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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

question: incompetence or genius?

News that Stephen Hadley, Bush's National Security Adviser, repeatedly called Tibet 'Nepal' on the Sunday blab shows reminded me of a conversation I had over dinner with SW and OS Saturday night after David Byrne's appearance at BAM. (He sang Paul Simon's 'I Know What I Know' and 'Call Me Al'.)

Nepal held elections on April 10 for a constitutional assembly which will abolish the 240-year-old monarchy, as explained in this BBC Q&A. As of tonight, the Maoists have a majority of the seats decided thus far. Tibet, ruled by feudal theocrats until 1950 and by Chinese communists since then, has recently broken through the world's indifference again thanks to a fresh campaign of protests in Lhasa beginning last month. The decision to hold the 2008 Olympics in Beijing is having the unintended benefit of shining a bright light on China's many sorrows and shames. A competent national security advisor would know the difference between Nepal and Tibet, but then again Bush's party will nominate a presidential candidate this year who still cannot tell Sunni from Shia.

The conversation in question was about competence. The main question was this: Are the many disgraces of the Bush administration [sic] more the result of incompetence or design? If the various messes of the Bush years were the result of design, that would presumably make Bush and company quite competent indeed.

What do you say, Reader? Which is it? Which examples make your case best? Has it all been part of a master plan or a long series of blunders? Enquiring minds want to know.



Blogger steven said...

It is tricky to navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of i) assuming regrettable incompetence, according to which view anything that goes wrong can be blamed on "error", but the plan was good in principle; and ii) assuming malign hypercompetence, so that eg 9/11 was a put-up job.

I think, however, to say that bad things have happened because the Cheney administration is "incompetent" is to acquiesce in the excuse-making of the administration's cheerleaders. Perhaps more importantly, we should realise that the question of "incompetence" only arises as long as we obediently agree that the administration's stated aims (against which we are measuring results) were in fact their actual aims. It is not so clear that they always are.

A key example of this comes with the recent revelations about Bremer's decision to disband the Iraqi army. Until recently, this was regretted as a blip of "incompetence" by the war's supporters, and Bush even claimed (this turned out to be a lie) that he didn't know about it until it happened.

Now we know that, in fact, the whole cabinet, Joint Chiefs etc, had agreed on a plan whereby the army would be in large part retained, for the evidently desirable purposes of keeping order. What happened was that Bremer, reporting only to Rumsfeld (who was reporting only to Cheney, of course), ignored this agreement and just sacked them en masse.

What are we to make of this story now? Was it mere "incompetence"? Surely not, because the alternative plan, which made much more sense, had already been widely discussed and agreed-upon.

If this notorious act wasn't incompetence, then further interesting questions arise. Why was it done in fact? Was it because the warmakers' intention was never, as they had allowed many of their "moderate" supporters to believe, to win a quick war and then get out of the country quickly to leave Iraq to run its own affairs? Was it, instead, a way to make sure the US had an excuse to stay in Iraq, because after all the PNAC position was that the US needed a permanent strategic base in the Middle East, and the bases in Saudi Arabia were pissing off Osama Bin Laden too much, so those troops ought to be transferred to "enduring bases" in Iraq (which in fact happened)?

Sighing about "incompetence", I fear, might dissuade us from asking such interesting questions.

6:08 AM, April 15, 2008

Blogger Jeff Hussein Strabone said...

This is a fascinating question because the Bush people look so completely inept, yet their mistakes, if that's what they are, typically redound to their benefit and to their friends' profit.

The clearest case of failure is the 2006 elections, not just in Congress but in many state legislatures as well. Before the election, Karl Rove's dream of the 'permanent majority' was a widespread and seemingly plausible nightmare on the left, particularly in the wake of mid-decade legislative redistricting in Texas and elsewhere. This was the kind of putschist move that we all knew the Democrats would never have the chutzpah to match. In order to stop counter-revolution, one has to recognize that counter-revolution is underway, and too few people did. In securing their majority, the Bushes failed and failed miserably.

Another instance is the politicization of the Justice Department. I don't doubt that the worst of them, i.e. Cheney, would like nothing more than a Justice Department at the president's beck and call and compromised for future administrations. But by appointing unqualified people to run their schemes, (e.g. Monica Goodling, about whom I kept meaning to blog during last year's blog hiatus), they utterly failed and brought new scrutiny to their machinations. Don Siegelman, former Democratic governor of Alabama and victim of a politically motivated prosecution, is out of prison already.

The Reagan administration was wrong about nearly everything, but they were competent: competent enough to pass the White House to one of their own. George W. Bush's bumbling has cost them the Congress and soon the White House as well. For a group of people whose project was to use—and retain—the federal government to advance nefarious agendas, that is the ultimate failure.

7:20 PM, April 15, 2008

Blogger steven said...

I must say it strikes me as absurd to try to argue that eight long years in power instead of 12 represents some kind of massive "failure", even assuming your triumphalism about this November's election turns out to be vindicated retrospectively. (McCain 08 is a better candidate than Bush 04, and look what happened then.)

6:03 AM, April 16, 2008

Blogger David said...

I once had a conversation with Peter Meineck, who has a double life as an NYU Classics professor and a major Producer (he may even be the owner) of the Aquila Theater Company, about the supposed incompetence of George W. Bush. He had the unusual experience of meeting the man in 2005, before Katrina triggered the tailspin from which the president's ratings have never recovered. (The occasion: Aquila was performing at the White House for the Powers That Be.)

Meineck's claim was that Bush's bumbling public persona is an act. Talking to Bush one-on-one, or in a small group of people, he is able speak without any of the malapropisms or neologisms for which he's become famous. Perhaps most significantly, his southern drawl, such as it is, disappears under these circumstances. In person, Bush is, according to Meineck, charming, intelligent, and capable. 'He's not stupid, he's an actor,' were Meineck's words.

Based on this evidence, I agree with Meineck that Bush is not in all respects as stupid as the left believes he is. However, I don't think that the facade of stupidity, if it is a facade, is indicative of a similar tactic by other members of the Bush administration. Rather, I think that Bush is attempting to charm the public with the same act that has worked his whole life, from his Frat Days on: being amusingly dumb will often make you more popular than fully asserting your intelligence. Until relatively recently, this tactic has won Bush a lot of popularity, and two presidential elections besides.

It's because of the (apparently permanent) 2005 tailspin that I disagree with Meineck's claim that Bush is only playacting. Surely, if Bush were a mastermind of this sort, he would have begun to calibrate his personality gradually once his ratings had become irredeemable. Instead, he has stubbornly refused to recognize one iota of error on his part, or to make any change in the way he appears in public.

7:27 AM, April 16, 2008

Blogger steven said...

Bush's apparent stupidity is indeed so fascinating that, unfortunately, we concentrate on it, and are therefore led to think more in terms of incompetence, to the detriment of noticing what it is that the Cheney administration has accomplished for itself behind the clown act that it has so cunningly erected up front.

7:36 AM, April 16, 2008

Blogger Jeff Hussein Strabone said...

The magic number is not eight years but six, i.e. how long it took them to turn the Congress and the committees' subpœna power over to the Democrats. The Bush-Cheney-Rove project was a counter-revolution meant to install a Republican 'permanent majority'. Without keeping the keys to government, their time in office becomes an extended smash-and-grab operation. Yes, I concede that they smashed quite a lot and they grabbed quite a lot. But the game plan called for a lot more than that.

Take the botched December 2006 firing of several U.S. Attorneys (American nomenclature for federal prosecutors, of whom there are ninety-three). The politicization of the Justice Department is a key tactic by which they were able to use the full prosecutorial and investigative powers of the federal government to impugn and possibly imprison Democratic candidates around the country.

It worked flawlessly for a time: they publicly investigated candidates for office inappropriately close to election days and without cause; they even sent a former Democratic governor of Alabama, Don Siegelman, to prison. And they would have gotten away with firing the handful of U.S. Attorneys who would not join their perversion of justice, but they left the job to the team of idiots led by disgraced Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

How did they fail? The president has the power to fire any U.S. Attorney, which, unlike Justice staff, is a political appointment. But Gonzales and his clown crew publicly insulted the fired attorneys, who turned against their president and defended their reputations. Gonzales et al. then humiliated themselves when called to testify before the Democratic Congress. Since then the top leadership at the Justice Department has resigned, and the new people remain under heightened scrutiny.

It is no small thing for the Bushes to have lost the Congress and to have been exposed at the Justice Department. Using the government to empower and enrich one's party and one's friends for several years is an accomplishment. And losing the ability to continue doing that is a loss. They had it all, and now it's all coming undone.

1:16 AM, April 22, 2008


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