Seriously Wrong Success

If you’re bit to the left you do get used to being told you’re profoundly unserious. Most people are kind enough not to call you stupid to your face, they just say you’re idealistic and hopelessly naïve, which they find charming of course, but a little sad. You see, the world is an awful place and to survive in it we too must sometimes be somewhat awful – we go to war, or we cut off the social safety net, for the good of the economy and to force the sick, unemployed or just unlucky to accept personal responsibility for their lives, as they should. Life is full of hard choices, you see. Peace, love and understanding, and charity, and thoughtful deliberation, sound good. But they’re not exactly useful. That’s why Democrats, fond of such things, can’t effectively govern, and why Republicans can.

This is a fairly widespread assumption, conventional wisdom as it were, and explains why the Sunday morning political talk shows feature Republicans over Democrats by a ratio of two or three to one. This has been going on for years. Now Obama and the Democrats are in power, and a full hour with John McCain is called for, or more, or quality with the real experts, not pie-in-the-sky idealists. You need someone to cut through the socially and politically romantic silliness.

Those who book these shows seem to think they’re providing a public service. Americans need to be brought back to earth, to this planet. Sure, McCain lost the election, decisively, but at least he’s grounded in reality, or something. You know, the adults should be in charge – folks like Dick Cheney. The American electorate got a little too rambunctious this last time around. So we still get McCain and Cheney and all the others each Sunday morning. So the meme seems to be that it is odd that America put the wild-eyed amateurs in charge, and that’s interesting, as an odd sort of experiment, but let’s book a few of the real professionals, those who know how things really work. And you know the contours of this, as it’s been parts of the political landscape for many decades – the Republican Party is the party of hard-headed businessmen who know how things really work (Bush was the CEO president) and the party of those with actual values (as they tell us endlessly). The Democratic Party is the party of big, silly impractical ideas, and they tolerate gay folks and Mexicans and Hollywood people. And most of all, the Republican Party is the party not afraid to use righteous force to make the world the kind of place it should be. That would mean wars to set things right – sometimes for democracy, sometimes for free-market capitalism, sometimes for Jesus.

So the assumption is that those of the Republican Party are right about things, and sometimes the Democrats just get lucky, and now and then end up being right, but really in spite of themselves. Who knew there would be no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, or that Saddam Hussein really had no ties to a-Qaeda at all and really hated those guys – or that there was a history of Sunni-Shi’a nastiness that might flare up again in Iraq? Folks on the left back in 2002-2003 were saying that, citing this expert or that, suggesting the French might be right, but those were just lucky guesses, you see. Kids are like that, you know – and that’s the Beltway Wisdom. Everyone who was wrong is on television every week, and those who were right sleep in or do the Sunday Times crossword at home with that third cup of coffee. Watch the Sunday morning shows.

And now we face another situation where folks are saying things – Iran got busted with its new secret nuclear plant, and our general in Afghanistan is calling for tens of thousands of new troops, like yesterday if possible. And on Sunday, September 27, 2009, two Republican senators are calling for regime change in Iran. Maybe that’s because that sort of thing went so flawlessly in Iraq. They pretty much said Obama was a cowardly fool. No one challenged them.

You had to go to the newspapers for that, and oddly enough, the absurdly conservative Washington Times and Jon Ward:

Mr. Obama’s disclosure Friday that Iran had a secret nuclear facility and that he had known about it since taking office introduced a new way of looking at many of his decisions since January. “You have to go back and look at the nine months and all the moves he’s made since then, and that he knew Iran was lying to him, and he still went ahead with it,” said Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a Washington advocacy group devoted to eliminating nuclear weapons from the world. “He played Iran perfectly, to isolate Iran, unite all the other countries around him, with an open hand to Iran, and then he springs the trap.” Not only did the president look strong, he looked cunning.

Such things are not said on air. That would confuse people.

And, on air, with Defense Secretary Gates, there was the other matter:

On Afghanistan, Gates said that President Obama’s reassessment of U.S. strategy, following a dubious Afghan presidential election and the call by America’s top general in the country for more resources in fighting the Taliban, is necessary to ensure success in the increasingly violent war.

“The reality is failure in Afghanistan would be a huge setback for the United States. Taliban and Al Qaeda as far as they’re concerned, defeated one superpower,” Gates said on CNN’s “State of the Union,” referring to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan and subsequent withdrawal in 1989. “For them to be seen to defeat a second, I think would have catastrophic consequences in terms of energizing the extremist movement, Al Qaeda recruitment, operations, fundraising, and so on.”

But elsewhere Gates denied any rift between civilian leadership and military brass on sending more troops:

Top U.S. commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal “was very explicit in saying that he thinks this assessment, this review that’s going on right now is exactly the right thing to do,” Gates said on ABC’s “This Week.”

“He obviously doesn’t want it to be open-ended or be a protracted kind of thing …” Gates lamented the focus on Gen. McChrystal’s call for more resources to avoid what McChrystal called failure in Afghanistan. Rather, the focus should be on the suggestion that America’s existing forces should engage the Afghan people more while propping up the Afghan military.

Gates said that under McChrystal conditions in Afghanistan will not become what could be considered a quagmire, yet he warned against any timelines for an exit of military forces.

That’s a lot of nothing, of course – you see, McChrystal “spends a lot of time talking about how we stay on-side with the Afghan people.”

What does that mean? That’s simple. More troops, or not more troops – we’re all thinking about both. But on Monday The Washington Post had published Bob Woodward’s account of a confidential assessment by McChrystal, warning that there could be “mission failure” if more troops aren’t added in the next twelve months. And Wednesday’s New York Times, White House officials pushed back against the leak – regarding McChrystal’s report, the president is “exploring alternatives to a major troop increase in Afghanistan.”

Something big is going on, as Frank Rich explains:

Obama finds himself at that same lonely decision point now. Though he came to the presidency declaring Afghanistan a “war of necessity,” circumstances have since changed. While the Taliban thrives there, Al Qaeda’s ground zero is next-door in nuclear-armed Pakistan. Last month’s blatantly corrupt, and arguably stolen, Afghanistan election ended any pretense that Hamid Karzai is a credible counter to the Taliban or a legitimate partner for America in a counterinsurgency project of enormous risk and cost. Indeed, Karzai, whose brother is a reputed narcotics trafficker, is a double for Ngo Dinh Diem, the corrupt South Vietnamese president whose brother also presided over a vast, government-sanctioned criminal enterprise in the early 1960s. And unlike Kennedy, whose CIA helped take out the Diem brothers, Obama doesn’t have a coup in his toolbox.

Yep. Vietnam again:

Much as Vietnam could not be secured over the centuries by China, France, Japan or the United States, so Afghanistan has been a notorious graveyard for the ambitions of Alexander the Great, the British and the Soviets.

Time to call out the experts – you know, the guys who are always wrong, but are not profoundly unserious:

When George Will wrote a recent column titled “Time to Get Out of Afghanistan,” he was accused of “urging retreat and accepting defeat” (by William Kristol) and of “waving the bloody shirt” (by Fred Kagan, an official adviser to McChrystal who, incredibly enough, freelances as a blogger at National Review). The editorial page at Will’s home paper, The Washington Post, declared that deviating from McChrystal’s demand for more troops “would both dishonor and endanger this country.”

If a conservative columnist can provoke neocon invective this hysterical, just imagine what will be hurled at Obama.

There’s a lot here. William Kristol was the one who said we would be greeted as liberators in Iraq, and that there was no history of Sunni-Shi’a conflict there, that was all pop psychology. So you should trust him? And Kagan is an official advisor to McChrystal? That would be this guy:

Frederick Kagan and his father Donald Kagan, who is a professor at Yale and a fellow at the Hudson Institute, together authored While America Sleeps: Self-Delusion, Military Weakness, and the Threat to Peace Today (2000). The book argued in favor of a large increase in military spending and warned of future threats, including from a potential revival of Iraq’s WMD program. Frederick along with his brother Robert Kagan, who is a member of the Aspen Strategy Group, and their father Donald, are all signatories to the Project for the New American Century manifesto …

The general is relying on the neoconservative think-tanks for military advice, the Kristol-Cheney crowd, who gave us Iraq.

And there’s this:

Kagan authored the “real Iraq Study Group” report as the American Enterprise Institutes rival to the Iraq Study Group report of James Baker and Lee H. Hamilton in December 2006. The AEI report, titled Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq, was released on January 5, 2007, and Kagan was said to have won-over the ear of President George W. Bush…

It seems the general bought into the same meme that the bookers of the Sunday talk shows did. His military assessment was dictated to him by the armchair neoconservative theorists, the guys, who while always wrong, and had gotten us into the worst international disaster in our history, were at least the serious ones.

There’s one way to look at this – McChrystal was just the stenographer. But that may be unfair. McChrystal does think we need forty thousand or more troops right now, and may be using Kagan for political clout – he can cite someone who everyone in Washington each Sunday morning considers really, really serious – often and frequently disastrously wrong, but really serious. McChrystal isn’t going to cite Howard Dean, after all, or Michael Moore.

Of course he could cite everyone’s favorite affable and pleasant conservative, the always reasonable David Brooks. He’s such a nice man. And Brook’s had a few things to say about Afghanistan in his New York Times column – and Glenn Greenwald provides a nice summary:

It’s filled with self-glorifying “war-is-hell” neocon platitudes that make the speaker feel tough and strong. No more hiding like cowards in our bases. It’s time to send “small groups of American men and women outside the wire in dangerous places.” Those opposing escalation are succumbing to the “illusion of the easy path.” Chomping on a cigar in his war room, he roars:  “all out or all in.” The central question: will we “surrender the place to the Taliban?” etc. etc. 

This must mean that Brooks is serious, when others aren’t. And Greenwald reminds us that back in late 2002 and early 2003 about Iraq Brooks wrote for Rupert Murdoch and Kristol’s The Weekly Standard. Greenwald revisits those days and finds not much has changed, even if Brooks moved on and up to the New York Times – the same “snide, hubristic superiority combined with absolute wrongness about everything.”

What people like David Brooks were saying back then was so severe – so severely wrong, pompous, blind, warmongering and, as it turns out, destructive – that no matter how many times one reviews the record of the leading opinion-makers of that era, one will never be inured to how poisonous they are.

But the same people shape debate now. They have the megaphone.

But Greenwald suggests we look back, like David Brooks, Weekly Standard, February 6, 2003:

I made the mistake of watching French news the night of Colin Powell’s presentation before the Security Council. … Then they brought on a single “expert” to analyze Powell’s presentation. This fellow, who looked to be about 25 and quite pleased with himself, was completely dismissive. The Powell presentation was a mere TV show, he sniffed. It’s impossible to trust any of the intelligence data Powell presented because the CIA is notorious for lying and manipulation. The presenter showed a photograph of a weapons plant, and then the same site after it had been sanitized and the soil scraped. The expert was unimpressed: The Americans could simply have lied about the dates when the pictures were taken. Maybe the clean site is actually the earlier picture, he said.

That was depressing enough. Then there were a series of interviews with French politicians of the left and right. They were worse. At least the TV expert had acknowledged that Powell did present some evidence, even if he thought it was fabricated. The politicians responded to Powell’s address as if it had never taken place. They simply ignored what Powell said and repeated that there is no evidence that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction and that, in any case, the inspection system is effective.

This was not a response. It was simple obliviousness, a powerful unwillingness to confront the question honestly. This made the politicians seem impervious to argument, reason, evidence, or anything else. Maybe in the bowels of the French elite there are people rethinking their nation’s position, but there was no hint of it on the evening news.

Then comes the problem with us – the good guys – and the French:

As good, naive Americans, we think that if only we can show the world the seriousness of the threat Saddam poses, then they will embrace our response. In our good, innocent way, we assume that in persuading our allies we are confronted with a problem of understanding.

But suppose we are confronted with a problem of courage? Perhaps the French and the Germans are simply not brave enough to confront Saddam… Or suppose we are confronted with a problem of character? Perhaps the French and the Germans understand the risk Saddam poses to the world order. Perhaps they know that they are in danger as much as anybody. They simply would rather see American men and women – rather than French and German men and women – dying to preserve their safety… Far better, from this cynical perspective, to signal that you will not take on the terrorists – so as to earn their good will amidst the uncertain times ahead.

No, David, they were right. And there’s this, from March 7, 2003:

I do suspect that the decision to pursue this confrontational course emerges from Bush’s own nature. He is a man of his word. He expects others to be that way too. It is indisputably true that Saddam has not disarmed. If people are going to vote against a resolution saying Saddam has not disarmed then they are liars. Bush wants them to do it in public, where history can easily judge them. Needless to say, neither the French nor the Russians nor the Chinese believe that honesty has anything to do with diplomacy. They see the process through an entirely different lens.

And there’s much more. It’s a bit depressing. And it comes down to Brooks saying that the fact is that “the debate is over” and war was imminent and inevitable, and everyone knows what’s next – “Events will show who was right, George W. Bush or Jacques Chirac.”

Greenwald asks a simple question:

Did Brooks ever tell his readers what we found out about that? Did he ever acknowledge that the French – whose opposition to attacking Iraq and skepticism about WMD claims he attributed to cowardice, anti-Semitism, paranoia over American deceit, anti-American hatred, bad character, and lack of reason – turned out to be right and Brooks and friends were miserably wrong? Did he ever retract his smears that the American “peace camp” was driven by hatred, anti-Semitism, and ignorance about Iraq, or acknowledge that his claims about Saddam – that his ideology “calls for warfare, bloodshed, revolution, and conflict, on and on, against one and all, until the end of time” – were at least just as applicable to Brooks himself and his own neoconservative movement?

Ah… no, and he’s at it again. Were he not he’d be deeply unserious, and lose his job at the Times, and lose his gig on the PBS News Hours each Friday night. But there’s something terribly wrong when the serious people who know things are repeatedly wrong, and the naive flakes who no one is supposed to take seriously, and really know nothing, have been consistently right. You think people would notice after a bit.

But the world doesn’t work like that. Long ago a friend, all full of concern and true friendship, said something interesting – “You know you’re going to be really embarrassed when we find Saddam’s nukes and chemical and biological weapons.” He only wanted his buddy not to make a fool of himself. So we dropped it. And of course he’s still the serious one. Go figure.

But keep this in mind. When you watch the Sunday morning talk shows, the serious people are almost always wrong. The flakes, patronized or dismissed, subjected to constant condescension, but in a loving way, as with cute puppies that haven’t yet been paper trained, are almost always right. It makes the shows more interesting.

But imagine a booker for one of those shows telling Brooks’ or Kristol’s agent, no, your client has been repeatedly and spectacularly wrong about so many basic things over all the years, so we won’t be needing him this week, but thanks for asking. Now imagine pigs flying. The secret of success – be serious, not right. That’s how things work.

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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