Back in 1980, when we got that New Orleans novel from the late John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces, a new and usual descriptive phrase entered our jargon, and it will do nicely. Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981, and the book has sold more than one and a half million copies, in eighteen languages. Toole, unfortunately, had committed suicide on March 26, 1969, after disappearing from New Orleans. That was a matter of putting one end of a garden hose into the exhaust pipe of his car and the other end in the window of the car. That works. You turn on the engine and wait.
He missed his success, but also missed the end of his New Orleans. The phrase lives on.
Just a note - the phrase actually comes from book's epigraph, where Toole quotes Jonathan Swift - "When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him." That's from Swift's Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting - a collection of random cynical observations in the manner of the Maxims of La Rochefoucauld, whom Swift admired. But no one reads Swift any more, much less that seventeenth century French dude. One should give Toole credit here for making the "confederacy of dunces" thing popular.
And it will do for this administration, particularly since the president decided to open the month with a visit to New Orleans.
There must have been a political reason for this, but it was hard to see what that would be. Having failed to mention the destruction of the city and anything about the hapless efforts to rebuild it in his State of the Union boasting, it seems he dropped in to acknowledge the frustrations in New Orleans. It had been eighteen months since the hurricane, and six months since his last visit - and much had been promised (theatrically), and little delivered (practically). And in what has been a disappointment to the administration, people persist in remembering the president's causal indifference as the hurricane bore down then hit the city - his passivity at the briefings having been caught on videotape - and they remember his even more laid-back lack of interest in matters there in the week after the city went under (he flew over on a trip back from vacation) - and they also remember his admiration for the job his massively unqualified FEMA director was doing, followed by the man's departure in disgrace. Now there's a problem with matching funds - the president won't sign off on them. In protest, tens of thousands of citizens there, each time the president spoke about how his administration was going to make things better in that dying city, held up copies of the Toole book in silence.
No, they didn't. But they should have. His message was all these folks in New Orleans were too close to the problems - unlike him - and didn't see the real progress. He asked everyone there to recall how the NFL New Orleans Saints had made it to the playoffs, and take heart in that. It was a bit of a joke - a bitter one. Toole would understand. It makes you want to look for an appropriate length of garden hose.
But you didn't have to be from New Orleans to be frustrated. People elsewhere were recalling the Toole phrase. Maybe there is a confederacy of dunces in charge of things.
After all, testifying before Congress Wednesday, our top intelligence officials distanced themselves from the Bush administration's 2002 claims that North Korea has an active uranium enrichment program. Now we're not so sure that they ever had such a program. The conviction in the reality of these facilities led to the unraveling of the 1994 Agreed Framework - the Clinton administration's solution to the problem. So while the existence of the uranium facilities is now in doubt, North Korea proceeded with its plutonium enrichment, conducting that half-assed nuclear test late last year.
Confused? The first link is to the Washington Post account and the second to the New York Times version of the news. They explain, clumsily - but in short, we broke off all talks with North Korea because they cheated on the agreement - they were enriching uranium and they said they wouldn't. They were evil, and Clinton was a fool. So they went the other route and used plutonium from their reactors to build a few bombs, and we stopped talking with them. It was all another joke - there was no cheating, as the enrichment program never existed, and we shut down all talks for no good reason, and they did what they did as we preened in our self-righteous silence. We had to show we were tough
So the White House now says, okay, maybe the North Koreans don't have a uranium enrichment program after all.
Is this a big deal?
Josh Marshall explains it really is a big deal -
You have to be relatively deep into the minutiae of North Korea policy for this story. But it's a big one. The Bush administration is now saying they're really not even sure the North Koreans have a uranium enrichment program for the production of nuclear weapons.
A 'senior administration official' tells the Times, "The question now is whether we would be in the position of having to get the North Koreans to give up a sizable arsenal if this had been handled differently."
That, as they say, is something of an understatement.
As for the minutiae, that would be this -
Speaking very broadly, there are two big ways to make nuclear weapons - with uranium and plutonium. Each involves different technical challenges and processes. And each has a different bang you get versus the complexity of the task of putting the thing together.
The big issue with North Korea has always been their plutonium production. Back in 1994, they were on the brink of being able to produce bombs with the plutonium they were making. The US came close to war with the North Koreans over it. But the two countries settled on something called the 'Agreed Framework' in which the North Koreans' plutonium production operation was shuttered and placed under international inspection in exchange for fuel oil shipments and assistance building 'light water' nuclear reactors.
We don't need to get into the details of the agreement at the moment. The relevant point is that from 1994 to 2002 the North Korean nuclear weapons program was frozen in place. The strong consensus judgment was that they had not yet made any nuclear weapons. And during that period they could not access the plutonium they had already produced.
It was on the basis of this alleged uranium enrichment program - which may well not even have existed - that the US pulled out of that agreement. This allowed the North Koreans to get back into the plutonium business with a gusto. And they have since produced - by most estimates - at least a hand full of nuclear weapons, one of which, albeit a rather feeble one, they detonated last October.
And as for that quote from the senior administration official - "The question now is whether we would be in the position of having to get the North Koreans to give up a sizable arsenal if this had been handled differently" - that is where the "confederacy of dunces" joke lies. We screwed the pooch. We freed up the plutonium by tossing out the agreement, on bad intelligence. Or maybe we knew all along that the intelligence was bad - that seems to be the implication here - but we had to break off the agreement to prove something or other about our righteous refusal to reward the evil folks in this world by even speaking with them. We don't compromise, and we certainly don't provide legitimacy to awful governments by sitting down and talking with them as if they mattered. We isolate them - and offer them only the silence that speaks words.
Marshall hones in on the problem with that -
Because of a weapons program that may not even have existed (and no one ever thought was far advanced) the White House got the North Koreans to restart their plutonium program and then sat by while they produced a half dozen or a dozen real nuclear weapons - not the Doug Feith/John Bolton kind, but the real thing.
It's a screw-up that staggers the mind. And you don't even need to know this new information to know that. Even if the claims were and are true, it was always clear that the uranium program was far less advanced than the plutonium one, which would be ready to produce weapons soon after it was reopened. Now we learn the whole thing may have been a phantom. Like I said, it staggers the mind how badly this was bungled. In this decade there's been no stronger force for nuclear weapons proliferation than the dynamic duo of Dick Cheney and George W. Bush.
That dynamic duo is also the confederacy mentioned above.
Matthew Yglesias breaks it down into the bullet points -
His summary - "The odds look decent, in other words, that the administration effectively let the DPRK build nuclear weapons for absolutely no reason at all other than its generally bad attitude toward diplomatic agreements and 'stuff Bill Clinton did.'"
Well, it is a policy, however silly. The real bombs - not the imaginary ones the Saddam Hussein was building, that Douglas Feith and John Bolton warned everyone about - are the problem now. Oops.
See also No Confidence? No Kidding! from Fred Kaplan, who says this "intel botch" is worse than you think -
First, it suggests that the Bush administration could have struck a deal to halt the North Koreans' nuclear-weapons program five years ago - before they reprocessed 8,000 nuclear fuel rods into plutonium, before they tested a nuclear bomb for the first time, before they officially became a "nuclear-weapons state."
Second (and this is the reason for the "no-confidence" stamp), it shows that Bush and his people will say anything, no matter whether it's true, in order to shore up a political point. It means that U.S. intelligence has become completely corrupted.
And more generally -
It would be nice to know whether Iran is supplying Iraqi insurgents with particularly deadly explosives. It would be nice to know how far along the Iranians are coming with their (quite real) enriched-uranium program. It would be nice to know lots of things about this dangerous world. Or it would, at least, be nice to have a true sense of how much our intelligence agencies know about such things.
But we don't know how much these agencies know, because we can have no confidence in what the Bush administration tells us they know.
So why are we learning about this now? That's easy -
They are saying this for one reason: President Bush recently agreed to a nuclear deal with the North Koreans; the deal says nothing about enriched uranium (it requires them only to freeze their plutonium-bomb program); so, in order to stave off the flood of criticism from Bush's conservative base, senior officials are saying that the enriched uranium was never a big deal to begin with.
What? Could that be so?
It's all in how these folks work -
It was on Oct. 4, 2002, that then-Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly confronted the North Koreans with the evidence of an enriched-uranium program and allegedly received confirmation. Not until Oct. 17 did Bush reveal this to Congress or the American people.
The reason for the delay was that on Oct. 11, Congress voted on the resolution to authorize President Bush to use force in Iraq. The rationale for the resolution was that Saddam Hussein was believed to be building weapons of mass destruction. Had lawmakers known that North Korea (another spoke on the "axis of evil") was also believed to be building WMD - and was, in fact, much closer to a nuclear bomb than Saddam -they might have hesitated to pass the resolution; they might have viewed the intelligence more skeptically or asked if Bush was about to go to war against the right country.
You just didn't want to mess up that Iraq effort of course. And now it's okay to say the whole thing wasn't anything anyway. This is an odd way to run a country.
Kaplan adds the obvious -
Does North Korea have a secret enriched-uranium program? Is Iran supplying deadly explosives to Iraqi insurgents? How close is Iran to building its own nuclear weapon? These questions may play a huge role in decisions of war and peace. Not even reasonably well-read citizens have much basis for answering them independently. We have no choice but to rely on what our leaders tell us about intelligence reports. In that sense, it doesn't much matter what the real answers are, because we have no reason to believe anything the current leaders tell us.
Welcome to New Orleans, everyone.
Wonkette - the Washington snark supplier - comes through on this -
Remember 2002, when we were all flyin' high on paranoia and dread? Those reassuring warpigs in the Bush Administration knew what we needed: more enemies with more firepower, to keep America on its toes.
… We bravely we cut off North Korea's oil and they threw out the weapons inspectors. Now we're all five years older, and because things are going so swimmingly in Iraq, the Bush administration has done the gentlemanly thing and admitted that NK's never really been all that likely to enrich uranium any time soon.
On the other hand, there are those who always see the glass half-full, arguing some good may come of this - "Oddly enough, this may be a good sign. Lately the intelligence has fallen apart only after we have attacked the nation in question. Analytical rigor could be making a comeback."
Yep, at least we didn't launch a war there based on bad intelligence. One of those is enough. No harm, no foul - but for their new nuclear bombs.
So we got it wrong on Iraq, and got it wrong on North Korea, and the jury is out on Iran - but they're up to something in Iran. Who is going to belief anything we say, even if the next time it may be true? The whole world is turning into New Orleans skeptics. What else would you expect?
Sometimes the screw ups are less globally significant, and that's a bit of relief. The long-delayed terrorism support and conspiracy trial of Jose Padilla, a US citizen held for three and half years as an "enemy combatant," is finally underway in Miami - as the judge ruled the guy competent to stand trial, in spite of all the expert testimony that he was hardly on this planet these days. The curious thing is that the Defense Intelligence Agency has a DVD showing the final interrogation of Jose Padilla as an "enemy combatant" at the Navy brig in Charleston. Or at least it did. Now that Padilla faces trial the US Attorney's Office handling the case says that the DIA just can't seem to find the video. It's gone. No one will know how he was treated and what made him so… detached from reality.
Newsweek's Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball report on this - "The disclosure that the Pentagon had lost a potentially important piece of evidence in one of the US government's highest-profile terrorism cases" has been met with "claims of incredulity by some defense lawyers and human-rights groups monitoring the case."
No kidding. They quote Human Rights Watch lawyer John Sifton - "This is the kind of thing you hear when you're litigating cases in Egypt or Morocco or Karachi."
He should have mentioned it could be a scene from the Toole novel. The trial will go on without the key evidence, of course.
Anyway, some things are more important, like the vice presidents' travels, as Sidney Blumenthal explains in How Cheney bombed in Afghanistan.
This is another dunce story -
Was the suicide bomber attack at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan on Tuesday an attempted assassination of Vice President Dick Cheney or a horse's head in his bed?
The day before, Cheney had delivered a stinging message to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf - U.S. aid would be withheld unless Pakistan supported strikes against Taliban and al-Qaeda forces that have nestled in Pakistan as a sanctuary, where they have gathered strength in anticipation of a spring offensive against the Afghan government. Musharraf's official response via a spokesman was immediate: "Pakistan does not accept dictation from any side or any source." Then came the bombing. Was it another form of reply? The Taliban claimed credit. But was only the Taliban involved?
The Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency was present at the creation of the Taliban, which it has deployed to give it strategic depth in its long war with India. The ISI has lent clandestine support to other terrorist groups against India. And ISI agents have also been deeply involved with al-Qaida. ISI operatives continue to aid and advise the Taliban and al-Qaida resurgence in Afghanistan.
Someone is sending messages -
The questions raised by the would-be assassination of Cheney highlight the counterproductive incoherence and impotence of administration policy. Before the bombing, Cheney was gleefully using his foreign travels as a platform for partisan strafing. After he declared that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's criticism of the administration's Iraq policy aided and abetted al-Qaeda, she called President Bush to register her objection to having her patriotism smeared. Cheney's remark, she said, was "beneath the dignity of his office." On Feb. 26, a reporter from ABC News asked Cheney if he stood by his statement. Cheney was only too happy to repeat it. "If we adopt the Pelosi policy, then we will validate the strategy of al-Qaida. I said it and I meant it," he said. The pool reporter noted that Cheney "looks pretty chipper, near the end of a weeklong odyssey." But after the bombing, Cheney fell uncharacteristically silent.
Since Sept. 11, Bush and Cheney have proclaimed a Manichaean struggle in which, as Bush said, "You're either with us or with the terrorists." This formula has been applied at home and abroad. It is a distillation of Bush's foreign policy and his domestic politics. In his "war on terror," he is leading the forces of "freedom" against "evil" because it is "part of God's plan," and that "God is not neutral." Then Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath told the BBC in 2005 that Bush had confided in him and Mahmoud Abbas, former prime minister and now Palestinian president: "I'm driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, 'George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan.' And I did, and then God would tell me, 'George go and end the tyranny in Iraq,' and I did."
At Cheney's direction, intelligence was skewed to suggest links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida. Over the past year, as that intelligence was exposed as false and, worse, as disinformation, Cheney has defended the conflation of threats through a contrivance of illogic, also routinely repeated by Bush: "We were not in Iraq on September 11th, 2001, and the terrorists hit us anyway."
But everyone knows a dangerous dunce when they see one. Nonsense is nonsense, and Blumenthal says Cheney's implication that the our presence in Iraq "cannot possibly be an inspiration for terrorism" is simply not shared at the highest levels of the senior military, including commanders on the ground in Iraq. He says he's learned that these guys are privately reading, circulating, and in agreement with a new article written by terrorism experts Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank. That article - "The Iraq Effect: War Has Increased Terrorism Sevenfold Worldwide" - is devastating.
We're talking empirical evidence -
Our study yields one resounding finding: The rate of terrorist attacks around the world by jihadist groups and the rate of fatalities in those attacks increased dramatically after the invasion of Iraq. Globally there was a 607 percent rise in the average yearly incidence of attacks (28.3 attacks per year before and 199.8 after) and a 237 percent rise in the average fatality rate (from 501 to 1,689 deaths per year). A large part of this rise occurred in Iraq, which accounts for fully half of the global total of jihadist terrorist attacks in the post-Iraq War period. But even excluding Iraq, the average yearly number of jihadist terrorist attacks and resulting fatalities still rose sharply around the world by 265 percent and 58 percent respectively.
Only dunces persist in the counterproductive.
The bombing at Bagram silenced Cheney's bombast, at least for the moment. His mission to Musharraf and the subsequent assassination attempt, if it was that, also exploded his simplistic ideological sloganeering. Rather than waging a grand battle of good vs. evil, he and Bush are dependent upon an ambiguous Pakistani leader with a tenuous grasp on power, whose untrustworthy intelligence service is crucial in directing the Taliban.
Rather than approaching a climactic struggle against free-floating sects of "Islamofascism," the administration has been a party since Sept. 11 to concrete regional conflicts in which not only were economic, social and diplomatic instruments ignored but international military help was also rejected. Belatedly, in Afghanistan, circumstances of the administration's own making have forced it to concede the necessity of getting assistance from allies. Yet the movement of 1,400 British troops there is a direct reflection of the disintegration of the "coalition of the willing" in Iraq. Those very troops are being redeployed from southern Iraq, the British sector now being ceded to control of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, which Bush's "surge" is supposedly intended to suppress.
So administration policy has validated the strategy of the Taliban and al Qaeda. We made things worse. Senior military commanders are reading all about it. They'd rather not join the confederacy. They'll fix what they can, in spite of it, if they can. It may be too late for that. And what to you do if the whole concept is mistaken?
You do what you can - only six hundred ninety days more to go before we have a new set of dunces running things.
Senior military commanders may of course be overrated, or a different cell in the conspiracy of dunces.
The month also opened with Walter Reed General Fired After Failures - "The Army on Thursday fired the general in charge of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, saying he was the wrong person to fix embarrassing failures in the treatment of war-injured soldiers that have soiled the institution's reputation as a first-class hospital."
This of course is the upshot of last week's rather sickening revelations in the Washington Post about the filthy conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center's outpatient facility. It was big news and an embarrassment to the administration that is so fond of saying anyone who questions their decisions and the policies behind those decisions isn't supporting the troops. They got caught on that. Those of us with family members in the war were not impressed. Then add Bob Woodruff's personal reporting on the medical challenges facing severely wounded soldiers. As a newsman blown apart in Iraq, he's decided to go to bat for them.
Phillip Carter - an attorney with McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP out here in Los Angeles, and a former Army officer and an Iraq veteran - notes that things are going to get worse. It may be time to fire a few generals.
Thursday, March 1, he lays out the situation -
Today we learned just how far the dysfunction at Walter Reed extends. Not only did these problems happen on Army Surgeon General Kevin Kiley's watch - they literally happened across the street from his quarters. When told that soldiers were complaining about bureaucratic obstacles to medical care and substandard housing, the surgeon general ignored them. His staff summarily dismissed members of Congress - and their spouses - when they tried to advocate for wounded troops. Despite the fact that 150,000 military personnel live in the Washington area, including hundreds of generals and sergeants major, no one paid any attention to what was going on there. Despite promising publicly to fix the problems at Walter Reed, Army leaders have decided instead to torment the wounded troops by waking them up at 6 a.m. and ordering them not to talk with the press. It's fast becoming clear that the entire military bureaucracy is rotten to the core - incapable of managing problems at Walter Reed, let alone fighting and winning a war.
The problem is, as he sees it, systemic -
Generals lead the military bureaucracy. Their development and selection shapes the way the bureaucracy works, both by setting the direction of the institution and establishing the incentive structure for subordinate officers who aspire to wear a general's stars one day. The term general is not accidental; the Army grooms its top leaders to be generalists who can manage any large organization, irrespective of its mission. This type of thinking led the Army to put Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller - an artilleryman - in charge of its Guantanamo Bay facility three years ago, and Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hunzeker - also an artilleryman - in charge of police training in Iraq. Officers with more specialized talents or education - even particularly relevant ones, like counterinsurgency expertise - often do not make it past the rank of colonel in today's force. Instead, they are tracked by the personnel bureaucracy into "functional areas," such as "strategic plans and policy" or "foreign-area officer," where the prospects of promotion are dim. Consequently, the Army's top leaders are men and women who can manage any organization, but they frequently lack specific expertise in that organization's mission.
The Army's management culture expects generals to apply a systems approach to their assignments, and it expects them to generate quantifiable results. This focus on quantification trickles down to the lowest levels, even to the point of absurdity. At a hospital like Walter Reed, it means paying inordinate attention to things like the number of patients discharged, patient-to-doctor ratios, and costs - while ignoring the quality of care and the subjective feelings of patients such as those profiled in the Post. This systems approach also disdains the human element of leadership. It would have been all too easy for Lt. Gen. Kiley to cross the street from his house and check out Building 18, a facility under his command. But if he had all the statistics he needed on that building, why bother? (To this day, Kiley lives in a state of denial, calling the reporting on Walter Reed "one-sided.")
Ah, the confederacy has been institutionalized.
There's the informational side -
Walter Reed's problems also illustrate just how bad the Army has gotten at passing information - particularly negative information - up and down its chain of command. Typically, subordinate units submit reports on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis to their headquarters. At each level of command, these reports get filtered, collated, combined, and resynthesized. Like the children's game of telephone, the message frequently changes in transmission. The result can be a terribly distorted picture of reality at the higher echelons of command.
In Iraq, where I advised the Iraqi police, I saw this reverse filtration system (whereby excrement is added to the final product, instead of being removed) in action. Reports on police readiness were aggregated, generalized, and stripped of their facts as they moved up the chain of command. In one report, I included an anecdote about an Iraqi police colonel picking his nose to show his displeasure with a new U.S. reporting system for police readiness, a detail I thought illustrated the depth of Iraqi contempt for U.S. bureaucracy. This detail squeaked through, but I earned a sharp reprimand for including it, and I learned to keep such facts out of future reports. By the time our reports reached the national level, they contained little of the detail so essential for explaining our progress in standing up the Iraqi police force. This problem exists in many military organizations. Major problems get renamed "obstacles," or "challenges," or some other noun that connotes a temporary delay in forward progress, reflecting the pervasive "can do" optimism of the military officer corps. Staff officers at each level of command refine and insert caveats into reports to ensure they don't rock the boat too much. By the time information reaches a senior commander or civilian official, it no longer reflects reality.
Then with meaningless information you deal with crises -
Large bureaucracies like the Army provide a systematic, uniform, mediocre response to chronic problems. But where time is of the essence, bureaucracies often fail spectacularly. On the NewsHour With Jim Lehrer last week, Kiley tried to deflect blame by calling the mess at Walter Reed "a very large, complex process," which required a nuanced approach to bureaucratic, medical, and contractual problems. But such a bureaucratic response misses the point when the bureaucracy itself is the enemy, as it is for the soldiers in Building 18. Bureaucracies evolve into micro-societies over time and become incapable of evaluating fundamental problems within their own ranks. Instead of receiving negative information and fixing the root problem, bureaucracies find and apply incrementalist solutions that fit their existing way of doing business. In MBA-jargon, bureaucracies rarely think or act "outside of the box." Whether the context is the Vietnam War, the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina, or the current mess at Walter Reed, the problem is the same. Only decisive leadership - picture Gen. George Patton with his revolver, shooting a jackass to clear a bridge so his convoy can pass - can overcome bureaucratic inertia to fix the problem.
So it is all of a piece.
And you blame those lower down the chain -
Perhaps the most disturbing news about Walter Reed is that until today, the Army has pinned blame on "several low-ranking soldiers who managed outpatients." Accountability and command responsibility do not start at the bottom with a few sergeants who performed as their superiors told them to; rather, such responsibility starts at the top. Today's decision to sack Maj. Gen. George Weightman, Walter Reed's commanding officer, affirms the principle of command responsibility, thought to be a dead letter after the Abu Ghraib scandals. But this termination is only a first step. Every commander between Army Secretary Francis Harvey and the wounded soldiers being treated at Walter Reed bears some blame.
Wait. Wouldn't that mean that the president saying the folks in New Orleans have it all wrong and there has been real progress - and they don't see it because they're stupidly too close to the problem - is shifting blame downward and not taking appropriate responsibility. Only a dunce would say that.
Hey, maybe there is a confederacy here.
This item posted in final version - March 4, 2007
Reader comment received Friday, March 2 - 3:00 PM Pacific Time -
I'm absolutely astounded about the absence of the uranium program in North Korea, which I learned here. It had always served as the sticking point for the controversy about whether the Clinton people let them commies get away with something - John McCain, I think, still thinks they did to this day - but now, it turns out, the controversy just quietly fades away and we're left with the Bush league's version of history, and it makes me want to shout it from the church steeples, except that nobody really gives a shit. I'm left with this odd hollow feeling inside. What's the point of us doing the right thing as long as conservatives can come along after the fact and just claim that it's not?
|[Dunces by Choice]|
Last updated Saturday, March 10, 2007, 10:30 pm Pacific Time
All text and photos, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 - Alan M. Pavlik