Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Rabbit In Your Headlights: The Eternal Recurrence of the Bush Administration

What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: 'This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more'...Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: 'You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.'

-Friedrich Nietzsche
The Gay Science

What a curious position critics of the Bush administration - myself included - have found themselves in over the past five and a half years. So many of this administration's policies and decisions have had all the characteristics of a series of car wrecks - only played out in super slow motion, over the course of months, years and likely decades (when all is said and done). Despite the slow, plodding denouement, nothing is done to halt the tragic progression. Or is it that the same failed policies are pursued time and again such that it creates the illusion of one continuous mistake?

With the advent of the blogosphere - and other related media access points - citizen critics and concerned onlookers have been released from the pose of the deer frozen by the glare of the oncoming headlights. In response, there has been a flurry of activity and protest in digital form in order to attempt to muster what effort can be made to avert the imminent and seemingly inevitable disasters. Despite this admirable and spirited exercise in citizen participation, though, the end result might be the same: a ruinous montage of collisions with a convoy of eighteen wheelers.

Worse still, those of us sufficiently bothered by the events which we are forced re-live on a periodic basis like some Nietzsche-an nightmare of eternal recurrence (see, ie, Bush's deja vu inducing speeches on Iraq delivered every couple of months), receive a healthy dose of the blame for the fact that the movie is playing out according to form. We are not rewarded for our prescience or oft repeated admonitions, but rather accused of rooting for failure or weakening the country's resolve because we point out along the way how the signposts on the many ill-fated roads are, indeed, the signposts we thought they were. Regardless, no vindication for being "right" about any of these strategic boondoggles would be particularly satisfying anyway.

Nevertheless, witness, for example, the increasingly frequent "stabbed in the back" meme popping up in Right blogistan surrounding the Iraq conflict. Or sympathize with Al Gore and his attempt at one last hail mary pass to the American consciousness regarding the specter of global warming - a problem that Gore highlighted many years ago (to much ridicule) and to which the Bush administration has shown a persistent recklessness toward addressing. Or wonder to yourself about the groundhog day-like fiscal policies that involve repeatedly cutting taxes on the wealthiest Americans at a time of two simultaneous wars. While these go-to tax cuts are always accompanied by the soothing bromides of Laffer curve distortions and other such supply side voodoo, the results are always the same: dangerously burgeoning deficits, increasing inequalities in wealth, cuts in social programs and a cash strapped treasury. Predictable? Perhaps, but guess what the election year plan is. I blame the tax and spend liberals.

Speaking of predictable, what has been so particularly confounding about these blunders is just how obviously foreseeable the eventual geo-political five car pile-ups have been prior to the keys even being turned in the policy making ignition. I think Fred Kaplan summed it up best as an aside to his critique of the rather "bland" list of foreign policy objectives put forth by Congressional Democrats as part of a national security plan a few months back [emphasis mine throughout]:

The list may seem obvious, like those "Do not use in water" tags that come with electrical appliances—except that Bush & Co. have been spinning fan blades in bathtubs around the world the past four years. This is the advantage that the Democrats hold at the starting gate: The Republican administration has violated so many precepts of International Relations 101 that clichés take on the air of wisdom. It may be that the Dems don't need to put forth their own agenda; promising to pull the plug out of the socket might be sufficient.
For me personally, the decision to invade Iraq marked the moment that the electric current met the bath water - shocking me into action and converting me from passive observer, to active participant in the campaign to convince policy makers and ordinary citizens of the folly of this administration's grand designs. I remember feeling a profound sense of alarm and astonishment at the fact that so many serious thinkers were brushing off, or failing to consider, the impact that an invasion of a Muslim nation in the heart of the Middle East would have on our image in the region - and how that would interplay with our broader objectives. The other half of the story - informed by the learned empathy that tells of the "consequences" side of the equation - wasn't even on the radar.

The belief that the way to combat the virulent anti-American propaganda spewed by Bin Laden (aided by certain questionable real world policy choices) that fed so much of the pernicious strain of anti-American jihadism in the region was through the use of "shock and awe" bombing campaigns and prolonged occupation of a Muslim nation replete with civilian killings, arrogant viceroys, permanent bases and sweetheart deals on reconstruction contracts for US firms was just beyond the beyonds.

The thought that there would not be significant "blowback" from a new generation of mujahadeen replacing the prior generation of Afghan fighters that have bedeviled us over the past decade or so, was beyond myopic. These patently "obvious" deductions were undone by a combustible mixture of hubris, narrow-minded focus, solipsistic thinking, exceptionalism, mixed motives and greed. There's a reason Michael Scheuer called the invasion of Iraq Bin Laden's Christmas gift. Anthony Shadid tells us about the gift that keeps on giving (via Swopa):

...the war is building a profound legacy across the Arab world: fear and suspicion over Iraq's repercussions, a generation that casts the Bush administration's policy as an unquestioned war on Islam, and a subterranean reserve of men who, like Abu Haritha, declare that the fight against the United States in Iraq is a model for the future.

Grievances against the United States are nothing new in a city like Tripoli. For a generation, activists across the spectrum have bitterly criticized U.S. policy. What has shifted in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the U.S. invasion of Iraq is the perception of that policy. The critique is no longer about perceived double standards -- of excessive support for Israel, of backing Arab dictatorships. Today, it is more generalized, universal and uncompromising. Popular sentiment here and elsewhere holds that U.S. policy amounts to a war on Islam, and in the language of Abu Haritha and others, the conflict is framed as one between the faithful and infidels, justice and injustice.

"The targeting of Iraq can be considered the first step in targeting the entire Middle East to impose a new order in the region," said Fathi Yakan, a founder of the Islamic Association and head of an umbrella group known as the Islamic Action Forces.
Wow. Who could have seen that one coming? If you want more on the positive developments in Iraq, and the future they portend, check out Richard Holbrooke's sentiments as retold by some of the good folks over at Democracy Arsenal (as summed up by Kevin).

While issues such as the fueling of dangerous (and now well trained and equipped) anti-American jihadists through the invasion of Iraq, as well as the utter neglect of pending environmental calamities, are certainly the crown jewels in the firmament of the Bush administration's obvious mistakes, there are also the smaller ones that deserve mentioning (rampant cronyism, erosion of sound policy making procedures, Katrina, etc.). One such textbook error was the appointment of John Bolton to the role of ambassador to the UN - a mistake that enough Republicans in the Senate likely spotted far enough in advance that Bush had to use a recess appointment in order to circumvent the Senate's approval process.

At the time, many administration supporters hailed Bolton's coarse style, and open contempt for the UN itself, as would-be assets that would assist Bolton in working with other member nation's to reform the UN. Allow me to repeat that bit of counterintuitive thinking: Bolton's well documented inability to work with others and repeated proclamations as to the irrelevancy of the institution were going to help him to work with other nations within that institution on so many sensitive issues. I know, I know - it really is beyond belief. In reality-based reality, though, Bolton's appointment was correctly viewed as part and parcel of a policy of undermining international organizations and multilateral actions - from institutions such as the UN to alliances such as those found in "old Europe." It was unipolarity run amok - which happens to be the quickest way to unravel such unipolarity.

Well guess what's happening with Bolton at the UN: the obvious. To paraphrase praktike, "We told you so." Not that it required a crystal ball or anything - just a pinch of common sense. Sebastian Mallaby recounts the oh-so shocking results from Bolton's brief - yet destructive - tenure. First some background:

Last month President Bush issued a rare apology. "Saying 'Bring it on,' kind of tough talk, you know, that sent the wrong signal," he confessed. "I think in certain parts of the world it was misinterpreted."

Well done, Mr. President, you've understood that bluster can backfire. Now how about sharing this insight with your ambassador to the United Nations?

John R. Bolton, the ambassador in question, has a rich history of losing friends and failing to influence people. He was notorious, even before arriving at the United Nations last year, for having said that 10 stories of the U.N. headquarters could be demolished without much loss; he had described the United States as the sun around which lesser nations rotate -- mere "asteroids," he'd branded them. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Senate refused to confirm Bolton as U.N. ambassador. "Arrogant," "bullying," and "the poster child of what someone in the diplomatic corps should not be," Sen. George Voinovich called him.
Then, after recounting Bolton's dubious highlights at the UN, Mallaby proceeds with some of the reaction:

Last week the U.N. deputy secretary general, a pro-American Briton named Mark Malloch Brown, went public with his Bolton frustrations. He pointed out that the United Nations serves many American objectives, from deploying peacekeepers to helping with Iraq's elections. Given this cooperation, the powers that be in Washington should stick up for the United Nations rather than threatening to blow it up. They should not be passive in the face of "unchecked U.N.-bashing and stereotyping."

This merely stated the obvious...But Malloch Brown's speech didn't seem obvious to Bolton. "This is the worst mistake by a senior U.N. official that I have seen," he thundered in response. "Even though the target of the speech was the United States, the victim, I fear, will be the United Nations."

Which would suit Bolton and his allies perfectly. But it should not suit Bush, at least not now that he's grasped that bluster can backfire. Arriving at the U.N. summit last September, a different Bush greeted the secretary general and gestured at Bolton; "has the place blown up since he's been here?" he demanded, teasingly. Well, it's now time for the new Bush to acknowledge that Bolton's tactics aren't funny. The United States needs an ambassador who can work with the United Nations. Right now, it doesn't have one.
For good measure, Lorelei Kelly provides some instructive insights for the Bush administration - what should be blatantly obvious to anyone not a "Vulcan":

Bolton's threatening response are the words of a bully....It appears that we not only need better intelligence from our national security agencies, we need more emotional intelligence from our political appointees. Re-cap on Emotional Intelligence: Relationships are vital for life achievement. Understanding and relating well with others is often more important than run of the mill smarts because self-awareness and the ability to build lasting meaningful relationships are fundamental keys to success. All the public diplomacy gimmicks and flackery in the world will never overcome this basic fact.

The administration's squandered political capital is splattered all over the place these days. [...]

Maybe the new Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who seems to have lots of emotional intelligence, could use some of it to explain a really basic economics term to the Bush team: Opportunity Cost: it's the benefits you miss out on when you choose one course of action over the alternatives. Its how economists value choices. In human relations terms, its that people aren't stupid and because of that you almost never can have your cake and eat it too. Well, the opportunity cost of being a bully is the diminishment of every American national security objective that requires cooperation, trust and goodwill from Hearts and Minds to public diplomacy to UN reform.
Imagine that. Diplomacy sometimes requires one to actually act diplomatic. Oh, and it helps not to hold your allies and their institutions in open contempt. Whodda thunk it? Now could someone please pop a tire on the big rig John Bolton is trying to drive headlong into the UN headquarters on Turtle Bay? There are, in fact, still a couple more years left on Bolton's voyage. The sooner the better though. The slow motion is excruciating, the movie is a re-run and I'm gnashing my teeth.

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