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February 15, 2004 - Plato's Cave, the Titanic in the Caribbean?

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What was that Bush interview last weekend really about?

  • He doesn't know what his own people are doing?
  • He's a Platonist in a world of Aristotelians?
  • He believes in Divine Right and God told him what to do?

Take your pick. 



In the last issue of Just Above Sunset I posted an item on our leader, George Bush - February 8, 2004 - Is our leader dumb as a post, a liar, or mad as a hatter? - and now that he's done the interview with Tim Russert on "Meet the Press" people are weighing in on the matter. 

Take Fred Kaplan in Slate for example. 

See Bush at Sea: Does this war president have any idea what he's talking about?  
Posted Monday, Feb. 9, 2004, at 1:54 PM PT, SLATE.COM

Kaplan opens with this:


Going over the transcript of Tim Russert's interview with President Bush, a disturbing question comes to mind: Is the president telling lies and playing with semantics, or is he unaware of what's going on - including inside his own administration? 


Good question. 

Kaplan reviews the Kay Report and the weapons of mass destruction that weren't there, and according to David Kay, weren't ever there - at least for almost the last decade.  Kaplan suggests this might have given George Bush pause when considering the reasonableness of our new doctrine of preventative/preemptive war. 

Nope.  Bush said Saddam Hussein wished he could have such weapons, so we had to take him out.  Since last week this has been our new explanation for the war. 

Kaplan's problem? 


First, President Bush seems to be vastly enlarging his doctrine of pre-emptive warfare.  This doctrine originally declared that the United States has the right to attack a hostile power that possesses weapons of mass destruction.  The idea was that we must sometimes strike first, in order to prevent the other side from striking us. 

Now, however, the president is asserting a right to strike first not merely if a hostile power has deadly weapons or even if it is building such weapons, but also if it might build such weapons sometime in the future. 

The original doctrine, though controversial, at least stemmed from the logic of self-defense.  Bush's expansion of the doctrine, as implied in his remarks to Tim Russert, does not. 

If no commentators have noted, or perhaps even noticed, this new spin on American military policy, it may be because they don't take Bush's unscripted remarks seriously.  (It's just Bush, talking off the top of his head.  No sense parsing the implications.) That in itself is quite a commentary on this president.  But it's not clear that these particular remarks were unscripted.  Bush used the same phrase - "a capacity to make a weapon" - three times; it was almost certainly a part of his brief.  Either the statement means something - that we now reserve the right to wage pre-emptive war on a hostile power that has the mere capacity to make weapons of mass destruction - or it's empty blather.  It's unclear which would be more unsettling. 


Oh heck, either way, we're in trouble.  Its either nonsense or... nonsense. 

Kaplan too is troubled by the discussion of a previous war. 


Also worthy of note were Bush's comments on the war in Vietnam.  Russert asked him whether he supported that war.  Bush replied that he did, sort of.  The president added: "The thing about the Vietnam War that troubles me, as I look back, was it was a political war.  We had politicians making military decisions, and it is a lesson that any president must learn, and that is to set the goal and the objective and allow the military to come up with the plans to achieve that objective."

... While Bush himself may not have done much micromanaging of the war, his defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, not only helped pick targets, but rearranged the structure of the units sent into battle.  In preparing for Iraq, he ordered the removal of several heavy-artillery battalions from Army divisions.  In the weeks leading up to the invasion of Afghanistan, he rejected several war plans submitted by Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of U. S.  Central Command, until the general devised an unprecedented combination of troops and special operations commandos that conformed to Rumsfeld's concept of "military transformation" and smaller, lighter forces.  

... But the point here is that if civilian interference is "the thing about the Vietnam War that troubles" George W. Bush, why wasn't he troubled about the way his own wars were planned and fought, for better and for worse?  Or has he ever really been troubled about the Vietnam War, back then or now?  And was he aware of the intense internecine fighting between Rumsfeld and the Army over the war plans for Iraq?  The main message that President Bush tried to send during his session with Russert was that he is a leader in command.  "I'm a war president," he said at the start.  "I make decisions here in the Oval Office on foreign policy matters with war on my mind."  But in some of his remarks that followed, the president cast doubt on how much he's even in the loop.


Fred, Fred... assume he isn't. 

The previous evening William Saletan brought up a more basic issue. 

See You Can Make It With Plato: Bush's difficult relationship with reality
Posted Sunday, Feb. 8, 2004, at 2:19 PM PT, SLATE.COM

Here we get a lengthy lesson in the Platonic versus Aristotelian view of what is real.  Honest!  We do.  And how this then applies to the behaviors of our leader is explained.  You see, Bush said he was only being realistic about the real dangers in the world. 


Realistic.  Dangers that exist.  The world the way it is.  These are strange words to hear from a president whose prewar descriptions of Iraqi weapons programs are so starkly at odds with the postwar findings of his own inspectors.  A week ago, David Kay, the man picked by Bush to supervise the inspections, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that his team had found almost none of the threats Bush had advertised.  No chemical and biological weapons stockpiles.  No evidence of a renewed nuclear weapons program.  No evidence of illicit weapons delivered to terrorists.  "We were all wrong," said Kay.  

... Again and again on the Meet the Press, Tim Russert asked Bush to explain the discrepancies.  Again and again, Bush replied that such questions had to be viewed in the "context" of a larger reality: I see the world as it is.  Threats exist.  We must be realistic. 

This big-picture notion of reality, existence, and the world as it is dates back 2,400 years to the Greek philosopher Plato.  Plato believed that what's real isn't the things you can touch and see: your computer, your desk, those empty barrels in Iraq that Bush thought were full of chemical weapons.  What's real is the general idea of these things. 


Ah, Bush the Platonic Idealist.  That explains it! 


In Bush's Platonic reality, the world is dangerous, threats exist, and the evidence of our senses must be interpreted to fit that larger truth.  On the night he launched the war, for example, Bush told the nation, "Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised."  Russert asked Bush whether, in retrospect, that statement was false.  Bush replied, "I made a decision based upon that intelligence in the context of the war against terror."  In other words, we were attacked, and therefore every threat had to be reanalyzed.  Every threat had to be looked at.  Every potential harm to America had to be judged in the context of this war on terror.

You can hear the gears turning in Bush's mind.  

... The more you study Bush's responses to unpleasant facts, the clearer this pattern becomes.  A year and a half ago, the unpleasant facts had to do with his sale of stock in Harken Energy, a company on whose board of directors he served, shortly before the company disclosed that its books were far worse than publicly advertised.  Bush dismissed all queries by noting that the Securities and Exchange Commission had declined to prosecute him.  "All these questions that you're asking were looked into by the SEC," Bush shrugged.  That conclusion was his measure of reality.  As to the different version of reality suggested by the evidence, Bush scoffed with metaphysical certainty, "There's no 'there' there."


Well, you could count the coffins of our sons and daughters. 

Be that as it may, this dive into the history of philosophy ends with this:


Why did Americans elect a president who thinks this way?  Because they wanted a leader different from Bill Clinton.  They liked some things about Clinton, but they were sick of his dishonesty in the Monica Lewinsky affair and his constant shifting in the political winds.  Bush promised that he would say what he believed and stick to it. 

On Iraq, Bush fulfilled both promises.  "What I do want to share with you is my sentiment at the time," he told Russert.  "There was no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was a danger to America. " Note Bush's emphasis on his subjective reality: "my sentiment," "no doubt in my mind."  When Russert asked Bush about his unpopularity abroad, Bush answered, "I'm not going to change, see?  I'm not trying to accommodate.  I won't change my philosophy or my point of view.  I believe I owe it to the American people to say what I'm going to do and do it, and to speak as clearly as I can, try to articulate as best I can why I make decisions I make.  But I'm not going to change because of polls.  That's just not my nature."

No, it isn't.  Bush isn't Clinton.  He doesn't change his mind for anything, whether it's polls or facts.  And he always tells the truth about what's in his mind, whether or not what's in his mind corresponds to what's in the visible world. 

What are the consequences of such a Platonic presidency? 


And I don't know the answer to that question. 

Yes, Bush accomplished exactly what he set out to do in this interview: He showed you how his mind works.  But as this guy sums up: "Republicans used to observe derisively that Clinton had a difficult relationship with the truth.  Bush has a difficult relationship with the truth, too.  It's just a different - and perhaps more grave - kind of difficulty."


Not to be unbalanced to the left, one might note what those on the right thought of the interview.  Kevin Drum kept on eye on the website of The National Review, William F. Buckley's flagship publication.  And here's what he found. 


Michael Graham: President Bush looks like he's afraid of Tim Russert.  He's stammering and unsteady.  For the first time, I've felt a twinge of fear myself about the November election. 

Kathryn Jean Lopez: Not to pile on here, but I think lots of eyebrows legitimately raise re: the March 2005 commission deadline.  Im not sure he sufficiently answered that...

Kathryn Jean Lopez: A pundit-type just said to me: "If he loses this year, this will be the day he lost it."

Rod Dreher: I'm afraid I have to side with Michael on the Bush interview.  I kept wincing as the president bobbled his answers.... He had better get his act together.

John Derbyshire: Just got through watching the President on Meet the Press.  I thought it was a pretty dismal performance.  I'll be voting for GWB in November, but let's face it, the Great Communicator he ain't.  The tongue-tied blather was coming thick and fast.  At times, he looked like Al Sharpton on the Federal Reserve. 

Rod Dreher: ...  I can't believe that fiscal conservatives were relieved by the president's patently dishonest answer when Russert brought up the spending issue.  Russert said to Bush that even conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh are criticizing his spending.  The president countered by saying that in times of war, every government spends more money, for the sake of the troops.  Which is true, but evades the point of the Right's critique of this administration's fiscal irresponsibility.  Nobody in Bush's base is complaining about military spending.  It's all the other spending that's got our knickers in a knot.  Bush had nothing to say about that. 


Oh my! 

And over at The Wall Street Journal the woman who worships the man, Peggy Noonan, said the whole thing was pretty dismal.  Ouch! 

Well, a lot of the talk about the budget upset the conservative folks, like Andrew Sullivan:


I'm not one of those who believes that a good president has to have the debating skills of a Tony Blair or the rhetorical facility of Bill Clinton.  I cannot help liking the president as a person.  I still believe he did a great and important thing in liberating Iraq (although we have much, much more to do).  But, if this is the level of coherence, grasp of reality, and honesty that is really at work in his understanding of domestic fiscal policy, then we are in even worse trouble than we thought.  We have a captain on the fiscal Titanic who thinks he's in the Caribbean. 


Ouch again! 

Oh well. 


And yes, Bush said he wasnt really AWOL from the National Guard for a year back in the early seventies.  He served his country proudly.  The issues have been reviewed in these pages.  See February 1, 2004: Bush - Not a deserter, maybe just AWOL, if it matters... and stomp around to the net any day.

But it seems everyone on the web this week is quoting Secretary of State Colin Powell in his autobiography, My American Journey -


I am angry that so many of the sons of the powerful and well-placed...  managed to wangle slots in Reserve and National Guard units ...  Of the many tragedies of Vietnam, this raw class discrimination strikes me as the most damaging to the ideal that all Americans are created equal and owe equal allegiance to their country.


Powell should have never written THAT! 

All in all?  I suspect the tide is turning against Bush. 

Oh heck, everyone sees it now. 




Getting to the heart of matters... some recommended reading...


Steve Erickson has written about politics for The New York Times ("The End of Cynicism," 1992), the Los Angeles Times Magazine ("American Weimar," 1995) and Rolling Stone ("A Nation of Nomads," 1995), as well as two books about American politics and culture.  As an editor at the L.A. Weekly from 1989 until 1993, he covered such stories as Bill Clinton's first inauguration ("The Last-Chance President," January 1993).  He's the author of seven novels, including the forthcoming Our Ecstatic Days from Simon and Schuster, and is also the film critic for Los Angeles magazine and the editor of Black Clock, a literary journal published by CalArts - out north in Valencia, where he teaches writing. 

This week he has a column in L.A. Weekly that's pretty long, but worth the time.  It goes to the core of what has happened here.  It's about doubt and certainty, and who we choose to lead us. 

See George Bush and the Treacherous Country

This will whet your appetite:


Whether it's Christian or Islamic, an uncompromising religious vision can't recognize the legitimacy of democracy without betraying itself.  Democracy insists on a pluralism that entertains the possibility that one's religious beliefs might be wrong and another's might be right, and that all religious beliefs may be varying degrees of wrong or right - what traditionalists despise as "relativism."  Almost by definition, democracy is at least a little bit blasphemous.  It's a breach of rigorous spiritual discipline, and its mechanisms are among the human works of the modern age, which itself is viewed by fundamentalism as an abomination.  Doubt is a critical component of both democracy and its leadership.  In the eyes of democracy, doubt is not just moral but necessary; the psychology of democracy must allow for doubt about the rightness of any given political position, because otherwise the position can never be questioned.  The Bill of Rights and the First Amendment in particular are monuments to the right to doubt, and to the right of one person to doubt the rightness of 200 million.  In contrast, the psychology of theocracy not only denies doubt but views it as a cancer on the congregation, prideful temerity in the face of divine righteousness as it's communicated by God to the leaders of the state. 

Nothing about Bush or his presidency makes sense without taking into account the theocratic psyche.  Only once you consider the possibility that his administration means to "repeal the Enlightenment," in the words of Greil Marcus, do Bush's presidency and his conception of power, their ends and their means, become comprehensible.  Doubt is personally abhorrent to Bush; otherwise he couldnt have assumed the presidency in the manner he did, with decisions and policies that from the first dismissed out of hand the controversy that surrounded his very election.  This isn't to suggest that his presidency is invalid, or to dispute the constitutional and legal process that produced it.  It is to try and explain how on the second day of his presidency - in what was his first major act as president - in such draconian fashion he could cut off money to any federally funded family-planning clinic that merely advised women that the option of abortion exists.  This was more than just a message to the president's evangelical constituency that he was undeterred by what happened in Florida in November and December 2000.  It was more than just a message to the rest of the country of the president's contempt for it (which in part accounts for so many people's intensity of feeling about him).  It was, from the second day of the Bush presidency, a frontal assault on doubt. 


And that's just part of it. 

Here he is on the business with outing a CIA agent to get revenge - and on the war in general:


To secularists, including those who believe in God and attend church or synagogue or mosque on a more or less regular basis, the revelation of a CIA operatives identity by someone in the government as a form of political retribution seems beyond the pale, particularly in an era of terror.  It's a deliberate violation of national security for partisan purposes.  But in the theocratic view of power, national security and political self-interest are inseparable when both are factors in a presidential power that's in the service of Divine Will.  From the vantage point of the theocratic psyche, a divinely interpreted national interest overwhelms narrow ideas of security as held by secularists whose insight lacks a divine scope.  The theocratic rationale for the Iraq war and the United States' subsequent presence in Iraq exists far above petty secular anxieties about justifying either.  If the president could barely conceal his impatience on last Sunday's Meet the Press with distinctions between Iraq actually having weapons or having the capacity to make weapons, between imminent threats or threats that might become imminent, it's because such distinctions couldn't be more beside the point.  It was never a matter of reasons justifying the war.  Rather, the war justifies the reasoning.  Some might suggest that the president's case for the war was made in bad faith, but there is no "bad" in the president's perception of faith, there's only true faith that sometimes is confronted with hard tests posed by divine destiny, the hardest of which is whether the president can work his will on God's behalf, however it must be done.  That Iraq had nothing to do with those who attacked America almost two and a half years ago is only a distracting detour in moral reasoning, fine print for those whom God hasn't called. 


Now go read it all.