Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Should A President Be Smart?

If you've followed the writings of Christopher Hitchens at all, you've noticed that he seems fairly unconcerned with the president's apparent lack of book-smarts. In fact, Hitchens will argue, doesn't the Bush presidency complete the vision of an America in which anyone can be president? [Sure, anybody who comes from a Mayflower family and attended Andover, Yale, and Harvard not on merit but through family connections--ed.] Matthew Yglesias has a fantastic piece in the American Prospect explaining why intelligence really does matter, and why a lack of analytical or critical ability, beyond providing material for cocktail party jokes, is a serious handicap in an executive, especially in a time of war. Money quote:
That the country should be secured against terrorist attacks, that deadly weapons should be kept out of the hands of our enemies, or that it would be good for a wide slice of the world to enjoy the blessings of freedom and democracy are hardly controversial propositions. But these things are easier said than done. Even a person of goodwill is by no means guaranteed to succeed. Yet succeed we must. And if we are to do so, the question of intelligence must be put back on the table. The issue is not “cleverness” -- some kind of parlor trick or showy mastery of trivia -- but a basic ability to make sense of a complicated, fast-changing world and decide how to confront it. Any leader will depend on the work of his subordinates, but counting on advisers to do the president’s heavy lifting for him simply will not do. Unless the chief executive can understand what people are telling him and follow the complicated arguments they may need to make, he will find himself paralyzed at every point of disagreement, or he will adopt the views of the slickest salesman rather than the one who’s gotten things right.
Yglesias opens by taking to task certain liberals like E.J. Dionne who have called on their comrades to stop making jokes about the president's intelligence on the grounds that doing so accomplishes nothing. Yglesias argues, very persuasively, that intelligence is both a legitimate and an important issue---and the idea that the president's deficiences can be made up for by skilled advisors doesn't withstand the slightest bit of scrutiny. Where Matthew is wrong, I think, is in not differentiating between the ways in which the president's stupidity can be made an issue. In terms of pragmatic electoral politics, there really is nothing at all to be gained by making fun of the president; doing so just makes the people who like him all the more fervent in their support. (I happen to think that his incompetency in speaking is at least partly affect.) Sure, when we blue-staters get together, we can crack all the jokes we want, but not in front of the goyim, if you please. All these jokes, however, will turn out to be at our expense if we can't translate them into a substantive criticism of the sort that Matthew is making. Sneers don't win votes, and I think that's Dionne's point.

I began this post by referring to Christopher Hitchens because of his review of several books about John Kerry is this weekend's NYT Book Review. After a reasonably equitable discussion of Kerry's career, in which Hitchens first unironically called Kerry "un homme serieux," and then criticized his apparent two-sidedness on most issues, Hitchens concluded with this:
He still gives, to me at any rate, the impression of someone who sincerely wishes that this were not a time of war. When critical votes on the question come up, Kerry always looks like a dog being washed. John McCain was not like this, when a president he despised felt it necessary to go into Kosovo. We are looking at a man who would make, or would have made, a perfectly decent peacetime president.
And the implication, I guess, is that Kerry would make a lousy war-time president. This is in fact just about the only argument that thinking independents make against John Kerry's presidency. Just as nobody is particularly pro-Kerry, no one outside the "I stand with George W. Bush and the troops" wing of the Republican party really dislikes him all that strongly. What's wrong with the argument? Bush has already proven to be a disastrously incompetent war-time president. It's not just that he invaded Iraq without the slightest idea how to reconstruct a post-dictatorial government and society,* needlessly costing hundreds of American and thousands of Iraqi lives in the process. It's that he doesn't have the slightest clue how to deal with the rise of nuclear rogue powers like North Korea and Iran, or the problem of nuclear proliferation, which is about even money to be the thing that kills all of us at this point. Bush's policies vis-a-vis North Korea are a case study in bad diplomacy, and even now, we're basically resigned to watching as a nuclear power emerges in Tehran. Moreover, the ability of the United States to intervene militarily around the world has been severely crippled by the behavior of the Bush administration.

Hitchens is free to point out, with perfect justification, that the French have acted just as unilaterally as the United States, and I'm completely with him on the moral case for war; but none of that is a response to criticism of Bush's diplomatic methodology, which seems to be to alienate as many countries as possible. Nor does it excuse the pressure put on the intelligence agencies by the vice president to conclude that Iraq had WMDs, nor the utter refusal by the president to admit a single mistake in the conduct of war, nor the repeated and transparent obfuscatory statements about WMDs and terrorist connections, nor the sanctioning of torture within the Justice Department and White House counsel's office, including an overt (and pointless!) rejection of the Geneva conventions. Not only has Bush's war-time presidency been a failure, but there is no reason to believe that Bush is at all capable of success in foreign affairs.

John Kerry might truly be a reluctant participant in the war against jihadism, but as Hitchens is fond of pointing out, it's not up to the United States to choose to fight this war; our enemies have already chosen for us. And virtually any change of policy will be an improvement. Want specific examples? Kerry has already sounded all the right notes about nuclear proliferation; he clearly takes the issue a lot more seriously than the Bush administration has, and he would undoubtedly support the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and restore some framework similar to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; Kerry's diplomacy vis-a-vis North Korea and Iran will be an improvement because it won't be belligerent ostrich-ism about the threat that they pose (and it's likely to be similar to the relatively successful Clinton-era diplomacy). Will Kerry invade any new countries? Probably not. Will Bush if re-elected? How could he? With what support? It might be a generation before another British Prime Minister will stake his reputation on an alliance with the United States.

*There's an Insta-meme that's circulated around the right-wing web, originated by Stephen Green at Vodkapundit, to the effect that it's silly to blame Bush for not having a peace plan, since "[n]o peace plan survives the last battle." Green supports this assertion thusly:
Nobody ever knows what the peace will look like. Let's use our examples from earlier. Even as late as Appomattox, who could have predicted the KKK, Jim Crow, or Radical Reconstruction? No statesmen in 1914 knew that the war they were about to unleash would result in 20 million deaths, Russian Communism, or Nazi Germany. World War II? If you can find me the words of some prophet detailing, in 1940, the UN, the Cold War, or even the complete assimilation of western Germany into Western Europe. . . then I'll print this essay on some very heavy paper, and eat it. With aluminum foil as a garnish.
Uh, for one thing, lots and lots of people had been predicting for many years leading up to WWII that there would eventually be a global conflict between Russia and the United States. I think Norman Angell wrote a book about this. The UN? Is he joking? The UN is the League of Nations plus the American involvement that Woodrow Wilson never got. Does he think there were politicians in 1940 who wished that the League of Nations had been better able to enforce its resolutions in the 30s? I'd refer him to specific pages in Niall Ferguson's the Pity of War that demonstrate precisely these predictions (including and especially the last one), but my copy is unfortunately in storage in New Haven. Give me a couple of weeks on that one. Till then, Green ought to start prepping himself for a full meal of paper and aluminum.

Anyway, back to the main point, which is that Green is citing (often incorrectly) examples of failed diplomatic anticipation as a defense of an administration willfully wearing blinders. Look at the problems that actually afflict post-Saddam Iraq: tribal factionalism, Sunni and Shi'ite fundamentalism, Kurdish anti-unitarianism, Iranian interference, Baathist revanchism, etc. Anybody with a rudimentary understanding of Iraqi history could have predicted all of these things. Only the "flowers and candy" ideology of the Bush administration prevented them from preparing for the entirely unsurprising consequences of overthrowing Saddam. The administration deserves full blame for inadequate planning. Green deserves...well, I'd say eating the paper wrapped in aluminum foil is sufficient.


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