice's testimony before the same 9/11 Commission, and count up the number of times she talks about "structure" and "structural problems." Rice is, in essence, echoing Clarke, but she's doing so as a means of dodging the blame that Clarke feels should be invited, even upon himself. (There's a lot to be made of Rice's carefully selected choice of words: "structure" carries the implication of "it was like this when we got here" and does not to justice to the great lengths to which the Bush administration happily participated in the "morass" when it suited their needs.)

So, for Bush to be bitching about being a "dissident"--well, it's pretty disingenuous, to say the least. One would think that the mere instance of his doing so would invite an immediate and well-deserved excoriation, but Baker's only interested in playing up the sad, silly, human-interest angle, and the extent to which Bush's statement bespeaks a tremendous, constantly present incompetence that has had deleterious effects on the nation are dots he seems unable to connect.

The truth is, Bush is not a "dissident," but a "diffident," and he's reached that sorry state not because of what the world of government has done to him, but the world of hurt he's done to the government, and by extension, the nation. I'd be tempted to look sharply askance at the man and sarcastically tell him to "cry me a river," but God knows if he did, his tears would probably overwhelm some levee somewhere, and millions of people would drown.


sunchaser said...

Great post.

(and love the label: "how stupid people fuck up the world" :)

Thehairyape said...

don't mean to be a bastard but Richard Clarke was never the national security adviser, he was chief counter-terrorism adviser on the NSC under Clinton, and worked at state under Reagan and Bush 1.

The Deceiver said...

It's fine for you to be a bastard in this regard. I opted to call him a "lowercase" national security adviser (as in, "an advisor on national security"), as opposed to the uppercase National Security Advisor. Now that I look at it, though, it was clearly confusing of me to have written it this way, and you have titled him correctly.