The Problems with Reality Continue

We like our delusions. As mentioned previously, think back on what Ron Paul said in the Republican presidential candidates’ debate in South Carolina, suggesting American foreign policy, particularly our post-1991 attacks on Iraq, was a factor behind al-Qaida’s attacks on the United States.  Of course the former New York Mayor, Rudy Giuliani, tore him a new asshole – “That’s really an extraordinary statement.” Then Giuliani got on a roll – “That’s an extraordinary statement, as someone who lived through the attack of September 11, that we invited the attack because we were attacking Iraq.”  The crowd roared and Giuliani went on – “I would ask the congressman to withdraw that comment and tell us that he didn’t really mean that.”  Paul refused, and he’s been beaten up by Giuliani supporters for his remarks ever since. Even McCain praised Giuliani’s assault on Paul.

 

Paul ended up laughing and maintaining one really ought to think about all the effects of any policy and the actions the flow from that policy – it’s kind of the responsible thing to do.  And it is kind of basic.  Monday, May 21, on CNN (Paula Zahn) and Fox News (The O’Reilly Factor, guest hosted by Michelle Malkin), you could watch this debated again and again. On one side – they attacked us because they hate us for our freedoms and such, and we can do no wrong, really.  On the other side – gee, when we do things we ought to think about all the consequences.  Take your choice. The chairman of the Michigan Republican Party is trying to keep Paul out of all future debates, according to the Associated Press, because of his remarks about 9/11.  Bill Bennett agrees – the man who wrote The Book of Virtues.

 

Paul ended up on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher.  The New York Observer quoted New York Fire Department Deputy Chief Jim Riches on the former mayor’s credibility – “If somebody can tell me what he did on 9/11 that was so good, I’d love to hear it. All he did was give information on the TV.”  Riches’ firefighter son died on September 11, 2001.  Ron Paul is winning this one.

 

Andrew Sullivan provides this link to Ron Paul, in a YouTube interview – “Of course I don’t blame the victims [of 9/11]. I blame the criminals and murderers who did it … I sincerely believe that I am the true conservative and the true Republican [in this race].”

 

Well, it all depends on how you define things, like reality. The Republicans at this moment are consumed with the challenge to the prevailing mythology – we are good and they are bad, and since we are good, we are blameless. It’s simple and effective – voters feel self-righteous and no one has to think much. Argue otherwise and you hate America – at the very least you seem to be saying we can be bad, or dumb. You don’t get elected by positing that the country may have made mistakes in judgment. No one wants to hear that, or that’s at least the calculation. The question of whether we should examine the role that our own foreign policy played in setting the stage for the 2001 attacks is politically dangerous – you just cannot consider whether our foreign policy played any role whatsoever in setting the stage for the attacks.  Don’t go there. The argument that Ron Paul is dead wrong seems to rage on.  He’s getting far too much play – too much air time.

 

Ron Paul seems to be following Einstein’s dictum – “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”  That is considered to be too difficult a concept for the voters.  They prefer simpler than logically possible – at least that’s the assessment.

 

Josh Marshall tries to toss in some reality

 

This is a silly debate in which two entirely distinct questions are intentionally conflated. First, did our pre-9/11 foreign policy play a role in creating 9/11? Of course, it did. Does anyone imagine that 9/11 would have taken place if the US were not the dominant military power in the Middle East? Into that catch-all one can add in the Persian Gulf War, US bases in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, US support for Israel, US support for Egypt. Ron Paul is saying that had we pursued a Taftian isolationist foreign policy that 9/11 might well not have happened. And again, that seems undeniable.

 

This only gets us to the question of whether these were wise policies in the first place and whether they were worth their apparent costs. There’s a big difference between assigning blame and recognizing some cause and effect relationships from our actions in the world. To do otherwise is simply to put more kinds of discussion off limits and fasten us more tightly to our own failed policies. And this is particularly relevant to how we unwind the trap we’ve created in Iraq, with our own presence in the country and to an extent the situation we’ve created quite apart from our presence, becoming a factory of terror for export around the world.

 

But the nine remaining Republicans don’t want to go there. They no doubt have highly-paid consultants who endlessly repeat the key to it all – “Keep it simple.” It hardly matters of it makes sense, logically.  You don’t win on cold logic. You win on hot emotions.

 

And everyone knows Iraq really is becoming “a factory of terror for export around the world.”  The New York Times on Memorial Day simply confirmed it again – an item on the outward flow of jihadists from Iraq into neighboring countries. They site Lebanon and Jordan, but could likely list all the neighboring states and Europe, and the United States. These guys were either trained in the Iraqi insurgency, or have figured out techniques worked out there against American troops.  It sort of had to happen.

 

Marshall says here you could argue either way from the obvious

 

On its face it is almost a storyline you might expect war supporters to embrace – Iraq as the central front in the “War on Terror,” a breeding ground of terrorism now spreading to other countries. Again we see the leitmotif of the president’s war on terror – evidence of the abject failure of his policies marshaled as evidence of the necessity of pursuing them.

 

We’re so far deep into this mess that sometimes I believe we’re past the point of argument. You look at the evidence and you either see it or you don’t. Or perhaps more agnostically, you look at the evidence and one of two completely contradictory narratives makes sense. Whichever is right, the assumptions brought to the issue are so divergent as almost to defy argument or debate.

 

He is reminded of what one of his readers sent in, in July of 2003, four months after the war started –

 

“Being based in Iraq helps us not only because of actual bases; but because the American presence there diverts terrorist attention away from elsewhere. By confronting them directly in Iraq, we get to engage them in a military setting that plays to our strengths rather than to theirs’. Continued conflict in Iraq, in other words, needn’t always be bad news. It may be a sign that we are drawing the terrorists out of the woodwork and tackling them in the open.” – Andrew Sullivan

 

Now that’s extraordinary. Kind of like saying “by having a dirty hospital, we fight germs on our terms,” or something ridiculous. It’s not as if there’s a finite number of “terrorists” – chances are anyone fighting us in Iraq never would’ve thought twice about attacking us elsewhere before we invaded – we’re breeding germs is all. Part of the reason Saddam was so brutal was because he had plenty of people as brutal as he going after him all the time – now we’ve unleashed those forces against our troops. Has there yet been any sign that our real nemesis, Osama and al Qaeda, are in Iraq? No. What we’re really doing is diverting our resources while al Qaeda sits back and reaps the windfall of our distraction and formulates their next attack. What horrible logic to rationalize the continuing deaths of American soldiers caught up in a situation that had nothing to with al Qaeda, nuclear weapons, or anything else of significance.

 

Marshall now says this –

 

Of course, give it time, give it time. This was only four months into the war. And, as you know, eventually some folks in Iraq adopted the name al Qaida, namely al Qaida in Mesopotamia. So now we can say it’s al Qaida. And of course al Qaida, or whoever still owns the rights to the franchise, is happy to call it that too since it puffs up their own organizational profile.

 

[The] point isn’t one that others haven’t made. But at the time I got his note it struck me as so hilarious and bitingly on point, hilarious because it stated in this unvarnished fashion, in disbelief, the essential ridiculousness of the premise of the entire fight. And while it seems obvious, the argument he was attacking really is still the central one animating our policy in Iraq.

 

The essential ridiculousness remains – the trap the Republicans are in, a bit of a logic trap where reality is the problem.

 

Sullivan walked out of the trap years ago –

 

Yes, my position on fighting in Iraq has turned 180 degrees from four years ago. I thought then that fighting in Iraq was the best way to defeat Islamist terrorism. After four years of observing it, and its actual empowerment of Islamist terrorism, I’ve changed my mind. I have openly acknowledged my change many times, have expressed shame and sorrow at my early misjudgment, wrote a book trying to figure out how I could have strayed so far from small-c conservatism in the traumatized wake of 9/11, and am doing my best to figure out the best way forward. If you think I have no credibility now, having been so wrong then, all I can say is: there are plenty of other blogs to read. But as Keynes said, “When the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do, sir?”

 

The key tenet of election politics is, however, that you don’t change your mind, ever – you are resolute and have immutable principles and all that. One cannot be a John Kerry flip-flopper. That tag ended his political life. People want it second-grade simple, and want someone who thought things over a long time ago and made up his or her mind about everything, and will not be swayed by others, or facts, or changes in the situation. Listening is dangerous, and thinking even more so – there will be no learning on the job.  At least every sharp political consultant will tell you that, and perhaps every sharp political consultant is right.  Bush was elected (perhaps) for a second term. Folks don’t like complexity.

 

But what of the two years of steadily dropping poll numbers? Don’t they count for something?  Six out of every ten of us don’t think we should have done this Iraq war thing at all.  More the seventy percent want this wound down and over, soon (but responsibly) – so we can get one with getting the actual bad guys.

 

The reality has changed – but we get half-truths and distortions from the White House. President Bush does have this tendency to cite public support for his Iraq policy, even if it’s not there.  How can this be?

 

It’s easy. The Associated Press finally noted he sort of makes things up (a sort of alternative reality) –

 

[In a press conference last week], Bush said: “I recognize there are a handful there, or some, who just say, `Get out, you know, it’s just not worth it. Let’s just leave.’ I strongly disagree with that attitude. Most Americans do as well.”

 

In fact, polls show Americans do not disagree, and that leaving – not winning – is their main goal.

 

There are other example, like this one – Bush’s line during the standoff with Congress over the Iraq funding bill, where he said that the Democrats’ “failure to fund our troops… is unacceptable to me, and I believe it is unacceptable to the American people.”  The polls showed otherwise – majority support for the Democrats’ plan.  He just made it all up.  (John McCain said the same thing, but he’s just strange.)

 

The administration simply claims that you just have to think about what the polls “really” show –

 

Bush aides say poll questions are asked so many ways, and often so imprecisely, that it is impossible to conclude that most Americans really want to get out. Failure, Bush says, is not what the public wants – they just don’t fully understand that that is just what they will get if troops are pulled out before the Iraqi government is capable of keeping the country stable on its own.

 

Ah, he knows what we’re all really thinking, and it’s not what we said at all. He knows us better than we know ourselves.

 

What do the experts say? There’s this –

 

Independent pollster Andrew Kohut said of the White House view: “I don’t see what they’re talking about.”

 

“They want to know when American troops are going to leave,” Kohut, director of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, said of the public. “They certainly want to win. But their hopes have been dashed.”

 

Kohut has found it notable that there’s such a consensus in poll findings.

 

“When the public hasn’t made up its mind or hasn’t thought about things, there’s a lot of variation in the polls,” he said. “But there’s a fair amount of agreement now.”

 

But Andrew Kohut doesn’t understand the deep, hidden, secret meaning of it all.

 

But then Paul Kiel notes a bit of irony

 

But there are times when even the administration admits that the public support is not there – for instance, the president’s consistently and irrefutably abysmal approval rating. And at such times, Bush and others have backpedaled to a stance of aloofness, the president posing as a rock of judgment that won’t be swayed by public whim: “If you make decisions based upon the latest opinion poll, you won’t be thinking long-term strategy on behalf of the American people.”

 

Ah, the polls have deep but hidden meaning of real significance, except when they don’t. Kiel notes White House spokesman Tony Fratto explaining that in the case of Alberto Gonzales – “It’s important for any public official to have as much confidence as he can garner. And that’s going to ebb and flow, but it will not ebb and flow with this President and this Attorney General.”

 

Paul Kiel sums it up –

 

So, in conclusion, the White House’s attitude toward public opinion: claim public support for policies that do not have it; when challenged, explain that the public isn’t really saying what it’s saying; and when confronted with inarguable evidence of public disapproval, claim indifference. It’s quite a dance.

 

Hey, it works – or it has worked so far. Reality is what you say it is, until people stop believing you.  Groucho Marx – “Who are you going to believe – me or your lying eyes?” That was funny once.

 

And then there’s Jonathan Schwarz reading through The Italian Letter by Peter Eiser and Knut Royce so we don’t have to. He finds “some amazing stuff ” in it about Alan Foley, the head of the CIA’s Weapons Intelligence Non-Proliferation and Arms Control Center (WINPAC). WINPAC is the group that led the CIA’s analysis of Iraq’s WMD capabilities, and so Foley is at the very center of everything that happened.

 

It’s a lesson in shaping reality, as in what Foley believed before the war (p. 125) –

 

There were strong indications that Foley all along was toeing a line he did not believe. Several days after Bush’s State of the Union speech, Foley briefed student officers at the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington, DC. After the briefing, Melvin Goodman, who had retired from the CIA and was then on the university’s faculty, brought Foley into the secure communications area of the Fort McNair compound. Goodman thanked Foley for addressing the students and asked him what weapons of mass destruction he believed would be found after the invasion. “Not much, if anything,” Goodman recalled that Foley responded. Foley declined to be interviewed for this book.

 

Then why did the CIA’s Weapons Intelligence Non-Proliferation and Arms Control Center finally conclude that Saddam Hussein had all the bad stuff?

 

Here’s the answer (p. 119) –

 

One day in December 2002, Foley called his senior production managers to his office. He had a clear message for the men and women who controlled the output of the center’s analysts: “If the president wants to go to war, our job is to find the intelligence to allow him to do so.” The directive was not quite an order to cook the books, but it was a strong suggestion that cherry-picking and slanting not only would be tolerated, but might even be rewarded.

 

Ah, reality can be changed.  There’s no such thing as an inconvenient truth, and the president really isn’t opposed to doing something or other about global warming – he just hates the title of Al Gore’s book.  He must think it’s silly.

 

Is it true that “truth will out?”

 

We get that from The Merchant of Venice (1600) –

 

Nay, indeed, if you had your eyes, you might fail of
the knowing me: it is a wise father that knows his
own child. Well, old man, I will tell you news of
your son: give me your blessing: truth will come
to light; murder cannot be hid long; a man’s son
may, but at the length truth will out.

 

These days we get this from the war front

 

What are we doing here? Why are we still here?'” said (Staff Sergeant David) Safstrom, a member of Delta Company of the 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry, 82nd Airborne Division. “We’re helping guys that are trying to kill us. We help them in the day. They turn around at night and try to kill us.”

 

His views are echoed by most of his fellow soldiers in Delta Company, renowned for its aggressiveness.

 

A small minority of Delta Company soldiers – the younger, more recent enlistees in particular – seem to still wholeheartedly support the war. Others are ambivalent, torn between fear of losing more friends in battle, longing for their families and a desire to complete their mission.

 

With few reliable surveys of soldiers’ attitudes, it is impossible to simply extrapolate from the small number of soldiers in Delta Company. But in interviews with more than a dozen soldiers over a one-week period, most said they were disillusioned by repeated deployments, by what they saw as the abysmal performance of Iraqi security forces and by a conflict that they considered a civil war, one they had no ability to stop. 

 

Yes, it’s a bummer when those you’ve trained spend their off hours using their training to kill you and your buddies. That’s not the reality we’ve been told about.

 

And there’s more

 

Donald C. Hudson Jr., a private assigned to the 1st Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, is one of those soldiers. After watching his roommate die in a roadside bombing, Hudson spoke out.

 

I came here as part of the first wave of this so called “troop surge”, but so far it has effectively done nothing to quell insurgent violence. I have seen the rise in violence between the Sunni and Shiite. This country is in the middle of a civil war that has been ongoing since the seventh century. Why are we here when this country still to date does not want us here?

 

Why does our president’s personal agenda consume him so much, that he cannot pay attention to what is really going on here?

 

… I would just like to know what is the true reason we are here? This country poses no threat to our own. So why must we waste the lives of good men on a country that does not give a damn about itself?

 

Don’t ask. It’s going well, whatever it is.

 

Out here the Los Angeles Times offers this – the administration is figuring out how to lower expectations –

 

U.S. military leaders in Iraq are increasingly convinced that most of the broad political goals President Bush laid out early this year in his announcement of a troop buildup will not be met this summer and are seeking ways to redefine success.

 

In September, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, is scheduled to present Congress with an assessment of progress in Iraq. Military officers in Baghdad and outside advisors working with Petraeus doubt that the three major goals set by U.S. officials for the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki will be achieved by then.

 

Enactment of a new law to share Iraq’s oil revenue among Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish regions is the only goal they think might be achieved in time, and even that is considered a long shot. The two other key benchmarks are provincial elections and a deal to allow more Sunni Arabs into government jobs.

 

We should be getting some rather amusing examples of “progress” come September.  Maybe amusing is the wrong word.

 

Jonathan Zasloff here recalls what his friend Gideon Rose wrote in a Washington Post article in 2005, saying then that it was too early to judge whether anything could be salvaged from the war, but –

 

It is not too soon to return a judgment on those at the helm who took a difficult job and made it infinitely more so, dramatically undermining America’s regional and global position in the process. They were “careless people,” as Fitzgerald said of Tom and Daisy Buchanan, who “smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

 

Fitzgerald is better than Shakespeare in this case, or could turn to Garrison Keillor and his Memorial Day column, Telling Lies over Good Soldiers’ Graves

 

Memorial Day is a lovely day in America, a day of reunion in small towns, where people drive up to the cemetery on Monday morning and file in, old-timers carrying lawn chairs, and even if you’ve missed a few years, people will come over and shake your hand and thank you for coming. You don’t have to dress up or support the war in Iraq. You just come, and afterward there’s hot dogs and potato salad at the Legion Club.

 

It’s the last patriotic holiday that still means something, and it persists year after year despite the wooden rituals and leaden speeches.

 

… The Current Occupant drove over the bridge to Arlington and spoke at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a site of powerful reverence, and his speechwriter, in a hurry to finish and enjoy his weekend, gave him “From their deaths must come a world where the cruel dreams of tyrants and terrorists are frustrated and foiled — where our nation is more secure from attack, and where the gift of liberty is secured for millions who have never known it,” a line cobbled together from scrap lumber. Shades of “the last full measure of devotion” and “we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain” but made from different cloth. The reputation of the Gettysburg Address remains secure.

 

But he’s bugged by something else –

 

Dishonesty makes for poor rhetoric and that’s what has gutted this beautiful holiday. The ideas it celebrates – that our young men and women did their duty and died in defense of their country — are simply not true. Vietnam was lost and it didn’t matter to the security of the United States. Saigon fell and life in the States went on without a blink. And since the end of selective service, these honored dead are somebody else’s sons and daughters, not ours – one good reason why there is so little protest of this war: If the Army was conscripting our children to go to Baghdad, the Occupant’s approval rating would be in the low teens.

 

The local ceremony –

 

Memorial Day survives on the faint memories of World War II, the Good War. Those old Legion and VFW guys are the ones who keep it going. Some come in fatigues, some ride in golf carts past the rows of tombstones and the urns with fresh gardenias planted in them, and the Boy Scouts line up, and the auxiliary ladies in blue hand out little American flags. There is a distant HEE-YUP and the crowd shushes and the honor guard marches in, left, right, left, right, left, right, and Old Glory is raised on the flagpole, and we all recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The names of the dead are read and wreaths of poppies are placed and maybe somebody recites “In Flanders Fields”:

 

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow,
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

 

And it comes down to this –

 

Everyone is a little stiff and self-consciously reverent. And then comes the speech. That’s the problem. It is time for the truth to be told and we cannot bring ourselves to tell it. Good men and women were sacrificed to the vanity of politicians and generals. It is a miserable business to tell lies over the graves of good soldiers, but we do, and then we all sing “America the Beautiful,” including the verse about heroes proved in liberating strife, and the honor guard fires its rifle salute and somebody presses Play on a boombox and we hear “Taps” and the guard turns about-face and marches off and we walk away, thoughtfully, and there is much to think about.

 

It is time for the truth to be told and we cannot bring ourselves to tell it.  No – we can.  The problem is nothing moves up the chain to those who make decisions.

__

 

A footnote on confronting bullshit from Newsweek

 

So consider these scenes from March 2004, described by two former top Justice officials who, like other ex-officials interviewed by NEWSWEEK, did not wish to be identified discussing sensitive internal matters. Attorney General John Ashcroft is really sick. About to give a press conference in Virginia, he is stricken with pain so severe he has to lie down on the floor. Taken to the hospital for an emergency gallbladder operation, he hallucinates under medication as he lies, near death, in intensive care. On the night after his operation, he has two visitors: White House chief of staff Andrew Card and presidential counsel Alberto Gonzales. As described in public testimony, they want Ashcroft to sign a document authorizing the government’s top-secret eavesdropping program to go on. The attorney general, who thinks the program is illegal, refuses.

 

Back at the Justice Department, there is an equally extraordinary scene. Appalled by the White House’s heavy-handed attempt to coerce the gravely ill attorney general, virtually the entire top leadership of the Justice Department is threatening to resign.

 

No one resigned.  Alberto Gonzales testified to congress, under oath, that there was no internal disagreement about the program to speak of. Say it is so, and it is.

 

They can probably keep this up for twenty months – then it’s over.

 

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to The Problems with Reality Continue

  1. Pingback: Ten Old White Men in Bubble Wrap Hopping In Place « Just Above Sunset

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