Just Above Sunset
Volume 5, Number 10
March 11, 2007

Room at the Top

 The world as seen from Just Above Sunset -

"Notes on how things seem from out here in Hollywood..."

On Being Adept and Cunning Without Being Insightful

As the last week in January began, stumbling out of bed with a hangover, needing coffee and quiet, there was none to be had, anthropomorphically speaking of course. One probably shouldn't personify any one week as some sort of scruffy slacker. But things started off badly.

The prior weekend brought the first major open battle in Iraq in quite some time, with the Iraqi Army, with our support, fighting and defeating someone or other - At Least 200 Militants Killed In Iraq Battle - "At least 200 Shiite zealots, including a cult leader claiming to be a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, were killed in a fierce battle with Iraqi and US forces near Shiite Islam's holiest city of Najaf, officials said."

Who? Josh Marshall was trying to figure that out -

    Here's another account of that firefight near Najaf. The cult was made up of "a diverse cadre of Sunni, Shiite, Afghan and other foreign gunmen."

    The current and eddies contained in a great religious system like Islam (or Christianity or Judaism, for that matter) operate by logics that are elusive and sometimes close to impossible for outsiders to understand. But I still get the sense we're being sold a bill of goods about what happened here.

    Late Update: This story in the Times gives what seems like a more plausible explanation. This was a 'Shi'a' group in the broad sense of the word but a dissident one and one which the dominant Shi'a authorities and clerics did not view as genuinely Shi'a. According to the Times the governor of the province described the group as "'exterior,' but not in its 'core.'"

Oh.  Steven Colbert perhaps best explains just who we're fighting and why - "First, we side with the Shi'ites to wipe out the Sunnis. Then we side with the Kurds to wipe out the Shi'ites. Then we side with the Turks to wipe out the Kurds and we give Iraq to the Amish."

That'll do. 

And things in Afghanistan were not quiet at all, as in The Big Afghanistan Push Comes To Shove - "Overshadowed by President George Bush's controversial, last-chance bid to salvage American honor in Iraq, the US is mounting a parallel military and reconstruction 'surge' in Afghanistan ahead of an anticipated Taliban spring offensive."

Yes, tours there are being extended. Brigades from the First Mountain Division out of Fort Drum in upstate New York will not be coming home when they thought they would - those guys won't be hitting bars in Watertown and Edwards anytime soon.

But The Onion explains the nature of this other surge -

    In an effort to display his administration's willingness to fight on all fronts in the War on Terror, President Bush said at a press conference Monday that American ground forces in Afghanistan will be aided by the immediate deployment of Marine Pfc. Tim Ekenberg of Camp Lejeune, NC.

    "I want the American people to know that I have not forgotten that our battle for freedom began in Afghanistan, rooting out the extremists of al-Qaeda and the Taliban," Bush said. "Today, I am ordering the deployment of the 325th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, Private Tim Ekenberg, to the embattled Kandahar region."

    "We will take whatever measures necessary to win," Bush added. "Isn't that right, Tim?"

    Ekenberg is scheduled to arrive in Afghanistan on Friday. His duties include providing full military support for the still-tenuous democratic government, resolving potential conflicts between rival warlords, gathering intelligence for his superiors, delivering humanitarian relief to millions of Afghan citizens displaced by factional warfare, and maintaining a high level of personal physical fitness.

    Ekenberg's most vital assignment, however, will be to patrol approximately 1,200 square miles of volatile territory on the Afghan-Pakistani border and conduct search-and-destroy missions on the estimated 40,000 caves where U.S. intelligence sources believe Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda operatives could be hiding.

    The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, 2nd Lt. Jon Pinard, said that Ekenberg will be a valuable addition to his existing military assets.

    "Our Marines are the best-equipped and best-trained in the world, and I have it on good authority that Tim is an especially well-trained Marine," Pinard said. "We have requested that he receive full logistical support while deployed in this theater. We've been told that his body armor will be arriving within six months of his reporting for duty, budget permitting."

There's much more, but you get the idea. It's very funny, perhaps.

And at the White House they must be worried about the Libby trial - it's becoming clear the Vice president ordered that a CIA spy be "outed" as her husband caught the White House fibbing about why we had to go to war. The long knives are out as who said what and when becomes an exercise in just who will end up as the bad guy in it all, no matter what happens to Scooter Libby.  It's not pretty.

Then to top it off, the president is hoping the Iranians sink a few of our scout boats in the Gulf of Tonkin so he can get a Tonkin Gulf resolution, or some such thing. Bush Warns Iran Against Action In Iraq - "President Bush said Monday the United States 'will respond firmly' if Iran escalates military action in Iraq and endangers American forces. But Bush emphasized he has no intention of invading Iran."

But then, he may have to order that. The Gulf of Tonkin thing worked fine for that other Texan after all - Lyndon Johnson.  You just need a justification, and he's itching for one.  One gulf is as good as another.

Countering that Clint Eastwood "Just give me a reason, punk" way of looking at things, the week also opened with David Bell, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University, with a column in the Los Angeles Times - Was 9/11 really that bad?   It's one of those "let's step back and think about this" analyses, and rather unusual -

    Imagine that on 9/11, six hours after the assault on the twin towers and the Pentagon, terrorists had carried out a second wave of attacks on the United States, taking an additional 3,000 lives. Imagine that six hours after that, there had been yet another wave. Now imagine that the attacks had continued, every six hours, for another four years, until nearly 20 million Americans were dead. This is roughly what the Soviet Union suffered during World War II, and contemplating these numbers may help put in perspective what the United States has so far experienced during the war against terrorism.

The core is this -

    Has the American reaction to the attacks in fact been a massive overreaction? Is the widespread belief that 9/11 plunged us into one of the deadliest struggles of our time simply wrong? If we did overreact, why did we do so? Does history provide any insight?

    Certainly, if we look at nothing but our enemies' objectives, it is hard to see any indication of an overreaction. The people who attacked us in 2001 are indeed hate-filled fanatics who would like nothing better than to destroy this country. But desire is not the same thing as capacity, and although Islamist extremists can certainly do huge amounts of harm around the world, it is quite different to suggest that they can threaten the existence of the United States.

    Yet a great many Americans, particularly on the right, have failed to make this distinction. For them, the "Islamo-fascist" enemy has inherited not just Adolf Hitler's implacable hatreds but his capacity to destroy. The conservative author Norman Podhoretz has gone so far as to say that we are fighting World War IV (No. III being the Cold War).

    … as the comparison with the Soviet experience should remind us, the war against terrorism has not yet been much of a war at all, let alone a war to end all wars. It is a messy, difficult, long-term struggle against exceptionally dangerous criminals who actually like nothing better than being put on the same level of historical importance as Hitler - can you imagine a better recruiting tool? To fight them effectively, we need coolness, resolve and stamina. But we also need to overcome long habit and remind ourselves that not every enemy is in fact a threat to our existence.

Now that's not nice. Bell is undermining the whole idea of it all, saying our overreaction is hurting us more than it's hurting them.

There was a howl from the Bush supporters - like John Donovan saying, "granting that Islamofascists don't necessarily have the capacity, to constitute an existential threat to the United States, neither did Adolf Hitler when he sent his Army in to re-occupy the Rhineland."

And there was this -

    Bell says it is all Western civilization's fault. The Enlightenment did it. No, really. Bell is arguing the line that this is really a law enforcement issue, not an existential war for survival. Apparently because there isn't enough of a body count yet. Will a crater where an American city once stood be a high enough body count, professor? Will a significant number of Americans turned into incandescent gas get your attention? Will Iran lobbing a nuclear tipped missile at Europe penetrate to the heights of the Ivory tower you inhabit? Assuming your ivory tower isn't at ground zero, of course. Because I imagine that the fireball might get your attention just before you vaporized.

Yeah, whatever.  It was a set-up and we walked into it.  There were other ways to do this Iraq thing. We just didn't do them.  And there are other alternatives to the Iran issues.  We won't choose them either.

Why not? That is the important question.

Of course the answer is in the nature of the leader we chose, the kind of person we thought we needed to get us through all this.

And there's something new on that, in the February 5, 2007 issue of New York Magazine - Bush on the Couch

This has three subheads, oddly enough.

  • Analyzing the president.
  • The Loneliest President
  • What's going on in George Bush's mind? A psychopolitical survey.

John Heilemann does the heavy lifting, and provides some curious anecdotes in his introduction -

    Back in the Fall of 1994, when he was running for the governorship of Texas, I spent the better part of a week on a bus with George W. Bush. And all the stories you've heard are true: Up close and personal, avant le deluge, Bush was a winning figure. He was charming, savvy, and not half as dumb or allergic to policy as I'd been given to believe; he seemed inclined to a mode of moderate conservatism not that different from his father's; he had even demonstrated a brand of political courage - resisting the demonization of illegal immigrants -rare in the GOP. Like a lot of people who first encountered Bush in those days, I came away impressed. And, also like a lot of people, I have spent a fair amount of the past six years wondering what the hell became of that guy.

    And so I was intrigued this past November, when a number of old Bush hands averred that the Republicans' drubbing at the polls might compel a resurrection of Bush's pre-presidential persona - and thus might actually be good for him. "It creates a real opportunity where potentially he could get more things done with a Democratic Congress," one Bush confidant told me. "He is very pragmatic. He's said he doesn't want to warm the seat. He wants to get things done. So it could be a very interesting couple of years."

    Today, of course, it's screamingly obvious how naïve - nay, fantastical - such notions were. Sure, Bush's State of the Union was littered with halfhearted nods to bipartisanship. Yet on the central, seminal question of Iraq, he has adopted a course no less bloody-minded (literally) and confrontational than his approach for the past four years. By ordering a new infusion of troops, he has not only extended a defiant middle finger to the Democratic congressional majority and the American public. He has gravely imperiled his own party's future, rendering himself a pariah among all but his most lunatic supporters -and his non-Iraq agenda DOA.

DOA, of course, stands for "Dead on Arrival" - or alternatively, "Delusions of Adequacy."  Heilemann is in search of answers to what he sees is the real issue - "Has Bush simply lost touch with political reality? Or has he actually lost his mind?"

The idea is that it is worth considering "the possibility that Bush's madman-at-the-wheel métier owes as much to psychological factors as to structural ones."

    For some time now, armchair psychiatrists have argued that Bush suffers from a classic case of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, citing his sense of grandiosity ("I'm the decider"), his arrogance and lack of empathy, and his tendency to surround himself with sycophants as evidence. Certainly, Bush seems to be in the grip of something close to a bona fide delusion ("a false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everybody else believes," says the DSM-IV) about the situation in Iraq - and in a state of near-clinical denial about the likelihood that his policy there has irretrievably failed.

    How else to explain his rejection of the proposals put forward by the Iraq Study Group? Utterly unexpected, baffling on its face, Bush's decision may well be judged the most pivotal of his last two years in office - and the 2008 election cycle. For here the president and his party were handed an exit strategy on a silver salver: a set of recommendations leading to a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops that most Democrats would have swallowed hard and signed onto. Not that Iraq would then have magically vanished as an issue. But it would no longer have been an exclusively Republican responsibility - or an exclusively Republican nightmare.

But it was not to be -

    To any impartial observer, the conclusion here is fairly inescapable: We are looking at a presidency that is, for all practical political purposes, finished - except to the extent that Bush can wreak more havoc by means of his monomania. The cynical interpretation of his recent moves is that he is stalling, trying to buy himself a few more months of time, praying that something, anything, will happen in Iraq that will let him claim a kind of victory, however trifling or evanescent. But I don't quite buy that theory. The more convincing explanation is that Bush believes he is playing for history now - hence his obsessive focus on the single issue that he believes, rightly, will define his legacy. Where we see a failed president in Bush, he looks in the mirror and sees himself as a leader who pursued a burdensome, painful path and whose vindication will be meted out long after he has left office. As a righteous man who forged ahead in the face of weak-willed and wrongheaded opposition, in particular the impulse toward appeasement. As Harry Truman. As Winston Churchill.

    … not since Richard Nixon has Washington seen a case so severe - or so tragic. Today, Bush's poll numbers are mired at Nixonian levels circa Watergate. He is similarly isolated, similarly aggrieved, similarly blinded to his own faults and follies. Similarly out to lunch, that is. (Though he hasn't yet invited Dick Cheney to pray with him in the Oval Office - at least as far as we know.) And he is also similarly unloved and unlamented by the very pols who so recently fetishized and fawned over him.

    How unloved? How unlamented? After the State of the Union, ABC's political director, Mark Halperin, speculated that, if a secret ballot were held in Congress to end the Bush presidency, it would pass "by a margin of, oh, 500 to 35." In a week of shopping that hypothetical on the Hill, I found not a single person ready to dispute it.

That's just a taste of it. Click on the link for it all.

But what's this about Heilemann shopping this "madman" stuff around for reactions? He did get them.  You can read them all, but here are the key reactions.

Robert Stone, author of Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties -

    I think Bush has come to believe he's on a lonely, noble mission - doing the right thing in spite of the ravings and denunciation by pygmies - and that to some degree he thinks people outside the Oval Office have to be lied to. But he is very mysterious - he doesn't reveal much in the way of personal qualities. There's an actor quality to what he does; he's not very good at it. It's as though somebody gave him a "nice young man" lesson.

    I think he's probably become suspicious of Cheney and Rove. They're certainly isolating him as much as they can in order to protect him. He does seem less confident and steady. He must feel that he's being abandoned.

    He's trying for a do-over. It's the last throw of the dice. He's casually ruthless enough to sacrifice that many lives. Maybe this is brutal, but I think some of those tears over dead soldiers are really self-pitying. It may be just a superficial sentimentality, which is better than sarcasm.

    Bush is unimaginative, to a slightly pathological degree. He doesn't cast a shadow; he's just this paper construction.

Jonathan Alter of Newsweek -

    I see Bush's behavior as the result of three major forces: the dad, the bottle, and the Vietnam War. For most of his life, Bush tried and failed to follow in his absent father's footsteps. His father was a war hero; Bush a no-show Guardsman dodging Vietnam. His father did well in the oil business; Bush struck dry holes. His father got elected to Congress; Bush was defeated in 1978. A collection of Bush Sr.'s letters contains far more to Jeb than George W. Finally, in 1994, Bush was elected governor of Texas, but George and Bar were so upset that their anointed son, Jeb, lost the election that night for the governorship of Florida that they barely seemed to notice. You don't have to be Freud to see that Bush has snubbed his father's closest advisers (who turned out to be right) and hired men who held his father in contempt, like Don Rumsfeld (who turned out to be wrong). It was no big surprise that he rejected the Baker-Hamilton report. As with many former substance abusers, he became fanatically disciplined - maybe the most disciplined man to hold the office. But with discipline came rigidity. Former drunks sometimes fear that if they change their lives too abruptly after straightening out, they'll pull a thread on their recovery and sink back into chaos. They never admit their helplessness, so when they succeed in staying sober anyway, it helps their confidence. It's a reflection of their will to stay the course. This is too simple an explanation for Bush's failures as president, but it helps illuminate his mind-set. Finally, Bush is a baby-boomer, but with a twist. He was rebelling against the reigning liberal orthodoxy of the sixties. He and other Vietnam War hawks believe that we lost simply because we quit. To give in to the Establishment view of his father and the Democrats now would be to repudiate his whole political sense of self. One thing has changed: Now he meets the families of the dead. It has wiped the smirk off his face - but it's actually reinforced his determination that they must not die in vain.

Dahlia Lithwick, senior editor, Slate -

    It sounds counterintuitive, but I think the president is thinking that he may have lost the battle but he's won the war. The battle being the short-term fight in Iraq and maybe some political capital. The war being the endgame: enshrining a radical new vision of the scope of executive power. The president may be unpopular. His war may be a disaster. But in pursuing that war, he's expanded presidential authority almost beyond recognition. The prison at Guantánamo may be futile, but he's won the right to operate it. Abusive interrogation may yield no useful information, but he's seized the right to do it. Warrantless eavesdropping may not catch terrorists, but he's staked out the power to order it. If securing such power was always the endgame of this administration, the war in Iraq is nothing but a speed bump. And putting two justices on the Supreme Court who appear willing to sign off on an imperial presidency is the cherry on top.

Peter D. Kramer, author of Listening to Prozac and Freud: Inventor of the Modern Mind -

    People are hard to gauge from even a short distance; I may imagine I have a good read on someone, only to discover a different person when he shows up for a consultation. That said, I'm not inclined to give Bush the benefit of the doubt. If you or I failed in this catastrophic fashion, we would be crushed to the point of - who knows? It's nearly unimaginable.

    But Bush may not be devastated. Frustrated, rather, by new limitations to his power or harm to his image. Or self-satisfied, at having achieved power in the first place. Or vengeful, and distracted by petty slights. Or simply able to live with confusion, to tread water, to continue to find reasons to pat himself on the back. I don't doubt his intelligence, but it's possible to be, say, adept or cunning without being insightful.

    I suppose that I'm speaking out of fear and anger as much as anything. My concern is precisely that Bush is not undone by the current state of the nation and that he's not going to prove thoughtful in the service of seeking change. Then again, a contrasting possibility - that Bush is more self-aware than I imagine, and more panicked and overwhelmed -might be more humanly attractive but no more reassuring.

Alan Brinkley, Allan Nevins Professor of History, Columbia University -

    Despite the tepid signs of conciliation in the State of the Union, what is striking about Bush today is how little impact his problems appear to have had on him. To all appearances, he seems still to believe that he is a great world leader engaged in the historic task of leading a reluctant nation into a necessary new relationship with the world. ("I must tell you," he said in a recent press conference, "I'm sleeping a lot better than people would assume.") In some perverse way, it appears, the very fact of his unpopularity is evidence to him of his own strength. Other presidents have demonstrated a similar rigidity. Andrew Jackson was famously stubborn and ran tremendous political (and financial) risks in taking on powerful opponents like the National Bank. Woodrow Wilson refused to compromise with his adversaries on the League of Nations. Ronald Reagan could not bring himself to acknowledge error or responsibility in the aftermath of Iran/contra. But none of these examples is really comparable to Bush's current situation. Jackson took on the bank from a position of enormous political strength and, for better or worse, won. Wilson dug in his heels on the League only after suffering a debilitating stroke. Reagan was, many believe, already impaired by the time of Iran/contra and apparently unable to understand the controversies swirling around him. Bush, by contrast, is relatively young, in apparently good health, and surrounded by capable people sympathetic to him - among them his own father - who are willing and able to help him rescue his presidency from its present self-defeating course. He has a modest prepresidential reputation of having the ability to work effectively across party and ideological lines. But as those who believe that he is following a wise course shrink to an almost insignificant remnant, as the very architects of the policies he now defends repudiate their own work, as the political cost of his current path becomes increasingly apparent to almost any sentient person, Bush—who may still have time to redeem at least some part of his legacy - still appears to be oblivious both to the downward spiral of his presidency and to his own likely place in history.

Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Lincoln's Melancholy -

    Bush is rather the opposite of Lemony Snicket. He never anticipates an unfortunate event. And about those that come to pass, he makes not a peep. No matter the external reality, Bush maintains a confident - even aggressive - stance.

    This isn't merely an attitude; it's a fixed belief that confidence is right and skepticism wrong. In this sense, he is the apotheosis of an ideology that afflicts the culture at large - that an optimist is a good person. He is the optimist-in-chief. But another phrase applies in his case: "pathological optimism." Refusing to engage reality only works as long as reality is kept at bay.

    Lincoln showed another path. His insistence on grappling with the worst conceivable scenarios - and candidly assessing errors - was crucial to his strength, not least because it drew his allies closer to him at times of trial. Perhaps Bush's presidency faces a crisis not just because times are hard but also because he won't see the hard times for what they are.

Ted Sorensen, speechwriter for President Kennedy -

    I have enough sympathy for anybody in that position that I wouldn't say he's mentally deranged: I feel sorry for him. I think he must know that he's going to go down in history as the most incompetent president since Buchanan. He came to the White House knowing nothing about national and international policy and consequently relied on Washington veterans - who proved to be incompetent ideologues who got him, and the country, into very deep trouble. Now he's in a hole, and I'm sure he doesn't know what to do and has that hopeless, helpless feeling.

Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression -

    Bush, like his mother, has an almost inhuman ability to identify his own advantage without the slightest regard to its cost to others. One reads in Lincoln's diaries of how his heart bled for every soldier who died in the war he felt obliged to wage; one reads in Bush's face and in his speeches an inability to conceive of other people as fully human, including the soldiers who die at his behest, a quality that renders him less than fully human himself. This heartlessness, unlike his achievement of the presidency, is the very hallmark of decadent aristocracy. It is worth noting, however, that most aristocracy is not so far decayed; the queen of England, despite her less cuddly manner, is clearly more compassionate than W. But in the great popularity contest of electoral politics, he has been a winner, and in his mind he is one still. With a few nods to the disagreeable fact of the Democratic Congress, he continued, in the State of the Union, to declare the truth rather than to reflect it, narcissistically unable to grasp that he is not the world.

Susan Andersen, professor of psychology, NYU -

    As haunting as events in Iraq have been, debate in the White House remains in perpetual lockdown. This may in fact mirror what goes on inside the president's mind. This same lockdown may exert a chokehold on inconsistent thought, complexity, and contradiction, sequestering such things away in quarantine to enable an unsullied inner confidence and a fixed worldview impervious to external facts. When people are under threat, they tend to hold ever more tightly to their pre-existing beliefs. Self-esteem can be inflated as well, leaving one emboldened against criticism. This pattern is all the more profound among people who show signs of "narcissistic personality." These individuals are especially reactive to dips in adoration and yet they regularly fail to take others into account. They are prone to manipulative, domineering behavior, even though they can also be smooth and alluring. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that Bush has these tendencies. He shows signs of an "authoritarian personality" as well, which involves a special vulnerability to stature and power, to demonstrations of force, and also a profound personal need for power, order, and control. This helps account for how deeply enthralled he apparently is by the powerful and elusive vice-president.

That's just a taste of many such views.  Go see.

Of course, the opposite view, and widely quoted, is this -

    It must be very strange to be President Bush. A man of extraordinary vision and brilliance approaching to genius, he can't get anyone to notice. He is like a great painter or musician who is ahead of his time, and who unveils one masterpiece after another to a reception that, when not bored, is hostile.

That's from 2005, and this from 27 January 2007 -

    The president's approval ratings are at their lowest point in the poll's history - 30 percent - and more than half the country (58 percent) say they wish the Bush presidency were simply over, a sentiment that is almost unanimous among Democrats (86 percent), and is shared by a clear majority (59 percent) of independents and even one in five (21 percent) Republicans.

Things have indeed moved from bored to hostile.  And it is polls like this one from Newsweek that only set him off.

So we may not know exactly who it is we just fought in Najaf, but we are definitely escalating both wars, and just begging Iran to give us a reason to start a third - so the Amish can rule the world as Colbert would have it.  And there is something pathological about it.

Digby at Hullabaloo thinks it's really not the president alone - it's also the real man in charge -

    I would suggest that it is the greatest strategic disaster in our history because it wasn't really a strategy at all. It was a simple-minded reading of a complicated problem based upon some psychological need among a handful of powerful men. And Vice President Cheney is clearly still very powerful. He is out there making a spectacle of himself with this talk and nobody can stop him even though it's terribly counter-productive to the current legislative and foreign policy challenges and the president's standing with the nation at large. He is a dangerous and somewhat deranged man. But the problem is that the man at whose pleasure he serves is just as deluded as he is.

    It is this kind of thing that makes me believe that they will provoke a war with Iran. It is their strategy to prove that the US is the biggest toughest bastard on the planet. Iraq isn't getting that job done. Maybe doubling down will.

Ah well - two more years.  We may live through it. But we may not.

This item posted - in its final version - February 4, 2007

[Room at the Top]

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