Wednesday, June 04, 2008

From the frat house to the White House

PRE-POSTSCRIPT: For a different take on these books, harder on McClellan and more attentive to Feith, see this by Christopher Hitchens.

He is right about one thing: on substantive policy, Feith's book is much more important than McClellan's. The Feith memoir is massively well documented, including embarrassing tidbits from people once in favor of the Iraq war and now opposed to it - and a document-rich web site too.

But I can't help feeling that Hitch has missed something important, about how everyone outside the White House (including the neocons themselves) has been manipulated and jerked around by the "permanent campaign." Even now, some of them are still not awake.
As the Bush presidency mercifully enters its final months, it's time to take stock and make some preliminary evaluation of a wrenching period in American politics. No one can know now what future historians will think of Bush. If they're not all not liberal Democrats and warped by the hysterical hyperpartisanship of our era (itself worth a long look from future historians), Bush Jr. will probably be seen as "Nixon lite" - not as consequentially bad as Nixon, but still bad enough. His foreign policy adds up to a very mixed bag; his domestic policy, to simply and gratuitously awful.

The fire has been stoked by the publication this week of Scott McClellan's new, would-be tell-all memoir of his role as White House press secretary, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception. The Bush people are of course harsh in their criticism of McClellan and his tale of manipulation and disillusionment. But pillars of establishment liberal journalism, like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the New Republic, are also piling on McClellan for simply being opportunistic and weakly rehashing themes heard many times before. They have weighty arguments on their side. There's not a lot in McClellan's memoir that's truly new, and he raises issues (like the Wilson-Plame affair) that are now definitively settled.*

But, as Peggy Noonan says, McClellan still needs to be listened to. His book does fill in a lot more about the mentality of the Bush administration. Even this isn't completely new: Paul O'Neill's 2004 memoir, The Price of Loyalty, written by Ron Suskind, presented the themes back when they were new and still had the power to shock. They include Bush and his aides' obsession with personal and partisan loyalty, Cheney's 35-year fixation with secrecy and executive privilege (stemming from the Nixon era), the mutual passivity of Bush and the Congressional Republicans, and the noxious results of the Republicans and Bush's style of "permanent campaigning."

If elected, I promise to ... get re-elected. Traditionally, politicians campaign and get elected in order to govern and set policy. Voters still expect that, bless their hearts. But American politics, since the early 90s, has been moving in a different direction: governing for the sake of campaigning and getting re-elected, not vice versa. This style was part of the reason for the lack of substantive results from the so-called Republican revolution of 1994. Although they did get Clinton to accept welfare reform (a stunning success, by the way) and even managed, incredibly, to phase out agricultural subsidies for a couple years, their fear of being voted out eventually overcame their original goals. By the late 90s, spending discipline broke down. Then with a Republican president unwilling to act as a check on a Republican Congress, things really started to get out of control. Even shockers like the McCain-Feingold bill, Leave No Child's Behind, Sarbox, and Medicare Part D got through - and got Bush's signature.

Such is Bush's obsession with loyalty. The outsized role of Karl Rove, Bush's campaign strategist, in shaping policy was a prime indicator of where American political culture is today. Even the Iraq war was, in part, packaged as re-election extravaganza. McClellan should have subtitled his book, "Washington's culture of permanent campaigning."

With perfect faith. But the Bush fraternity house culture isn't the whole story. Running through the Bush presidency is a bright streak of the "true believer" mentality, no more strikingly and tragically obvious than with Bush's fixation on Iraq. After languishing at the margins of the administration for its first nine months, administration neoconservatives found an opportunity to inject their misguided theorizing about the Middle East into the administration's response to the 9/11 attacks. Bush did not run or win on such issues in 2000. Before the 9/11 attacks, the neocons and the increasingly populist conservative media outlets were agitated, if anything, by China.** But in looking for a larger and more ambitious response to those and earlier al Qa'eda attacks, the administration, instead of focusing on the theocratic and jihadist element of Middle East politics rooted in Saudi Arabia and Iran, zeroed in on the unfinished business of Iraq. Defeated in the 1991 Gulf War and subject to containment and sanctions afterwards, Iraq posed no obvious threat to anyone.† But Saddam did expel UN weapons inspectors in 1998 and acted in a way that strongly suggested he had restarted his advanced weapons program.

To this uncertain if understandable motive (understandable after 9/11) was added something much loopier, the strategic fantasy of neoconservative theorists, making the Middle East democratic. Since the Iraq war started in March 2003, many have criticized the Bush administration for supposedly hiding this, its larger strategic motive. But the critics are wrong: Bush did mention it, in a number of major speeches, before the actual invasion of Iraq. In the media hysteria surrounding the weapons inspections, the issue was never properly framed and probed. Instead, its legitimacy and feasibility were mostly taken for granted, if anyone really thought about it at all. The neocon failure to understand the Middle East is most glaring here. If some fraction of the weapons hysteria had been focused instead on this point and the related issue of what to do with Iraq after invading it, the war either might not have happened or happened very differently.

That is why, for all the bruhaha surrounding McClellan's book, the other recent book about the Iraq war, that of Douglas Feith, one of its main architects, deserves more attention and response. Unfortunately, the establishment liberal media won't get off its high horse and actually review it: it's been embargoed apparently. It's critically important, because one of the most extraordinary things about the Bush presidency is the crossing of wires between two very distinct political forces, the obsessed-with-loyalty, frat-boy culture of Bush and Rove and the strategic theorizing of the neocons. Bush's weakness for "road to Damascus" conversion experiences seems to be a starting point. But we really need to understand it. Frat house, revival tent, and the neoconservative academy all collided in Bush's first term. The Iraq war was the result.

Once more into the breach. McClellan is not looking at the Bush frat house culture from the outside, of course. He's a disillusioned frat brother himself. For an outsider's look at the Bush White House, one should consider the best book on the Bush presidency to appear so far, Jacob Weisberg's The Bush Tragedy. Weisberg uses an analogy (not original with him) of Bush Jr. and Prince Harry as portrayed in Shakespeare's Henry IV Part 2. After the riotous and misspent youth depicted in the earlier play, Harry undergoes a dramatic change. The later Henry V portrays a serious, transformed, and deeply religious Harry as king, determined to reclaim the French throne, reviving the Hundred Years War between England and France that his father had put on hold.

Weisberg's analogy is strained in places, but it's still a striking parallel, especially the Oedipal angle. In Bush's case, it helps to understand why the rest of Bush's foreign policy has been more conventional: when it comes to foreign trade, Yugoslavia, North Korea, or any other foreign issue you care to name, it's hard to find such distorted and delusional thinking in the Bush policies. In the genesis and first few years of the Iraq war, we're getting to the heart of something unusual in democratic politics, an intense bout of blind belief. For Bush, the neoconservative theories became objects, not of thought, but faith.

The American weakness for moralistic crusades. Such episodes are not new in American politics: its soul is still that of a Protestant church. In the Civil War, we had a president who had mastered these forces to the point where he was not dominated by them, even as they animated millions of Americans in the crusade to crush the South. The disillusioned generation that fought World War One is better case for us today to look to. In the last extended presidential episode of blind belief, Woodrow Wilson the crusader rallied Americans to launch "making the world safe for democracy." With cooler heads and more detached eyes, he and his aides might have steered the peace in the direction of successful new alliances to rebuild Europe and contain Germany. Instead, Wilson overpersonalized the issues, thought of himself as a messianic figure, and failed to give Americans a stake in the long-term success of his policy. As a result, Americans became jaded in the 1920s and, later in the 1930s, turned xenophobic. It took another, much larger, war to resolve what remained unresolved.

Worst president ever? Wars of choice are especially dangerous for any political leader. Wars of necessity, even though they also provoke dissent, tend to focus the mind and keep people from drifting off into strange ideas. In American history, these include the War of Independence, the War of 1812, the Civil War, World War II, and the Korean and Afghan Wars. Wars of choice include the Mexican war, the Spanish-American war, World War I, and the Vietnam and Iraq wars. The latter form a very mixed bag: brilliantly successful (Mexican war), success-almost-disaster-success (Spanish-American war, including its Philippine sequel), ambiguous success with ultimately very bad consequences (World War I), and just plain bad (Vietnam and Iraq).

Given this list, it's hard to justify to condemning Bush as the worst president in American history. Nonetheless, my guess is that Bush will end up on the short list of the worst ten, and not just because of the Iraq war. There is also the mistaken domestic policy change, into new, large, and gratuitous spending commitments and regulations that have undone the healthier evolution American politics had been following in the 80s and 90s.††

Pace the neocons, Bush is not Truman. The 9/11 attacks were handed to Bush, as the Korean war was handed to Truman. But the Iraq war was a war of choice, dubious in conception and profoundly botched in execution. Personal character is the real difference: while reasonably intelligent, Bush is lazy and dogmatic, hyperactive yet strangely passive, insecure and uncertain about taking responsibility for anything. Thankfully, his character flaws are not in Nixon territory; he lacks Nixon's paranoia and cynicism.

But Bush, in spite of his attempt to fashion a populist self-image, is not a hayseed, ordinary folks, or even a cowboy. He's the dried-out, eldest son of wealthy parents, a rich kid - not a self-taught and self-made, essentially 19th century, figure like Truman. Even if his bank accounts have done well, Bush is a spiritual slacker, a downwardly mobile figure of the Baby Boom, who reinvented himself as a populist chieftan, sounding on good days like a cartoon superhero in his own comic book. Looking to the future, we must, if nothing else, avoid electing as presidents half-formed politicians who wrestle with serious personal and political deficiencies while they occupy the world's most powerful office.
* Unfortunately, there are still people in the media still trying to flog this dead horse, holding out for some substantive role by "Scooter" Libby, Dick Cheney, or Karl Rove in the outing of Plame. We've known for a year that it was Richard Armitage of the State Department who did that, probably inadvertently. As for Joe Wilson, he outed himself. There's really nothing left to this story. But its continued life shows how much of our "news" now consists of manufactured pseudo-events and pseudo-scandals, salacious pseudo-crimes parlayed into lucrative book contracts. Counterfactual "reporting" - even contradicting what the news media itself reported last year - is now the norm on this, like so many other, non-stories.

Such is the biased and incorrigible stupidity of America's media culture.

** A few prescient exceptions apart, like Steve Emerson, Michael Ledeen, and Daniel Pipes. And then there was Gary Condit - remember him from those hot, dry summer days just before 9/11?

† So much so that, after 1991, Israel's main security focus became Iran, quite rightly. Apparently, no one told Wolfowitz or Feith.

Another important question about the Bush presidency is, why did people with previously reasonable public careers (Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell, even Cheney) behave as strangely as they did under Bush? The 9/11 attacks clearly had something to do with it, but they're not the whole story.

†† Someday, once the partisan hysteria dies down, people will view the 80s and 90s correctly, from Carter's last year through the last year of Clinton's second term, as a single political era. Between 1998 and 2001, something changed.

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