Monday, October 18, 2004

November 3, 2004

What if George W. Bush wins re-election on November 2nd? What should we expect if the Bush administration is given the mandate to lead the nation for four more years? That is a question that is being considered by pundit and journalist alike with increasing frequency as we approach election day. Some have argued that a second Bush administration will be more circumspect, more restrained, dare I say it, more nuanced in its approach to a variety of issues. Critics charge that the President who can't admit a mistake, a man noted for his "stubbornness" or "resolve," depending on your perspective, one who values loyalty and team cohesion over accountability, will likely "stay the course," not "waver" or reassess his past performance with a critical eye. There is also the increased anxiety over the potential lack of concern for electoral politics that would permeate a second Bush term: it is unlikely that Cheney would seek re-election so there would be no temperance in terms of policy since the primary actors would be leaving politics upon the conclusion of the term regardless. With nothing left to lose, they would proceed unchecked in the pursuit of their policies.

Gregory Djerejian of
The Belgravia Dispatch (my favorite right-leaning blog) has put together one of the most coherent and powerful enunciations of the case for voting for Bush. While I disagree with many of the arguments made by Djerejian, he is not knee-jerk or unrealistic about the limitations and mistakes of Bush's first four years. However, one justification he lists for supporting Bush, that he seemingly accepts as an article of faith, is that the Bush administration's foreign policy team will be radically different from that of the first four years - almost a 180 degree turnabout.

Let me also say this. A Bush II will not be a Bush I repeat. By that, I guess, I mean that we are not rushing into Iran or Syria. The neo-cons, of course, have lost a lot of street cred. Bush might be stubborn and not wont to admit mistakes. But he's not an idiot. He knows, say, a land war in Iran would be folly. And he knows he has gotten a lot of bogus advice from the Pentagon. Bush is a hard competitor, indeed he's ruthlessly competitive. Above all, he's a survivor. He will be getting advice from a broader swath of advisors in his second term, I trust.
Other than a vague sketch of his character, which conveniently downplays the inconvenient character flaws, Djerejian offers little in the way of support other than a faith that it must be this way since we have not already invaded Iran or Syria - and Bush is not an idiot. That is not convincing. Even if Bush were still firmly entrenched in the neocon camp, it is unlikely that an invasion of Iran or Syria would be underway at this point in time because of the military, diplomatic, and logistical realities. With the conflict in Iraq still raging (having just passed the tragic milestone of 1,100 U.S. deaths), troop requirements in Afghanistan and abroad straining our capacity to a near breaking point, and world opinion and support for America at unprecedented lows, few but the most fervent neocons would counsel for such a move at this juncture. Better wait until the situation is more conducive to some modicrum of success. Say, some point in the next four years.

Middle East expert
Ronald Bruce St John detects some disturbing trends in actions undertaken by the Bush administration that seem to run counter, at least partially, to Djerejian's thesis:

In the period between the president's remarks to the Republican National Convention and his address to the UN General Assembly, U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East continued on a familiar course. After imposing sanctions on Syria in May, the United States cosponsored a UN Security Council resolution in early September, demanding the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon. The Bush administration later threatened additional sanctions in the event that Syria refused to quit Lebanon. At the same time, the White House continued its policy of isolating Iran, pushing the International Atomic Energy Agency to refer the question of nuclear proliferation to the UN Security Council where Washington could increase diplomatic pressure on Tehran. At a time when ample room for negotiations remained, reports also surfaced of preplanning for a preemptive American or Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.
In a piece announcing the increasing likelihood that he will vote for Kerry, right-leaning blogger Daniel Drezner makes the following observation which undermines Djerejian:

If Bush gets re-elected, he and his team will view it as a vindication for all of their policy decisions to date. Whatever groupthink occurred in the first term would pale besides the groupthink that would dominate the second term.
To which Djerejian responds:

Does Dan really believe that a Bush victory will have Doug Feith feeling "vindicated" so that group-think would prevail via some Libby-Bolton-Feith axis? Er, I think not. Nor do John Negroponte or Zal Khalilzad, I suspect. Regardless, some of these folks, I'd wager, aren't even going to be around in a Bush II.
Again, should Bush win in November, I hope that Djerejian is right. Unfortunately, I see little evidence to add credence to this prediction of a paradigm shift within the White House, especially since the Libby-Bolton-Feith axis which Djerejian assumes is on the outs, is in fact the backbone of Vice President Cheney's policy arm, and I see no indications that Cheney will wield less power in a second Bush administration. Observing the relative performances of Bush and Cheney in the debates only serves to confirm suspicions that Cheney is one of the most powerful vice president in U.S. history, and invaluable as an advisor to Bush. For Djerejian to be right, Cheney would have to lead the way in sacking his own people, and that is highly unlikely. Bush would never force Cheney's hand in this matter.

One of the smartest commenters on The Belgravia Dispatch, under the tag
praktike, takes Djerejian to task using historical evidence to undermine his assumptions - citing numerous examples that go far beyond a lack of accountability to actually rewarding incompetence:

Greg, I think you're mistaken if you think that Bush Round II would empower smart, reasonable people like you.

Remember, it was Dick Cheney's allies in the administration who are responsible for this. Bush didn't fire them, nor did he hold anyone of consequence's feet to the fire for this. Donald Rumsfeld is, apparently, the best Secretary of Defense America has ever had. Two of the leading candidates for Secretary of State are apparently Paul Bremer and Wolfowitz, neither of which inspires a modicum of confidence. A third option is Condi Rice, who is chronically incapable of getting different agencies working towards a common policy. Rick Sanchez is getting his fourth star. Barbara Fast got promoted. The general who dreamed up using MPs to help "set the conditions" for interrogations in Guantanamo was sent to fix the problems in Iraq. A toadie has been put in charge of the CIA, not to fix our intelligence problems, but rather to ride herd on the groans of dissent coming out of Langley. And the man who wrote that "the power to set aside the law is inherent in the President" got rewarded with a plum judgeship.

I don't think any of this bodes well for a second term.
No it doesn't. Praktike points out Cheney's continuing reluctance to fire those around him who have erred so greatly, but Djerejian takes the eventuality of Cheney's change of heart as a fait accompli. Why? If Paul Wolfowitz, the author of so many of the most grievous post-invasion blunders, is being considered for a promotion, why should intelligent people assume that others with less dubious resumes will be fired?

While Djerejian is taking the approach that everything will change after Bush is re-elected, and that accountability will at last descend upon a group that has shown the strongest aversion to the notion up until now, I think that is a counter-intuitive reach. After listing several examples of rhetoric and actions that indicate a continued embrace of the neoconservative world outlook, St John concludes thusly, and I agree:

Based on the statements and actions of the Bush administration, talk of a "new look" in foreign policy in a potential second term would appear to be wishful thinking. At this point, there is no evidence of a substantive change in direction, tone, or content of the president's foreign policy. President Bush remains a man on a mission, regardless of the lack of wisdom and efficacy of that mission. And he looks prepared and determined to employ any and all tools at his disposal to achieve his goals. Contrary to the hopes of optimists, a Bush success in November, instead of being a force for moderation in foreign affairs, would more likely invigorate and embolden a president no longer concerned with re-election.
Drezner also makes the following observation:

Given the foreign policy stakes in this election, I prefer a leader who has a good decision-making process, even if his foreign policy instincts are skewed in a direction I don't like, over a leader who has a bad decision-making process, even if his foreign policy instincts are skewed in a direction I do like.
To which Djerejian replied:

Boy Dan, you couldn't be more wrong in my book. This line of argument might have flyed in the 90's--but I think it's a dangerous outlook in the post 9/11 world. Perhaps if the policy making process were fatally flawed--I'd agree. But any occasional NSC breakdowns in brokering a coherent policy on Iran, NoKo, the Arab-Israeli peace process--while they have bothered me much over the past years--I must nevertheless conclude that such issues pale in comparison with the specter of a commander-in-chief who would view terror as something merely constitutive of a "nuisance" to be managed in routine fashion.
First of all, it is disappointing to see someone of Djerejian's intellect resort to this disingenuous line of attack on Kerry's use of the term "nuisance." Kerry clearly does not view terrorism as a nuisance, he was making the same point Brent Scowcroft made about the goals of reducing the levels of terrorism, but Bush supporters and professional spinners have nevertheless seized on this lexical gaffe in order to ascribe a whole set of policy directives to Kerry. It appears that Djerejian, to some degree, fell for it. I explained this all in a prior post, and thus will not examine any further at this point.

The real heart of that exchange is in the analysis of the policy making process in the Bush administration. While Djerejian dismisses the numerous examples of errors, blunders and miscalculations, and claims they are not the result of a process that is fatally flawed, he is too quick to elide the obvious inversion in logic and rational thought that runs rampant in the Bush White House. Publius of
Legal Fiction, in one of many posts analyzing the breakdown in process which I highly recommend, captures the essence of the philosophical underpinnings:

The assault on empiricism has been particularly striking. The whole idea behind empiricism is that one begins with a question. That is followed by an empirical investigation involving experiments or debate, which is then followed by a tentative conclusion based on the evidence from those experiments. The Bush administration flips this process on its head. It begins by adopting a conclusion, and then seeks out ways to justify that conclusion. Empiricism plays no role in reaching the conclusion - only politics.
This deficiency of process has been noted by conservatives and liberals alike. This is the administration that has been accused of politicizing science by Nobel winning scientists, politicizing intelligence gathering by career intelligence operatives, and politicizing monetary policy by CEO's and business leaders. There were lifelong Republican insiders in the Bush administration like Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, Christie Todd Whitman, John DiIulio, and Richard Clarke who complained about the hostility of the administration to inconvenient facts, divergent scientific conclusions, and contradictory expert input regarding all aspects of decision making - from economic and environmental policy to foreign policy and post-war planning.

How can the administration's rejection of the expert input contained in the Future of Iraq Project and other post-invasion planning by the CIA, State Department, Army War College, etc., in favor of the fantastical predictions of convicted embezzler and known con-man Ahmed Chalabi result from anything other than a fatally flawed process? What functional process led administration officials to dismiss global warming as a hoax as the problem is accelerating at out of control rates? How could any reasonable process let civilians in the Pentagon over-rule and embarrass the Army Chief of Staff who correctly stated the need for more troops in Iraq. If this process is working, I shudder to think what fatal flaws would look like.

In an article appearing in the
New York Times Magazine, author Ron Suskind makes this observation:

Bruce Bartlett, a domestic policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and a treasury official for the first President Bush, told me recently that "if Bush wins, there will be a civil war in the Republican Party starting on Nov. 3." The nature of that conflict, as Bartlett sees it? Essentially, the same as the one raging across much of the world: a battle between modernists and fundamentalists, pragmatists and true believers, reason and religion.
In this sense, Bartlett is predicting a showdown within the White House and the GOP at large, with the neoconservatives on one side, and the realists and moderates on the other should Bush win again. What Djerejian assumes as a premise, that the second Bush administration would veer away from the neocons, Bartlett foresees as a battle yet to be waged. It appears premature and wishful thinking to a certain degree to assume that these conflicts have already been settled with the moderates, internationalists, and realists emerging the victor. Too much remains to be seen, and a positive result in the election itself might tip the balance in favor of the neoconservative camp - assuming that Bush and Cheney are even entertaining a change of course.

Furthermore, those battles will be fought whatever the outcome on November 2. As I have
argued before, there is a struggle for the soul of the Republican Party going on as we speak, with the moderates losing their place due to the overzealous consolidation of power under the far-right wing. This election will serve as a referendum on this movement. As Christie Todd Whitman observed:
Frankly, if the president wins walking away with this, maybe the country is in a different place than where the moderate Republicans are...If he loses, it is an absolute validation of the fact that you cannot be a national party if you are excluding people.
In trying to gauge the nature of the Bush administration's policy making apparatus in a potential second term, I think it would be foolish to ignore the weight of historical evidence regarding current policy, past policy, tendencies for self criticism, accountability and openness to dissent. If past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, even if Bush II turns away from the neoconservatives (an unlikely outcome in its own right) whatever course is charted, it will again fall victim to the same dearth of process that has so plagued the past four years. Unless empiricism is embraced, philosophical precepts won't make a bit of difference.

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