Yes, a moot question is one where, if you think things through and work things out, there really is a clear answer – but the answer, either way, doesn’t really matter at all. Yes, clearly it would be more cost effective to purchase the orange Lamborghini than the red Ferrari – but for most everyone that is a moot point. The used Honda will have to do. And a Moot Court is where a hypothetical case is argued by law students, as an exercise – useful, but no one is in any legal peril, as whatever is being argued doesn’t actually matter to anyone real. And in law, when something is moot, that generally means the matter has already been settled, reargued and settled again, and has finally become fixed, settled law. Don’t be stupid and argue about it now – the issue was decided long ago.
And “moot” itself is an odd word. Historically a Moot is an ancient English meeting, where the freemen of a shire meet, or moot, perhaps. Of course the freemen of any given shire had no power whatsoever, as the local noble or the king would decide what mattered. The freemen of a shire could decide anything they wanted, but what they decided hardly mattered. (Most large corporations run this way today, as many of us know.)
You can see how one thing led to another – the word became associated with everything vaguely interesting but, in the end, quite pointless. And thus one thinks of the last days of the Bush presidency.
In the last days before Obama takes the oath of office, and has a go at leading the richest and most powerful nation in the world, the media is filled with retrospectives and assessments of the last eight years. What just happened? How did it happen? How has it come to this?
But no matter how defensively proud or morally appalled the writer, anyone who writes such things is spending time in the hypothetical and mysterious Land of Moot. None of it matters now.
Jacob Weisberg spends time there. He is chairman and editor-in-chief of the Slate Group (as in the site) and author of The Bush Tragedy. That book wasn’t reviewed that well – Bush seen through the lens of almost Shakespearean family conflict and deep psychological displacements, like profound insecurity. It was extraordinarily well-researched and documented with rock-solid source material, some quite new, but it was hard to see how much of what was there mattered in the here and now. But it was fascinating.
Alan Brinkley, a professor of history at Columbia and provost there, in his New York Times review of the Weisberg book, offers this assessment:
Is the story of George W. Bush in fact a tragedy? Many Americans, of course, believe that his presidency has been a tragedy for the nation and for the world. But Weisberg provides few reasons to think it has been a tragedy for Bush himself. He portrays Bush as a willfully careless figure, only glancingly interested in his legacy or even his popularity. “To challenge a thoughtful, moderate and pragmatic father,” Weisberg argues, “he trained himself to be hasty, extreme and unbending. He learned to overcome all forms of doubt through the exercise of will.”
But he sees no tragedy:
Tragedy, in the Shakespearean form that Weisberg seems to cite (although there is nothing tragic about Henry V either), requires self-awareness and at least some level of greatness squandered. The Bush whom Weisberg skillfully and largely convincingly portrays is a man who has rarely reflected, who has almost never looked back, and who has constructed a self-image of strength, courage and boldness that has little basis in the reality of his life. He is driven less by bold vision than by a desire to get elected (and settle scores), less by real strength than by unfocused ambition, and less by courage than by an almost passive acquiescence in disastrous plans that the people he empowered pursued in his name.
And other than that he was a great president.
But he was, and still is, a bit of an enigma. Weisberg, in a new item is Slate, calls Bush The Enigma in Chief, saying that we still don’t know how or why Bush made the key decisions of his administration.
Here’s the frame:
As George W. Bush once noted, “You never know what your history is going to be like until long after you’re gone.” What I think he was trying to say is that, over time, historians may evolve toward a more positive view of his presidency than the one held by most of his contemporaries.
At the moment, this seems a vain hope. Bush’s three most obvious legacies are his decision to invade Iraq, his framing of a global war on terror after Sept. 11, and the massive financial crisis. Each of these constitutes a separate epic in presidential misjudgment and mismanagement. It remains a brainteaser to come up with ways, however minor, in which Bush changed government, politics, or the world for the better. Among presidential historians, it is hardly an eccentric view that 43 ranks as America’s worst president ever. On the other hand, he has nowhere to go but up.
But in an odd way, Weisberg maintains, Bush’s comment may be quite valid:
We do not know how people will one day view this presidency because we, Bush’s contemporaries, don’t yet understand it ourselves. The Bush administration has had startling success in one area – namely keeping its inner workings secret. Intensely loyal, contemptuous of the press, and overwhelmingly hostile to any form of public disclosure, the Bushies did a remarkable job at keeping their doings hidden for eight years.
So we just don’t know things. No one really knows what led to his decision to invade Iraq. All we have is angry speculation on one side, and jingoistic assumptions on the other. And no one really knows exactly when he made up his mind to go to war against Saddam Hussein – some say long before 9/11, even before he was elected, and others don’t believe that for a minute. No one knows. And no one knows his reasoning – everyone guesses, as his language is opaque at best, hiding his reasoning, or revealing an inability to reason – take your pick, as he’s either sly or stupid. But you’ll never know.
But Weisberg is most interested in the key people around Bush – Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice. Weisberg wonders what part they played in the actual decision – “Was the selling of the war on the basis of WMD evidence a matter of conscious deception or of self-deception on their part?”
And in a long back and forth in Slate, Weisberg discussed all this with Bob Woodward and Ron Suskind and offers this summary:
Woodward, the author of four inside accounts of the Bush administration, believes that we do know the most important facts. He argues that Bush decided to invade Iraq in January 2003, that the reason was 9/11, and that Bush himself was the real decision-maker. Suskind and I argued that we don’t know really how, when, or why the decision was made – though we suspect it was much earlier. By the summer of 2002, administration officials and foreign diplomats were hearing that Bush’s course was already set.
But that is moot of course. Weisberg is interested in the larger issues of just went so wrong during the Bush years, so he poses questions:
Did Bush’s own innocence and incompetence drive his missteps? Or was it the people around him, most importantly his vice president, who manipulated him into his major bad choices? On so many issues – the framing of the war on terrorism, the use of torture, the expansion of executive power- it was Cheney’s views that prevailed. Yet at some point, perhaps around the 2006 election, Bush seems to have lost confidence in his vice president and stopped taking his advice.
To reckon with the Bush years, we need to understand what went on between these two men behind closed doors. Yet despite some superb spadework by journalist Barton Gellman and others, we know very little about Cheney’s true role. We have seen few of the pertinent documents and heard little relevant testimony. Congressional investigations and litigation have shed only the faintest light on Cheney’s role in Bush’s biggest blunders.
The same is generally true of Bush’s most important political relationship, with Karl Rove, and his most important personal one, with his father. Only with greater insight into these connections are we likely to be able to answer some of the other pressing historical questions.
To what extent was Bush himself really the driver of his central decisions? How engaged or disengaged was he? Why, after governing as a successful moderate in Texas, did he adopt such an ideological and polarizing style as president? Why did he politicize the fight against terrorism? Why did he choose to permit the torture of American detainees? Why did he wait so long to revise a failing strategy in Iraq?
Weisberg sees at as unlikely “that the memoirs in the works from Rove and Rumsfeld will challenge Bush’s repeated assertions that he was not only in charge but in control.” And Bush is hopeless – “As for the president himself, we’re unlikely to get much: Bush has a poor memory and is too unreflective to have kept the kind of diary that would elucidate matters.”
All we can do is to wait. There may be congressional investigations, declassified documents and emails later. As Weisberg says of Bush – “His was no ordinary failure, and he leaves not just an unholy mess but also some genuine mysteries.”
And while we wait, questions may be moot – if you are to learn from history, well, you need actual history. All else is moot.
There has been some reaction to Weisberg asking if Bush’s own “innocence and incompetence” drove his “missteps” (this seems a bit mild) or whether it was the people around him, mostly Cheney, who “manipulated him into his major bad choices.”
Matthew Yglesias offers this:
I would say that surrounding yourself with people who advise bad choices of action, and then letting yourself be manipulated into following their advice, rather than the different advice being offered by other people, is incompetence. What else would incompetence in a modern president look like?
One of Yglesias’ readers says there are others ways to be incompetent:
I would argue that Bush, himself, would have intentionally and actively made bad decisions without the incompetence of his advisors. In addition, he was also incompetent in being heavily under the sway of advisors who turned out to be incompetent.
However, theoretically, there could be someone who was under the sway of incompetent advisors without themselves being incompetent: say, a President goes into a severe illness or deep depression, and his incompetent advisors take over. True, you could argue that the competent President wouldn’t have chosen incompetent advisors, but maybe political events took some of those choices out of his hands (“I had to make the incompetent Billingsworth my Secretary of Defense to please Senator Jones”).
Second, you could have a President with reasonably competent advisors who was himself a very bad decision-maker: probably these competent advisors would either be expelled or resign of frustration over time, but you could imagine a situation where, say, the President was incompetent and other politicians pushed more competent advisors into office and effectively sidelined the President and say, really ruled from Congress or something (to some extent, that did happen at the very tail end of the Bush administration as the more competent Gates and more competent Paulson marginally were better than their predecessors, and began pushing somewhat better policies).
Now we really are in the hypothetical and mysterious Land of Moot.
Another reader says this – “Bush is not a person who surrounded himself with the wrong people. Bush did not surround himself, they surrounded him. Bush is an empty suit who got used.”
No proof is offered.
Scott Lemieux offers this:
I suspect that in the short-term, attempts to defend Bush (especially by liberalish pundits who inexplicably saw him as an essentially harmless moderate in 2000) will fall along the lines of “he wasn’t really that bad, although he had some bad people around him.”
The kinds of distinctions that Weisberg is drawing above, though, strike me as trivial; in any case, the responsibility rests with Bush and exemplify Bush’s incompetence.
First of all, he selected these people. And second, he was structurally superior to all of them (and Cheney, in particular, has essentially no meaningful institutional authority the president didn’t grant him, as Weisberg’s last concession reflects.)
It’s not clear what difference it makes if he was “manipulated” by people he chose to appoint and then allow to set policy or if he reached his administration’s bad ideas independently. It seems pretty obvious that it’s some from column A and some from column B, but it doesn’t matter. A president works through his administration; to speculate about how a president would have fared with different people is to wish for a different president. Cheney, Rumsfeld et al had their authority for a reason and Bush is fully responsible for their actions.
The whole game of trying to abstract some kind of abstract independent president who is a different figure than the one reflected when embedded in a staff of his choosing is a strange and not very productive one.
Yep – it’s moot. As was this – “It remains a brainteaser to come up with ways, however minor, in which Bush changed government, politics, or the world for the better.”
Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly here says that’s moot, but that you can always rely on Fred Barnes, the Weekly Standard editor and Fox News contributor, for a useless answer to a moot question, as Barnes here claims that Bush’s presidency “was far more successful than not,” and Bush’s “courage” not only “merits special recognition,” it exceeds that of Ronald Reagan. Investigate if you wish. It’s an alternative universe.
But then you get surprises. On Saturday, January 10, in the New York Times, news from David Sanger:
President Bush deflected a secret request by Israel last year for specialized bunker-busting bombs it wanted for an attack on Iran’s main nuclear complex and told the Israelis that he had authorized new covert action intended to sabotage Iran’s suspected effort to develop nuclear weapons, according to senior American and foreign officials.
White House officials never conclusively determined whether Israel had decided to go ahead with the strike before the United States protested, or whether Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel was trying to goad the White House into more decisive action before Mr. Bush left office. But the Bush administration was particularly alarmed by an Israeli request to fly over Iraq to reach Iran’s major nuclear complex at Natanz, where the country’s only known uranium enrichment plant is located.
Matthew Yglesias says wow – “Seems like Bush did the right thing by saying no.”
How did that happen? And consider December 2007:
The “key judgments” of the National Intelligence Estimate, which were publicly released, emphasized the suspension of the weapons work.
The public version made only glancing reference to evidence described at great length in the 140-page classified version of the assessment: the suspicion that Iran had 10 or 15 other nuclear-related facilities, never opened to international inspectors, where enrichment activity, weapons work or the manufacturing of centrifuges might be taking place.
The Israelis responded angrily and rebutted the American report, providing American intelligence officials and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with evidence that they said indicated that the Iranians were still working on a weapon.
So that is what that was all about. The Israelis said they wanted to take out the one Iranian processing plant, we said there were more than a dozen and we had other plans, and they got all pissed off. And we decided another war was unwise. Who knew? This is new, and not moot.
Still, in his last ten days in power, Bush himself is moot, no matter what he says or does now. And what is moot and what not moot at all is becoming clearer, as Ben Feller of the Associated Press lays out in his analysis of the Bush legacy:
The unvarnished review of George W. Bush’s presidency reveals a portrait of America he never would have imagined.
Bush came into office promising limited government and humble foreign policy; he exits with his imprint on startling free-market intervention and nation-building wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He was the president who pledged not to pass on big problems. Instead, he leaves a pile for Barack Obama.
As for saying history will vindicate all, that may be so, but it is moot:
That’s fine for history, but people lead their lives and make their judgments in real time. And it was one of Bush’s heroes, Ronald Reagan, who crystallized the way modern presidents are judged: Are people better off than they were when the president took office?
Based on that standard, the Bush report card is mixed at best. It is abysmal at worst.
This is his tenure: eight years bracketed by the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history and the worst economic collapse in three generations.
The rest is just the facts. They are not moot.