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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Root of a Failure: Bush's Belief in Victory

The Iraq Study Group has released its report on challenges in Iraq. Containing some 79 recommendations, the report claims our current policy is off-track, which seems obvious to everyone, even the President.

Speaking in a joint news conference with Tony Blair today, Bush indicated he was disappointed with the pace of progress in Iraq. From what I saw, the President is aware of the problem, but it remains a mystery as to whether or not he will pay lip service to the recommendations of the Iraq Studies Group, or actually try to implement them.

During his news conference with Blair, Bush said he was still waiting on reports from the military, which is alarming considering a stream of reports on Iraq has been crossing his desk for years. The most recent comes from the Marine Corps concerning Al-Anbar province, saying that the insurgents were in control there.

At this point the Mainstream Media seems content to report that the President is aware that a change of course is needed.

Meanwhile 10 American soldiers died on Wednesday. The status quo perpetuates itself as Washington studies, ponders, and debates. The consequences of not making changes appear to go up as the Iraq War goes on.

In his Press Conference with Blair Thursday, Bush articulated his goals in Iraq, which he believes are still achievable. He said he wanted 1) an Iraq that can stand on its own and 2) an ally in the War on Terror.

Bush's goals and vision may be well articulated, and the supporting rhetoric piled on thick, but Bush's goals have for years now been unachievable. The ISG report seems to say Bush's policies have all failed, in essence admitting that the current security situation prevents the Iraqi government from achieving either goal Bush has set for them. What remains to be decided is whether Bush believes he must change his methods in order to achieve his goals.

By stubbornly dictating goals, and overvaluing the power of military intervention, alternatives have been ignored. So bad is the state of progress in Iraq, we now find ourselves in a position where continued military action is probably the only method remaining which might alter the string of consequences our invasion has set off. Yet at the same time our presence worsens the situation.

When will Bush realize his goals are unachievable? He may want to admit that using the military can no longer by itself justify what are essentially his political goals--preserving his legacy and $500 million dollar library.

Senator Hagel, Defense Secretary-designate Gates, and the Iraq Studies Group have come out and said we cannot "win" in Iraq through military force alone. Yet no one has come out to condemn the costs of continuing as we have in terms of lives and money.

While Bush may only now be aware of the need for change, there's no evidence at all that he think the US can't win or the cost of winning is too high. Bush has failed to acknowledge the cost of the ongoing mission in terms of lives or money, even as the cost to the Treasury now exceeds $600 billion, with billions more due to the injured veterans. The costs of war are ignored while the worthiness of the mission is praised, regardless of the inability of ongoing military action to resolve any issues.

Bush's amateurish worldview seems to find no limits on the exercise of American power; it's as if Bush is surprised that the insurgency would actively be trying to prevent the US from reaching its goals, and that he can't just will his goals into completion. Better advisors would and should have been able to bring Bush's naive predictions back to reality, and temper Bush's store of idealism with a blast of hard cold truth. Instead the neocon cadre surrounding Bush led him on to set loose the dogs of war against a government that presented no threat to us.

The possibility of Congress taking immediate action to end the war appears remote. Even with a new bunch in the Congress, there is the possibility the Democrats will be in no hurry to end the Iraq War, despite the role of opposition to the war in their recent victories.

One reason is simple bureaucratic inertia. The top-down style of decision-making makes changes in policy difficult to administer for the world's largest government.

As the world's largest military, the US Armed Forces work on the momentum of sheer size. Without a clear plan of action, they are bound to steer a course ahead. Without the firm commitment of its commander-in-chief to any specific goal, the military or government really can't be expected to change from within. Like an aircraft carrier, our policy in Iraq will a take lot of effort to turn.

The Emperor Has No Clothes; Reality vs Belief

Sensing inadequacies in policy, but not admitting them, Bush seem to welcome the Iraq Studies Group's report.

The Media seems to be introducing the Plan's recommendations in small doses.

The findings of the Iraq Studies Group will be painful to the President. Perhaps the President will need to be briefed piecemeal; some very unlucky and likely very junior aide will have the task of telling the Emperor that he wears no clothes, or worse, bring that accompanying realization that millions have been spent buying imaginary clothes from crafty hawksters. [See the previous post for the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, "The Emperor Has No Clothes".]

The President will be forced to understand the contents of the report, yet actually making changes to Iraq policy will be a different matter entirely. Deep down inside, the President must know he is naked, Lord help us if he isn't, for then we will be led not by a man composed in the world of reality but one forging an alternate reality out of a faith-based belief system.

The dream of a democracy in the heart of the Middle East has floundered. No city upon the hill, anarchy reigns in Iraq. Losses have mounted and the American people have turned on the war. Lacking the faith of their leader, their spirit falters.

Bush can continue to ignore the myriad of problems we face, or deal with them. For as long as the President believes he is clothed, he cannot look down and see his naked body, or in this case, the reality of his nakedness revealing itself to him. For Bush to admit Iraqis a disaster is like the Emperor admitting he'd been deceived.

The problem therefore is not in an absence of facts and insights--which the Iraq Studies Group might seek to fill. Instead, the problem facing us in Iraq is that our commander-in-chief won't admit that his decision to go to war in Iraq had been poorly conceived. If this is the case, then the continuance of the entire Iraq war constitutes an exercise in denial by a single man. One man's convictions and faith cannot or should not be allowed to justify a ongoing war, as the Constitution does not give that right exclusively to the President, nor in perpetuity.

Management vs Leadership; Faith Vs. Reason

For years now, Iraq has suffered from poor management at the top. Mission creep is both a cause and result of poor planning. Missing budgets are another symptom. Turnover in the upper levels of the government's leadership echelon rise as those responsible for implementing policy recognize the growing gap between US policy goals and their capacity to be implemented. If the US government were a company, any good investor would see these signs of weak management and stay away.

Vision and leadership are certainly needed, but at some point the pragmatic bulwarks of sound management serve the public interest better.

Bush has been quick to frame the achievements of the War on Terror in his rhetoric. Yet It took until Election Eve 2006 for Bush to first admit that there had been failures in Iraq.

At some point proclamations of progress must be tempered with the acknowledgement of failures and the process of compromise.

Casting a vision in stone is an important function of leadership--as people respect commitment. Still, valuing vision above all else tends to service the ego and avoid introspection where it raises the risk of fault. In order to make changes in policy, the leader must be willing to be self-critical.

For a manager to be effective, they must be open to criticism of their policies. Reassessment is a vital component in managing the many tasks that are often required to make the vision come true; in Bush's case, this requires him to evaluate the effectiveness of his war policies.

Good management is fluid, and adjusts the organization's goal as obstacles arise. Without compromise and consensus, no change of course is likely to be implementable, and therefore ineffective. While no one doubts Bush's commitment to his policies, the rigidity of his basically aggressive posture against Iran and Syria violate the premise that he seeks a deal.

Again, he has trapped himself in his rhetoric. Whether or not Syria and Iran are sponsors of terror, he has greatly damaged any potential detente with the other side in the War on Terror by encumbering it with political liability and the notion we'd be selling out on our principles. Baker has tried to set Bush straight, by telling him to negotiate with your enemies, but Bush seems loathe to do so, believing so earnestly that they are the "bad guy" or that the US doesn't "negotiate with terrorists".

Of course, some amount of determination is necessary to overcome challenges. But is determination alone sufficiently powerful to overcome reality? As a man of faith, Bush clearly puts much stock into the power of belief--that simply praying and willing some end result into fruition is primarily a matter of believing hard and long enough in the worthiness of your cause.

But what if God isn't listening, what if the things that which Bush must believe will happen won't? Clearly, belief must be tempered with reality, at least in the earthly world of managerial science.

Fed with apparently limitless Presidential power, Bush's overabundant belief in the power of belief overwhelms his humility, which serves the function of admitting that one's faith may be insufficient. In other words, Bush believes so dearly that God will make his goals happen that he ignores the possibility He won't make them come true.

Atheist Dogma

I will admit to playing something of a Devil's advocate, having recently read prominent atheist Sam Harris. Harris masterfully challenges many traditional views, expressed in the influence of religion on governmental policies. The absolutism and extremism of faith-based logic leads governments away from reason. Iraq lends itself to Harris' cause.

To Harris, religion and warfare are inextricably linked in symbolism and imagery, the complete and total defeat of one side over another lending itself to a infinite cycle of unsatisfied grudges. Iraq, an environment where "...men regularly murder(ed) one another over rival interpretations of his word"( "Atheist Manifesto" provides Harris with a posterchild for the destructiveness of religious affiliation and influence.

Harris describes the fundamental problem with belief:
"The truth, astonishingly enough, is this: A person can be so well educated that he can build a nuclear bomb while still believing that he will get 72 virgins in Paradise. Such is the ease with which the human mind can be partitioned by faith, and such is the degree to which our intellectual discourse still patiently accommodates religious delusion."

Harris bemoans the problem of faith:
The incompatibility of reason and faith has been a self-evident feature of human cognition and public discourse for centuries. Either a person has good reasons for what he strongly believes or he does not. People of all creeds naturally recognize the primacy of reasons and resort to reasoning and evidence wherever they possibly can. When rational inquiry supports the creed it is always championed; when it poses a threat, it is derided; sometimes in the same sentence. Only when the evidence for a religious doctrine is thin or nonexistent, or there is compelling evidence against it, do its adherents invoke “faith.” Otherwise, they simply cite the reasons for their beliefs (e.g. “the New Testament confirms Old Testament prophecy,” “I saw the face of Jesus in a window,” “We prayed, and our daughter’s cancer went into remission"). Such reasons are generally inadequate, but they are better than no reasons at all. Faith is nothing more than the license religious people give themselves to keep believing when reasons fail."

With this President and his positions on Iraq, Harris has an excellent example of faith in practice, and exposes the impact of faith-based logic in the decision-making of the President. As for the President's decision, he might say:

"...One’s convictions should be proportional to one’s evidence. Pretending to be certain when one isn’t--indeed, pretending to be certain about propositions for which no evidence is even conceivable--is both an intellectual and a moral failing."

Harris links reason to faith:

"When we have reasons for what we believe, we have no need of faith; when we have no reasons, or bad ones, we have lost our connection to the world and to one another."

Bush has never seemed convinced that he needs to tell others what he thinks, or the reasoning he uses to reach his decisions.

Bush is condemned by virtue of belief to believe that his decisions are divinely inspired, and by their nature infallible, destined to their completion as a body of works--here on Earth--through the application of prayer and dedication. Bush's is a fundamentalist perspective, so Harris' reasoning has become quite popular recently.

Don't Blink

Some would say Bush launched his decision on Iraq by "blinking", or creating a brief but firm impression before making a decision, then holding to it. In a 2005 Time article, Joe Klein summarizes in "The Blink Presidency":

"Bush is the ultimate "Blink" President, to use author Malcolm Gladwell's catchy term, and recent title, for instantaneous, subconscious decision making."

That style of decision-making style solves problems expeditiously, through the speed of processing information.

In launching the war, caution was avoided, with Bush simply believing that God wanted him to remove Saddam from power. "There is rarely any thought of how a blink will be carried out", says Klein.

Klein describes the thought process behind blinking:
"The President's attention span may be haphazard, but the immediate satisfactions are difficult to dispute. Saddam Hussein? Evildoer. Take him out. But wait, no WMD? No post-invasion planning? Deaths and chaos? Awful, but ... Freedom! Look at those Shi'ites vote! And now, after all that rapid-eye movement, who can say the Shi'ites and the Kurds won't create a government with a loyal Shi'ite-Kurd security force? And who can say the Sunni rebels won't—with some creative dealmaking—eventually acquiesce?"

To compensate for more deliberate consideration, "blinking" requires complete dedication to completion of the goal. Once made, the decisions are made permanent by the process, rather than diluted by the brevity of contemplation or scarcity of facts later brought to light.

In other words, blinking leads to over-commital as decisions are made firmly, without much deliberation. While our "blinking" over a choice of breakfast cereals may be insignificant in the general state of affairs, Presidential "blinking" can do a great deal of damage through the sheer scale of power deployed.

Through blinking, mistakes or misjudgements which would have otherwise been revealed through greater deliberation enter into President's decision-making. Then our government is bound to the consequences. While subsequent blinks might correct earlier errors based on new information, some decisions cannot be corrected--like going to war.

"Blinking" may explain some of the President's contradictions. Klein describes David Quo, a former Bush aide who gained notoriety for revealing exploitation of the faith-based movement by Bush:

"...the President had blinked at the well-publicized faith-based antipoverty initiative and then forgotten it. Kuo, who is a friend of mine and truly believes in the President's commitment to the policy, remains mystified by the disconnect between passion and action. Blinks are ephemeral; policy is distressingly concrete."

Bush seems incapable of grasping the structural limitations of policy implementation, particularly on Iraq. Fundamental issues are ignored while the rhetoric goes unchanged month to month. Bush's recounting of the reasons for the decisions he makes has always been foggy.

Perhaps Bush's style of decision-making circumvents careful deliberation; this would explain why the President seems reluctant to abandon his belief that we can win--that belief is in essence the foundation of his decision. Belief is a funny thing, admitting failure would be tantamount to a loss of belief. By that logic, the US can win simply by persisting in the belief it cannot lose.

While I'm no psychoanalyst, the permutations of blink- and faith-based decision-making could fill volumes. Bush's case would be inconsequential absent true checks-and-balances, but the President apparently now decides on his own how and when to use force abroad. With so many lives being lost in Iraq, the President's decision-making approach is very much a public policy issue.

If Bush persists in blinking--in response to the problems blinking seem to have caused--he continues to put our collective defense at risk. The situation in Iraq has become so troubled that the best and brightest must be consulted, and the rule of pure reason appreciated above any benefits granted by blinking.

As long as Bush makes the final decisions, we have no way of knowing how he makes his decisions. In what is regarded by critics as Bush arrogance, Bush may be defensive about his decisions not out of fear of criticism but rather because he can't really justify them since they were made in haste. He can however limit his commitment to earlier blinks, avoid blinking in the future, especially when it comes to resolving any problems caused by blinking earlier.

Back to Reality

The Economist on December 2nd brings up three key points:

1) Bush must come to grips with the fact his dreams for democracy are now gone.
2) al-Maliki is trying to arrange a "graceful exit" and won't or can't help achieve US goals. [I made this point in my blog posting on the public image liability Maliki presented to Bush.]
3) The 2008 Presidential Election hinges on the war's impact on the electorate.

The Economist article "Blood, Tears and still no victory" dips into the now-overfilling basket of international relations calamities now festering in the Middle East.

It did clarify one portion of my last post, confirming al Sadr "had threatened to pull out of the government if Mr Maliki went through with his meeting with President Bush" when in fact "the Sadrists merely 'suspended participation', a good step short of a full walk out."

In Riga, Latvia, President Bush reiterated the US "would not leave the battlefield until the mission in Iraq was complete." Following up in Amman, Jordan, Bush said "the troops would stay just as long as Iraq's government wanted them to."["Blood, Tears and still no victory," Economist 12/02/06]

The article goes on to clarify the depth of the Iraqi calamity. Articles covering Bush and Iraq now tend to sponge the frothy scum of the President's erratic War-on-Terror jive off the journalistic record by offering a bevy of contradictory evidence. Bush's stubborn pronouncements must be connected back with the real world. In what's now a routine function, journalists scape off the banter regurgitated by the White House to dredge for any substantive changes in policy.

Wednesday, in a White House press conference subsequent to the release of the Iraq Study Group's report, Tony Snow managed to redefine the meaning of "staying the course." I was surprised to hear Snow say Bush had for months NOT been "staying the course."

The semantic dance did little for me. As commander-in-chief, Bush bears ultimate responsibility for the state of our foreign policy. Empowered with the ability to withdraw forces, , he alone controls the scope of our military engagement. The Presidency under Bush has grown without limits under the Administration in a sequence of signing statements and self-assertions of Presidential authority validating all manner of extralegal activity, in the name of our collective defense in a time of war.

If the status quo is continued, it is by the hand of the Executive. Congress is not in control of our military, according to the President, he is. Yet Congress has not declared war, which is explained in the Constitution as their fundamental right, not the President's.

The President has always borne responsibility for our nation. Claiming that we now wage a war necessary for our future survival, Bush is acting to save American lives in the future, so he claims. If the war is the President's, he is responsible for its progress and its conduct.

The American people are ultimately in command of our nation's army, so the President must at some point respond to them. If he cannot successfully enlist a majority of Americans in his cause, the war cannot be said to be supported, or justified.

Some would say Lincoln exceeded his Office in fighting internal rebellion and dissent in New York as shown in the final scenes of Gangs of New York. Does the threat of terror justify Bush's use of military force? Does the present day loss of rights and life in the name of the Global War on Terror compare with Lincoln's treatment of draft rioters in our Civil War? Where the President cannot justify the loss of American lives, he must be successful, or else the entire nation loses or--in the case of Lincoln--dissolves. We are counting on him.

To me, Iraq is less worthy a war, and should ask less of the American people. This isn't to say we shouldn't be protecting Afghanistan, from the threat of a Taliban resurgence. [See my post, Rising Taliban] The War on Terror has a very real foe for Western societies.

The President must assume total and final responsibility. By not getting our forces out, Bush leaves to future Administration the unenviable task of determining when it is no longer worth it to continue the occupation in Iraq. The next President may not share Bush's goals and vision for the Middle East, but he (or she) will inherit his policies, their consequences, and the ongoing costs in life and money.

If it is clear that the Iraq war is a failure, that no amount of continue occupation will work, Bush's legacy will suffer dramatically as we reach the conclusion that we must withdraw.

For as long as he is President, Bush's rhetoric has him trapped. Acknowledging failure obligates him to get out, which would be accepting inevitable defeat. Rather than accept that Iraq's outcome could be defeat, Bush denies the fundamental reality that the situation is beyond correction.

In the pursuit of still achievable victory, Bush shifts the burden of failure away from ill-construed plans for Iraq (for which he bears responsibility) onto the failures of method (for which others can bear responsibility) as if it were the formula that needed correction. At a certain point a good leader must accept responsibility for the consequences of his decisions.

Bush's fundamentalist belief system holds that future outcomes are determined by the application of faith in prayer and perseverance. Believers enjoy a higher level of confidence, as they define the certainty of success as a product of their belief rather than the consequences of logic or fact. This is not too far from the historical distortions on the Right about Vietnam, that failure had not been inevitable, or as Bush said on a recent visit to Vietnam, "we lost because we got out".


Under the US Constitution, wars are declared by Congress. Through the exercise of Executive authority, routine violations of that strong and basic premise have empowered the US Government to ignore Congress' authority. [For more, see my post on the Ever-Expanding Executive.]

Without the strength to defund the military, Congress--who are the closest to the people--is no longer in control. Therefore Bush and his cohort of generals, neocons, and sychophantic advisers are free to perpetuate a state of ongoing terror which gorges on innocent Iraqis, in the name of taming some faraway enemy, or to prevent the emergence of some future threat.

Bush would say that the threat terror poses, the scale of destruction potentially wreaked by WMD, justifies an aggressive posture and the use of force. This strategy is questionable, since the US has created more terrorists than it has killed.

Ultimately the reasons for continuing to occupy Iraq lie outside the military, and more with the political necessity to stabilize and legitimize the Iraqi government. Conscious of this necessity, the insurgents have worked so hard to destabilize the country; the ongoing chaos forces the US to stay. Bush claims that process will depower the threat of terrorism, by seeding a stable democracy.

While we are defending the regime of a democratically elected leader, we also embolden Maliki's enemies by prolonging our occupation. Caught in a classic guerrila war scenario, the US must try to contain violence while preserving the rule of the more populous Shia, who happen to be Iran's surrogate.

Separating the country seems unlikely considering how the Sunni stand to lose oil revenues--they have no major oil resources in predominantly Sunni areas. The Shia/Sunni gap has left the US without any good geopolitical options, and lengthened the occupation by prolonging the chaos.

With the military unable to set back the insurgency without more troops (and even then not so assuredly), the war in Iraq--and by proxy the President's War on Terror--is in complete failure.

The only issue left before us on Iraq is who will have the strength to confront Bush and break the cloud of delusion swirling above the heads of those responsible for our country's foreign policy. In a high stakes game fought before the televisions of the world, Bush must appear to be successful in order to nurture his delusions that the ongoing US presence will degenerate into anything other than "cut-and-run."

Withdrawing clearly takes more courage than is admitted. Withdrawing would mean Bush was wrong about going in, and that our losses have been in vain. Far more comforting is harboring the notion victory is achievable, or at least for some other President to declare and get out.

Denial and acceptance are an important part of addiction and substance abuse. Bush, a recovering alcoholic, must recognize the signs of dependence; it's then a question of whether he recognizes that he has a problem. Iraq is the problem, the only solution can be total cessation. Continued denial leads to a progressive worsening of the problem. And an important early sign of healing is the admission that Iraq is a problem and something must be done. The latter part requires accepting responsibility for the consequence of decisions, which ultimately implies taking action, in this case cessation of the problem. Stopping Iraq is simple, simply by leaving we can help the Iraqis assume responsibility for their own problems.



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