Being in Charge - Leadership as Pathology
As things fall apart for those in power, the president and his party, people do muse on the issue of leadership. Just what is it?
Iraq is a train wreck, our elective war there perhaps the most counterproductive decision the nation has ever made. No one wants us to lose and withdraw from Iraq in shame, but no good alternatives seem available. And the nation might have hung on and agreed with the president's "stay the course" approach - even if now he says he just never said those words at all - but for what we all saw in the administration's absurd response to Hurricane Katrina more that a year ago.
That seems to have been a turning point. Other things then appeared in relief - the attempt to get his less than prepossessing personal attorney a seat on the Supreme Court that had even his own party in revolt, a look back at the Terri Schiavo business where he cut short a vacation to sign legislation to keep the body of one brain-dead woman functioning against the wishes of her husband and what appeared to be her own wishes, and was shot down in every court where the matter was considered. There was stumping the country for changes in the Social Security program, for changing it from an insurance program with defined benefits to a federal program offering investment advice. No one wanted that, yet he persisted. And he claims this is leadership. He didn't care if more than half the country despised him for his actions and positions - leaders are visionaries, or something.
Over in the UK Tony Blair has the same problem -
Over the course of little more than a week, we have learned that civilian casualties so far in the Iraq war may be more than 600,000; that Britain's Chief of the General Staff believes the conflict could break the army apart; that a federal solution to the growing chaos involving the effective dismemberment of the country is being openly discussed in America; that the US Iraq Study Group, headed by Republican grandee James Baker, is recommending that the US military withdraws to bases outside Iraq and seeks Iranian and Syrian help; and that Britain is now the number one al-Qaeda target, partly, it seems clear, as a consequence of events in Iraq.
There should be at least one universal response to this in Britain. Why is Tony Blair still Prime Minister after leading his country into such a disastrous war? Any large company would by now have got rid of a managing director guilty of a mistake on that scale. Any institution you care to name would have done the same. Why is Blair immune from the normal requirements of high office?
Why, instead of being allowed by the cabinet to establish six new policy committees designed to entrench his legacy, has he not been impeached and thrown out of office? Even if his Iraq policy was formed in good faith, the scale of the error surely requires us to ask him and all those concerned with this disaster to leave.
It seems someone - Henry Porter in the case - is most unhappy, but there they have a mechanism for taking care of such things. A vote of no confidence would force new elections - but that won't happen. Barely enough people are mesmerized by Blair's sincerity and consistency (or resolve, if you will), and his stunning articulateness, that, even if he was wrong, is wrong, and will be wrong the future on so many critical issues, at least he is a leader.
So it is with President Bush - save for the stunning articulateness. We only get the stunning gaffs. But two out of three isn't bad. We think Bush, as disastrous as his decisions have been, is still a leader.
Frank Rich of the New York Times, of all people, seems to hold this view, in spite of how much he hates what has happened here. On Sunday, October 22, he writes this -
Call him arrogant or misguided or foolish, this president has been a leader. He had a controversial agenda - enacting big tax cuts, privatizing Social Security, waging "pre-emptive" war, packing the courts with judges who support his elisions of constitutional rights - and he didn't fudge it. He didn't care if half the country despised him along the way.
No, he didn't. But is that leadership.
Richard Einhorn doesn't think so -
Say whatever you want about George W. Bush, but he is a leader only in the same way that the 9/11 hijackers were brave.
When the term is used in modern American political discourse, "leader" does not have the standard generalized meaning of "a person in authority" regardless of whether they are good or bad. When Americans use the term "leader" in reference to their own politics, they are not talking about Kim Jong Il or Vladimir Lenin. Americans are invoking the imagery of great American political and cultural leaders like Abraham Lincoln, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Robert Rauschenberg, and John Coltrane.
First and foremost, a leader persuades others, by proposing sensible ideas in an honest and convincing rhetorical voice.
A leader is NOT someone who doesn't care "if half the country despised him along the way." A leader is NOT someone who hides a tyrannical agenda under the skirts of priests and behind cheesy bromides like "compassionate conservatism." A leader is NOT someone who does exactly as s/he pleases.
Bush does not persuade, he does what he wants, and if anybody stands in the way, he ignores or blackmails them. His ideas are not sensible, but nuts. He is thoroughly dishonest and his inability to articulate even the simplest ideas is a national embarrassment.
In addition, a leader recognizes when a given course of action, especially one that he himself endorsed, is failing. A leader takes responsibility for failures as well as successes. Bush, of course, is notorious both for following his delusions until they lead into total fiasco and for simply refusing to recognize that he ever made a single mistake.
In American public discourse, rightly or wrongly, words like "leader" and "brave" are typically descriptive of people with positive virtues. Mahatma Gandhi was a leader. Idi Amin was not. The students in Tiananmen Square were brave, the man who assassinated Rabin was not.
By drawing a direct comparison between Bush and the 9/11 hijackers, am I saying that Bush is a religious fanatic in the grip of dangerous narcissistic delusions of grandeur and who has no regard for the death of innocents?
You bet I am. And that is not what Americans mean by a leader, Mr. Rich.
Note - you can click on the link and find out how the late John Coltrane got on the leader list, remembering of course that Einhorn is also a noted composer. But this all is curious.
What to make of it? What do we expect our leaders to be?
The widely read Duncan Black ("Atrios") here argues that eagerness to support military adventure is often confused with gravitas. If you don't want to go to war, you're just not a serious leader. One "Winston Smith" here denounces Duncan Black as a weak fool, and a bad writer, and a few other things - sometimes war is necessary and the only alternative we have. No one really wants war, but what are you going to do?
Professor Mark Kleiman of UCLA tries to sort it all out -
Atrios is complaining that eagerness to support military adventure is often confused with gravitas. That complaint has considerable merit. Conservatives have convinced many voters that aversion to warfare as a means of policy displays cowardice: real men, they say, are hawks. Atrios is right to say that a preference for violence reflects a character disorder, though he's mostly wrong to call it sociopathy; it has much more to do with sadism and narcissism.
Winston is right to say that no sane person actually prefers warfare to other means of achieving the same ends, if those ends are in fact achievable without warfare. But he's wrong, I think, to say that the relevant kind of insanity is rare enough to ignore. And the political process tends to select for that kind of insanity.
Now there's a thought - the political process tends to self-select pretty awful people. Those that survive and rise are quite mad. Cool.
Kleiman turns to Machiavelli -
Good people, he [Machiavelli] points out, don't like to hurt others; they prefer generosity to stinginess and mercy to cruelty. But stinginess and cruelty are necessary elements of statecraft, because a public policy of immoderate generosity and mercy boomerangs: generosity winds up by taking money from many to give it to few, and mercy winds up cruelly exposing victims to the violence of undeterred domestic predators and foreign aggressors.
So for good people - generous, merciful, compassionate people - to rule successfully from the viewpoint of those they rule, they need to learn to be able not to be good: to restrain their impulses toward generosity and mercy when it is necessary to be stingy and cruel. When it's necessary to bomb Serbia, killing lots of innocent Serbs, to stop the Serbian government from committing genocide, good rulers go ahead and order the bombing, without enthusiasm but not without resolution. They try to minimize the amount of blood they shed (as Sheldon Wolin says, they economize on the use of violence) but they don't shrink from inflicting some violence to avoid more violence. They aim at the Aristotelian mean.
They do, but it can destroy them -
It's easier for people with a cruel streak to use cruelty than it is for compassionate people to use cruelty, even in a good cause. (As Miss Hardcastle, the head of the secret police, says in C.S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength, the people who volunteer to do that sort of job are mostly the ones who get a kick out of it.)
So good, compassionate people - liberals - naturally tend to use too little violence. Everyone more or less knows that; the fact that John Wayne is a standing joke among liberals is not lost on our fellow-citizens. So there's a reasonable and natural tendency to want your rulers not to be too good. And that's how a tendency that everyone will admit is pathological gets to be valued in office-seekers, while a tendency that everyone will agree is sane gets to be viewed with distrust. Currently, that's the basic political tactic of the American right: convince the public that liberals are too nice to be entrusted with the national security (and too generous to trust with the public purse). They did it to Humphrey, McGovern, Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry.
So we want pathological leaders, not sane ones, as we know they get the job done. That explains a great deal. Maybe Frank Rich was right.
But let's assume you think that having a pathological nut case running the most powerful nation on earth isn't a fine idea, given the state of things now. What would you want?
Here's want Kleiman would have -
I'd try to find liberal leaders (e.g., Wesley Clark) who have fully absorbed both halves of the Machiavellian lesson, and who are willing but not eager to suppress their goodness when its suppression is a public necessity.
And I'd have those leaders appeal to the true andreia of the John Wayne character against the defective andreia of the Clint Eastwood character. Defending yourself and others against real threats is manly. Picking fights just for the hell of it is juvenile. Bullies are cowards. Only perverts like hurting people. Torture is for girly-men. Real Americans are above all that.
Andreia, by the way, is the ancient Greek word for manliness and represented the virtue of the warrior - bravery or courage. You can tell Kleiman, using this word, teaches at a major university - UCLA - and one that is just a few miles west of Hollywood, thus references to the celluloid warriors John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.
So, of Bush's leadership, are we dealing with a pervert, coward and "girly-man?" That's possible.
Steve Gilliard suggests a different pathology -
George Bush has never explained Iraq in terms which a logical person could understand. Iraq has been an emotional appeal from the first day going after Saddam was raised. It was never about any actual threat, but an emotional desire to prove we could dominate anyone who opposed us.
For Bush, who has failed at every task ever put before him, from work, to the military to school, this was going to be his vindication. He so desperately wanted to be a hero and Iraq was going to solve all of his issues. He would defeat an enemy, prove himself worthy and gain the respect from his family he so desperately wanted.
Which is why he chose men his father kept at arms length. Bush never wanted advice, he wanted confirmation of his beliefs. His narrow world view, shaped by the dust dry plains of Midland as much as any movie, this idea that a man didn't need or want questions, he just did.
Which is how he approached the American people, not with facts, but an emotional appeal. He's out there, he's guilty, let's get him first. That was the goal, get them first, show them who is boss, Those who don't get that are weak, even if they are in uniform. We will show the world they better not fuck with us again. Iraq will be first, and the rest will bend to our will. We will show them what a superpower does.
This was never a logical argument, it was never a reasoned one, it was pure emotion, which the anti-war movement never got. Iraq was a challenge to us, our manhood, our power and anyone in the way just didn't care.
It wasn't anything to do with concrete facts. It wasn't just fear, but emasculation which Bush sold and that worked on women like a charm. People wanted to believe that the US could run down Iraq and then all manner of miracle would follow, not because of what people wanted but because people feared the US. It wasn't democracy, but control, to finally make Iraq like Israel, a Westernish country loyal to the US. It wasn't anything about what the Iraqis wanted, although the exiles fed into those delusions, which fell into their own delusions, that Iraq was just waiting for their leadership.
So this is why so many people believed in Bush for so long - it was all emotional, and only now reality is messing that up. The Iraq War psychological payback for 9/11 and all that - even if he was the wrong guy who had pretty much left us alone. He'd do.
But nothing worked out and now all we have is the sad pathology we as a nation selected (if Kleiman is right) -
Bush is a bully and a coward at heart. Iraq was chosen because Iraq would be easy, and then the rest of the Middle East would follow. It was the easy way to solve our problems, not our real problems, but our emotional pain, the unresolved conflict over being attacked. And Bush would resolve his lifelong lack of success.
Bush will not leave Iraq, not because he thinks we can win, or he thinks it's part of the war on terror. But because he cannot face another failure. Which is why Scowcroft and Baker have had no influence on him. They are his father's men, veterans, despite their politics, realists. Bush is not and never has been. When he wasn't hiding from his failure with booze and coke, he hid from it with Jesus. Now he has Henry Kissinger whispering in his ear, telling him what he wants to hear. He doesn't want advice, he wants support and only support. Those who do not support him, are diminished, then banished.
This is a man who has never honestly looked himself in the face and said I have failed. He has always been protected from failure.
Which is why Rumsfeld keeps his job. To admit he was incompetent, and some days he seems positively addled, would reflect poorly on Bush.
When people look to understand Iraq, they look at the facts and see failure, but that isn't what Bush sees. He sees one more chance for personal glory and he will not quit until he is forced to.
Gilliard argues many Republicans have no idea that they have bought into this odd psychodrama. The man "seeks redemption as desperately as he drank - and his redemption is in Iraq." He's just dragging us all along with him, and now people want out. It's too late for that. This is not the UK - there isn't any "no confidence" vote. The midterm election may hobble him, should the Democrats gain the House or Senate, or both. But that won't change much. Now he can use the veto he never used before. He'll just dig in - they call it "hunkering down." Maybe thing will slowly begin to change after mid-January 2009 as someone else is sworn in. Or maybe not. Perhaps the system does self-select nasty people.
As bad as Saddam was, you could walk the streets without being kidnapped by criminals or having your daughters raped on the way to school. We have created a charnel house in Iraq because of Bush and his refusal to listen to advice he didn't want to hear.
Phased withdrawal is bullshit. Once you start withdrawing troops from Iraq, the demand to do it quicker will mount. Because Iraq is a house of cards, once it goes, it goes quickly. Anyone who would serve in an occupation government isn't strong enough to lead a real government and Maliki is doomed to join Kerensky as the leader of a failed state.
Iraq is only now become fact, not emotion, and we have to find a way out of it. George Bush's psychodrama is going to end badly.
Ah, but will it end? Is there any way out?
The administration is talking about creating a "blueprint" for making progress in Iraq, and it goes like this -
Details of the blueprint, which is to be presented to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki before the end of the year and would be carried out over the next year and beyond, are still being devised. But the officials said that for the first time Iraq was likely to be asked to agree to a schedule of specific milestones, like disarming sectarian militias, and to a broad set of other political, economic and military benchmarks intended to stabilize the country.
... A senior Pentagon official involved in drafting the blueprint said that Iraqi officials were being consulted as the plan evolved and would be invited to sign off on the milestones before the end of the year. But he added, "If the Iraqis fail to come back to us on this, we would have to conduct a reassessment" of the American strategy in Iraq.
... "We're trying to come up with ways to get the Iraqis to step up to the plate, to push them along, because the time is coming," a senior Bush administration official said. "We can't be there forever."
But when the New York Times reported all this on Sunday, October 22, the White House was all over the media saying this was not a "timetable" thing - timetables are evil, they encourage the enemy to hang on and wait us out, and we'll never set timetables. We'll set milestones - it's a different thing entirely.
Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly is exasperated -
Take your pick: (a) They're serious about this. (b) They're trying to put together a plan - any plan - in order to prevent James Baker's forthcoming recommendations from becoming the default "sensible" middle course accepted by everyone in the DC punditocracy. (c) It's meaningless except as political theater. Bush just wants the country to think he's busily working on something, and this is the something.
I actually don't know which of the three it is. Maybe all of them to some degree. But while we're on the subject, note that this is all coming in the same week that the former head of the British armed forces gave his considered opinion about how we're doing in our various wars: "I don't believe we have a clear strategy in either Afghanistan or Iraq. I sense we've lost the ability to think strategically." He was talking about Britain, but obviously his remarks were aimed at the United States as well. After all, we're the ones primarily setting the strategy.
I wonder how long it will take America to recover from George Bush's uniquely blinkered and self-righteous brand of ineptitude. In the past five years he's demonstrated to the world that we don't know how to win a modern guerrilla war. He's demonstrated that we don't understand even the basics of waging a propaganda war. He's demonstrated that other countries don't need to pay any attention to our threats. He's demonstrated that we're good at talking tough and sending troops into battle, but otherwise clueless about using the levers of statecraft in the service of our own interests. If he had set out to willfully and deliberately expose our weaknesses to the world and undermine our strengths, he couldn't have done more to cripple America's power and influence in the world. Beneath the bluster, he's done more to weaken our national security than any president since World War II.
So how long will it take - after George Bush has left office - for our power and influence on the world stage to return to the level it was at in 2001? When I'm in a good mood, I figure five years. Realistically, ten years is probably more like it. And when I'm in a bad mood? Don't ask. It's really all very depressing.
Of course it is. There's no way out, and (c) is most likely - it's meaningless except as political theater, the administration wanting the country to think they're busily working on something, and this is the something. One thing sounds as good as another. Consider it an appeal to the emotions. That's what leadership comes down to these days - not doing much of anything, but creating the right attitude in the general population, one that keeps you in office.
And they know all of it is show. Take the case of Alberto Fernandez, our director of public diplomacy in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the state department -a special appointment by Condoleezza Rice herself, a long and distinguished career, and dead-flat fluent in Arabic. Sunday, October 22, we get this -
A senior U.S. State Department diplomat told Arab satellite network Al Jazeera that there is a strong possibility history will show the United States displayed "arrogance" and "stupidity" in its handling of the Iraq war.
Alberto Fernandez, director of the Office of Press and Public Diplomacy in the Bureau of Near East Affairs, made his comments on Saturday to the Qatar-based network.
"History will decide what role the United States played," he told Al Jazeera in Arabic, based on CNN translations. "And God willing, we tried to do our best in Iraq."
"But I think there is a big possibility ... for extreme criticism and because undoubtedly there was arrogance and stupidity from the United States in Iraq," the diplomat told Al Jazeera.
… "I can only assume his remarks must have been mistranslated. Those comments obviously don't reflect our policy," a senior Bush administration official said.
Fernandez told CNN that he was "not dissing U.S. policy."
"I know what the policy is and what the red lines are, and nothing I said hasn't been said before by senior officials."
In short, everyone knows we've been extraordinarily arrogant and quite stupid in myriad ways. What Fernandez is saying is that it hardly matters. Leadership is doing what we do, whatever it is, and often it is nearly insane. But it's leadership. History, which will judge all this, is for later. Leadership is for now. It was a big shrug. What are you going to do? We did what we did.
What it comes down to, what Frank Rich was reflecting, is that we now seem to define leadership as "doing" - and it hardly matters if what's being done is stupid, or if it doesn't work, or even if it does the opposite what the leader says it will do (like make us all safer). And even if this "doing" is generated from some very odd pathology, it's still doing something. So we go along, as it's emotionally satisfying to do so.
Things have to get really bad for people to withdraw support from a leader who is "doing things." We may be there. We can live with the pathologies - we've done so before (Nixon and others of your choice). But now it's what has actually been done. Breaking everything is not leadership, even if it is doing something.