Monday, August 13, 2007

All the Simple Stuff Never Understood, Like Right from Bad and Wrong from Good

One of the more prolific and informative bloggers in the 'sphere, Glenn Greenwald, has written a book that serves as both a detailed reference guide to the past 6+ years of the Bush administration's governance, as well as a cautionary tale of what the trends, traits and underlying rhetorical framework of President Bush's worldview could portend in terms of a looming confrontation with Iran. The ideas presented in A Tragic Legacy are worth the time and attention paid to them by Greenwald, and the discussion they will spark is absolutely vital to this country's future, made only more urgent by the potentially catastrophic decisions the Bush administration is flirting with at this moment.

Although many of the right wing bloggers/pundits try to undermine Greenwald by claiming that he is some breathless partisan, what makes his arguments so devastating in A Tragic Legacy and on his blog (and thus what makes him so worthy of a concerted effort to discredit him) is that Greenwald (a former litigator) presents his case in the methodical, meticulous and well-constructed manner of a prosecutor whose got a winning hand. Unfortunately, garnering a conviction in this case may turn out to be a pyrrhic victory reminiscent of Cassandra - the cold comfort that comes with predicting a future calamity while lacking the means to avert it. Perhaps in its own small way, A Tragic Legacy can help to push the jury far enough along that the damage can be contained.

In this work, Greenwald provides a point-by-point summation of a presidency that is dangerously disconnected from any rational policy making apparatus due to its isolation and unpopularity, the stubbornness of much of its leadership, pervasive incompetence and, perhaps most frightening, radical ideological tendencies. Greenwald takes the myriad, if occasionally vague, constitutional and moral violations perpetrated by this administration - from torture, to rendition, to the constitutional debasement of the unitary executive - and pins each transgression down to chapter, verse, statute and principle (a skill that has long been one of Greenwald's defining traits as a blogger and what makes him such a valuable resource).

Despite its value and admirable mission, portions of the book can sag under the weight of the neverending litany of blunders and mismanagement that Greenwald recites to fill out his bill of particulars. In defense of Greenwald, the, at times, ponderous indictment is as much a testament of the persistent excesses of the Bush administration than it is a critique of Greenwald's style. Even after all that was documented by the author, there was undoubtedly much material left on the cutting room floor. It has been a truly historic Presidency; rarely for better, and almost entirely for worse.

For some readers who tend toward the political junkie side of the spectrum, these passages may seem repetitive and like a return trip over well worn roads. On the other hand, even dialed-in politicos will find the recitation to be a useful compendium and an orderly, chronological retracing of many events and acts that have been scattered into a hazy mosaic by the blurring effects of the passage of time as it interplays with an unwieldy volume of information. For those who haven't been following day-to-day developments with rapt attention, the foundation laid down by the author will illuminate.

One of the primary themes of the book focuses on Bush's ideological/religious worldview, and how that system of beliefs has led to so many of the failed policies that we are currently contending with. In connection with this, Greenwald examines what he calls, "George Bush's Manichean morality"...
...namely, that embracing a core, unshakable conviction of one's own rightness legitimizes, and even renders inevitable, some of the most amoral and ethically monstrous policies, justified as necessary means to achieve a morally imperative end. The Bush presidency, awash in moralistic rhetoric, has ushered in some of the most extremist, previously unthinkable and profoundly un-American practices - from indefinite, lawless detentions, to the use of torture, to bloody preventative wars of choice, to the abductions of innocent people literally off the street or from their homes, to radical new theories designed to vest in the president the power to break the law.

These policies were pursued not despite the moralistic roots of the president's agenda, but because of them...As the president ceaselessly proclaimed the Goodness at the heart of America's destiny and its role in the world, his actions have result in an almost full-scale destruction of America's moral credibility in almost every country and on every continent. The same president who has insisted that core moralism drives him has brought America to its lowest moral standing in history.
Greenwald acknowledges that the Manichean outlook, and its associated rhetoric, can be espoused by true believer and cynic alike (and is in the current political landscape). Many of those surrounding Bush, Greenwald argues, are not in fact of the true believer type (Cheney and the neocons for example) - but instead are keen to fit their preferred policies into the Manichean framework in order to appeal to the Bush ethos. Those in Bush's inner circle who have invoked the simplistic moral language of Good vs. Evil have prevailed over those relying on more rational, empirically-based discourse, time and again.

Whether or not Bush is sincere in his moralistic outlook is a matter of debate. The contrary view holds that Bush tends toward a more calculated approach that cynically enlists Manichean language to push for imperial conquest, a quasi-monarchical executive branch, an erosion of the protections afforded by the Bill of Rights and other self-indulgent prerogatives that Bush places ahead of those of his Party and the nation as a whole. I'm not sure which to prefer: ideological zealot, or ruthless charlatan, since the end results have been so difficult to distinguish.

Regardless of its true inclinations, the Bush administration has certainly adopted Manichean rhetoric to sell and justify its policies to the American people. That much is certain. Thus, to some extent, the Manichean rhetoric needs to be acknowledged and confronted - not ignored or dismissed.
To engage, analyze, and refute the president's proferred justifications for his actions is neither to accept nor reject that they are sincerely held. In either case, those Manichean appeals have powerfully shaped the perceptions of many Americans and have been a potent tool in inducing Americans to support many of the president's most radical policies. And other influential political figures, including several who wish to succeed Bush, invoke the same worldview to advocate their own extremist policies, both domestically and abroad. That alone compels the need to examine the president's Manichean moralism and underlying premises on their own merits, independent of the question of whether he really embraces it.
Along these lines, it is deeply disturbing to ponder, as Greenwald does, what we can expect from either version of the Bush administration going forward - or potential successors who adopt the same philosophy and preferred method for governance. In particular, the most pressing issue has to do with a potential confrontation with Iran - a goal that remains central to many of Bush's most trusted advisers.

Once again, as in Iraq, the same Manichean language and imagery is being promulgated, regardless of the sincerity of the various actors. There is the ceaseless exaggeration of the threat via comparisons to Hitler and the Nazis, the preclusion of non-bellicose options through the description of Iran as irrational Evil incapable of negotiation, and emotional/fear based ploys through the use of the nuclear specter and vague references to "terrorist" ties (implying al-Qaeda in order to tie to 9/11). For those that oppose a disastrous expansion of the war, there is a stream of comparisons to Chamberlain and charges of "weakness" and "appeasement" in the face of a gathering threat. The same people that were so integral to pushing for the war in Iraq, are once again plying the president with appeals to his Manichean tendencies, are once again attempting to persuade the president that war is Good.

What is most frightening, though, is the likelihood of confrontation with Iran regardless of whether the occupant of the White House is the cynical or Manichean version. Consider this Greenwald paragraph written under the Manichean interpretation:
A failed, lame-duck president, with nothing to lose, can either accept his impotence and passively muddle through the remainder of his term or do the opposite - move furiously forward on an extremist course, free of the constraints of facing the electorate again and [convinced that he is on the side of Good and Right].
If you replace the bracketed language with a more avaricious or callous justification, the strength of the motivations and ultimate outcome are remarkably similar. So, there is little comfort to be drawn from the fact that the Manichean interpretation may be incorrect - and that Bush has merely compiled his track record of failure and abuse out of more base motivations.

A leader motivated by either of the strains described above rarely finds religion this late in the game. Yet that is what we are left to rely on in our hope to avoid another war: that a third Bush emerges that is neither the devoted Manichean, nor reckless, self-absorbed cynic. We need a realistic Bush, a Bush who understands practical limitations, who at least ponders the possibility of error and who takes counsel from the likes of Robert Gates and Chuck Hagel instead of Dick Cheney and William Kristol. Vanity is not on our side, and Cheney and Kristol will play that for all its worth.

My sincere hope is that Greenwald is being unduly cynical and alarmist, and that Bush's Manichean outlook (or imperialistic tendency) has been sufficiently chastened by six years of constant failure. Or that, maybe, Greenwald is just a biased partisan who has misinterpreted the Bush administration's true animating principles. My fear, however, is that in describing this Manichean/radical presidency, Greenwald is simply observing a truth that many of us have tended to dismiss out of an assumption that the Bush administration couldn't actually be that deluded, that reckless, that destructive or that wedded to a crude moral framework. Surely even George Bush must be able to accept that there are limitations, risks and costs that must outweigh pettier, or even more quixotic, motivations.


I felt a lot more confident in that rosier assessment before I read A Tragic Legacy. This doubt is a good thing, though, and a part of the reason why the book is so very valuable. To the extent that there is even a remote possibility that the Bush administration will start a war with Iran (and there is much more than that), it is better to assume the worst and put our energies into preventing it. Glenn Greenwald has certainly done that, and then some.

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