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"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"

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Wednesday, 12 April 2006
The New Master Narrative: The Hits Keep Coming
Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist

The New Master Narrative: The Hits Keep Coming

As anyone who follows sports knows, there's something self-reinforcing in a losing streak, or in the baseball subset, a batting slump. First one thing goes wrong, then another, and you try changing things, or you try to get back to what was going right before, but you don't exactly know what it was. Things once just felt right, but now everything you do is over-compensation. Everything just feels wrong. Some say it's like being caught in quicksand (as it's popularly depicted) - the harder you struggle to get free the deeper you sink, and you die. And in sports it seems your luck runs out. You get bad calls from the referee, umpire or line judge. Before you shrugged them off. Now they really hurt, and make things even worse.

This happens in politics too. The Democrats have been on a losing streak since the Supreme Court stopped the recount of the Florida votes in January 2000 and decided the best thing for the country, really, was to rule that George Bush should be the new president, not Al Gore. Since then the Democrats can't win for losing, as they say. Push back on policies or specific decisions and people think you're somewhere between stupidly obstructionist and out of touch, or more malevolently, you hate America and want us to "lose" the big struggle of the moment. Decide to agree with anything and you're seen as lacking in principle, or at least original thought - thus the Republican Party endless saying they are the "party of ideas," even if the ideas are recycled simple-minded catch phrases from the Reagan years or economic supply-side theory from decades ago that just does work, like the famous Laffer Curve (cut taxes and government revenue will grow). And the other side reinforces it all, building a sort of "loser" narrative that is, in itself, self-reinforcing. All mistakes, even the small ones, are magnified. Internal disagreement is lack of principle. Enthusiasm is pathological behavior, as with Howard Dean's famous "scream" that proved he was so bat-shit crazy he should never hold any office, not even dogcatcher. What you get right is an accident. You said the war was a really, really bad idea? Lucky guess. And so on and so forth.

But narratives change, and batting slumps end. And suddenly Reggie Jackson can't hit the curve, or gets struck out on three screaming fastballs, right over the plate, from an impossibly young rookie pitcher in a key game (some of us saw that happen out here on Los Angeles many years ago). But what changes?

For the Bush administration, with its dismal polling and the word "incompetent" floating around, the narrative changed in September of 2005, with the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. That didn't go well. Michael Brown was shamed out of his post running FEMA, then all the talk about "no one thought the levees would fail" was exposed as not quite so, and Brown turned out to actually have done his best. There was a lot of talk about a wondrous rebuilding program for New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, but there's nothing much happening. And then the "incompetent" narrative started to snowball. It was self-reinforcing. Just what was that business about privatizing Social Security? And if the economy is doing so fine, why are wages flat or falling? What was that business about that Harriet woman nominated to the Supreme Court, that odd little woman, massively unqualified but a personal friend? And you think the folks from the United Arab Emirates would be fine running operations at our major ports?

And then, to support the new narrative, in the same manner the media and commentators had "investigated" the "loser" Democrats, they turned to "proving" the new narrative is a pretty nifty way to explain things - "It's true, it's true, it's really true!" Of course the news and opinion media, commercial enterprises, sustain themselves, and prosper if they can, by providing documentation of what people believe is so. The idea is to sense what the narrative is and give people what they want. That's the business model.

So what no one wanted to know about before became what people wanted to see, and they got it, with looks back on the war that seems to have actually been a major bone-headed idea. So now it's safe to look back - no one will be miffed at things like the Downing Street memos being discussed, or examining the CIA leak story, including the delicious detail of the president and vice president secretly declassifying carefully selected data and having one of their guys provide it on the sly to their plant at the New York Times. Now over sixty percent of Americans think that was either illegal or unethical. The narrative changed. And that certainly makes all this talk of nuking Iran so they don't spend the next eight or ten years building "the bomb" harder to make sound reasonable. Before the narrative changed people would have said, well, that would be bad thing, but the "grownups" in the White House knows what's best.

Those days are gone. And gone are the days when the American public stoically accepted this war in Iraq would cost a lot of lives and that ten thousand would return badly maimed, because it was worth it. The WMD thing was a bummer, and the administration (all but Cheney) admitted Iraq had nothing much to do with 9/11, and it would have been nice to have killed or at least captured that Osama fellow, and we do seem to be creating a hundred new terrorists for every one we kill over there, but, because the previous narrative was strong, the core of supporters hung on. We were doing some good. The "if we make them create a democracy in that particular place at this particular time the world will be better and safer" was sort of working. But those elected in Iraq cannot seem to form a government and they seem to have a civil war going on now. Not good, and when the narrative changes, words like "we're making progress" and "they will build a secular unity government, just wait" just don't work. The push-back from the administration and those who don't sense the new narrative - that the media is purposefully only reporting the bad news and all that - is met with anger from the press and scorn from most of the public.

Now you can think of that as people "finally waking up" and the truth prevailing, but it's more like a shift in the prevailing and accepted narrative. Not so long ago "the truth" was something quite different. On the other hand, the previous narrative required a lot of self-deception - one had to ignore a lot of unpleasant information and cling to "larger truths" and some pretty odd ideas, like democracies are inherently peaceful, and "they hate us for our freedoms" not our policies, not to mention minor odd ideas, like we'll be greeted as liberators, the war and reconstruction will pay for itself, we'll be out of there in six months and our buddy, Ahmed Chalabi, will run the joint just fine. Narratives aligned with reality work better. Idealism is fine, of course, but has only vague connections to the real world. That's how it got its name.

So we're in the new narrative, the one that centers on "incompetence" and deception - sometime lies and sometimes just blindness.

The addition to the new narrative, on Wednesday, April 12th, the talk of the day, was this item on the front page of the Washington Post - Joby Warrick reporting that a team of private-sector scientists hired by the Pentagon in 2003 to inspect Iraqi trailers suspected of being mobile weapons labs came up empty. They weren't any such things. The Pentagon guys said they were pretty much "sand toilets." They sent their report in. Two days later the president said we'd found the weapons of mass destruction. It was these trailers. The administration kept saying that for months.

They didn't read the report? They read the report and decided it was something inconvenient they shouldn't mention, as that would make them look incompetent? They decided to lie to the American people? Or in good faith they decided the report could be wrong and later evidence would surely show these really were what they said they were (optimism and idealism mixed)? They ignored the report they commissioned because they believed this just couldn't be so (self-delusion)?

Who knows? But the story fits the new narrative, so it was page one.

Those stuck in the old narrative said things like this - "The Pentagon didn't send one team of experts to review the trailers; they sent three, presumably to get a diverse analysis of the evidence, especially since the pre-war intel on WMD had come up remarkably short. That sounds like a prudent strategy to me, having competing teams research the same equipment and evidence to develop independent analyses to present to the Pentagon. They did so, and two of the three teams provided conclusions that fit the pre-war intel, while one did not."

The reply was this - "Nice try, but cutesy advertising jingles to the contrary, this episode fits the usual MO of the Bush administration perfectly: a flat statement of fact about intelligence matters that's made with great fanfare even though they know there's significant dissent within the intelligence community. ... So: Intent to deceive? Check. Unreasonable decision? Check. Deliberate lie? Check."

That's the new narrative. It's hard to see how it will change back.

There's more here.

The Slow-Motion Trap
His presidency was built on secrecy and, we now know, on lies. The more Bush struggles to free himself, the more his past deceptions bind him.
Sidney Blumenthal, SALON.COM, Thursday, April 16, 2006

This is long and detailed, and about the whole CIA leak scandal, but it comes down to this -
Bush is entangled in his own past. His explanations compound his troubles and point to the original falsehoods. Through his first term, Bush was able to escape by blaming the Democrats, casting aspersions on the motives of his critics and changing the subject. But his methods have become self-defeating. When he utters the word "truth" now most of the public is mistrustful. His accumulated history overshadows what he might say.

The collapse of trust was cemented into his presidency from the start. A compulsion for secrecy undergirds the Bush White House. Power, as Bush and Cheney see it, thrives by excluding diverse points of view. Bush's presidency operates on the notion that the fewer the questions, the better the decision. The State Department has been treated like a foreign country; the closest associates of the elder President Bush, Brent Scowcroft and James Baker, have been excluded; the career professional staff have been bullied and quashed; the Republican-dominated Congress has abdicated oversight; and influential elements of the press have been complicit.

Inside the administration, the breakdown of the national security process has produced a vacuum filled by dogmatic fixations that become more rigid as reality increasingly fails to cooperate. But the conceit that executive fiat can substitute for fact has not sustained the illusion of omnipotence.

The precipitating event of the investigation of the Bush White House - Wilson's disclosure about his Niger mission - was an effort by a lifelong Foreign Service officer to set the record straight and force a debate on the reasons for going to war. Wilson stood for the public discussion that had been suppressed. The Bush White House's "concerted action" against him therefore involved an attempt to poison the wellsprings of democracy.
That's putting the new narrative pretty bluntly, and it adds the element of "reality increasingly failing to cooperate" with the story line.

So who is having the losing streak now?

But wait! There's more!

Fred Kaplan offers this -
It's an odd thought, but a military coup in this country right now would probably have a moderating influence. Not that an actual coup is pending; still less is one desirable. But we are witnessing the rumblings of an officers' revolt, and things could get ugly if it were to take hold and roar.

The revolt is a reluctant one, aimed specifically at the personage of Donald Rumsfeld and the way he is conducting the war in Iraq.

It is startling to hear, in private conversations, how widely and deeply the U.S. officer corps despises this secretary of defense. The joke in some Pentagon circles is that if Rumsfeld were meeting with the service chiefs and commanders and a group of terrorists barged into the room and kidnapped him, not a single general would lift a finger to help him.

Some of the most respected retired generals are publicly criticizing Rumsfeld and his policies in a manner that's nearly unprecedented in the United States, where civilian control of the military is accepted as a hallowed principle.
Well, there are three big guns so far.

The first is General Anthony Zinni who last month called for Rumsfeld to resign, and he's been on all the talks shows chatting up his new book, The Battle for Peace. You can catch him on video here, on Meet the Press saying this -
I saw the - what this town is known for, spin, cherry-picking facts, using metaphors to evoke certain emotional responses or shading the context. We know the mushroom clouds and the other things that were all described that the media has covered well. I saw on the ground a sort of walking away from 10 years' worth of planning. You know, ever since the end of the first Gulf War, there's been planning by serious officers and planners and others, and policies put in place - 10 years' worth of planning were thrown away. Troop levels dismissed out of hand. Gen. Shinseki basically insulted for speaking the truth and giving an honest opinion.

The lack of cohesive approach to how we deal with the aftermath, the political, economic, social reconstruction of a nation, which is no small task. A belief in these exiles that anyone in the region, anyone that had any knowledge, would tell you were not credible on the ground. And on and on and on, decisions to disband the army that were not in the initial plans. There's a series of disastrous mistakes. We just heard the Secretary of State say these were tactical mistakes. These were not tactical mistakes. These were strategic mistakes, mistakes of policies made back here. Don't blame the troops. They've been magnificent. If anything saves us, it will be them.
So who's he? He's the Marine general whose last job was heading up Central Command, running military operations in the Persian Gulf and South Asia.

A second was Army Major General Paul Eaton, letting fly in the New York Times with this, calling Rumsfeld "incompetent strategically, operationally and tactically," and a man who "has put the Pentagon at the mercy of his ego, his Cold Warrior's view of the world, and his unrealistic confidence in technology to replace manpower." Eaton ran the program to train the Iraqi military.

Then there is Lieutenant General Greg Newbold, the former operations director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in Time Magazine here.

Kaplan summarizes Newbold saying he -
... not only slams the secretary and what he calls "the unnecessary war" but also urges active-duty officers who share his views to speak up. Newbold resigned his position in late 2002 - quite a gesture, since he was widely regarded as a candidate for the next Marine Corps commandant. His fellow officers knew he resigned over the coming war in Iraq. The public and the president did not. He writes in Time: I now regret that I did not more openly challenge those who were determined to invade a country whose actions were peripheral to the real threat - al Qaeda. ... [T]he Pentagon's military leaders ... with few exceptions, acted timidly when their voices urgently needed to be heard. When they knew the plan was flawed, saw intelligence distorted to justify a rationale for war, or witnessed arrogant micromanagement that at times crippled the military's effectiveness, many leaders who wore the uniform chose inaction. ... It is time for senior military leaders to discard caution in expressing their views and ensure that the President hears them clearly. And that we won't be fooled again.

Newbold isn't urging active-duty senior officers to go public, just to speak out directly to the president (whose handlers famously filter the bad news from official reports before they hit the Oval Office). Still, in a climate where the secretary of defense hammers three-star generals for daring to suggest that our troops in Iraq are fighting "insurgents" and not just "terrorists," Newbold's invocation reads like a revolutionary manifesto. Generals of the Pentagon, unite! You have nothing to lose but your stars!

If Rumsfeld is in less danger than these calls for his head might suggest, it's in part because not many generals want to lose those stars - and quite a lot of colonels would like to earn some. (Remember: Zinni, Eaton, and Newbold are retired generals; they have no more promotions to risk.)
Maybe so, but they're moving the new narrative along.

And Kaplan was writing before the fourth retired general weighed in, and the Post carried that on page one, Thursday, April 13, with this -
The retired commander of key forces in Iraq called yesterday for Donald H. Rumsfeld to step down, joining several other former top military commanders who have harshly criticized the defense secretary's authoritarian style for making the military's job more difficult.

"I think we need a fresh start" at the top of the Pentagon, retired Army Maj. Gen. John Batiste, who commanded the 1st Infantry Division in Iraq in 2004-2005, said in an interview. "We need leadership up there that respects the military as they expect the military to respect them. And that leadership needs to understand teamwork."

Batiste noted that many of his peers feel the same way. "It speaks volumes that guys like me are speaking out from retirement about the leadership climate in the Department of Defense," he said earlier yesterday on CNN.

Batiste's comments resonate especially within the Army: It is widely known there that he was offered a promotion to three-star rank to return to Iraq and be the No. 2 U.S. military officer there but he declined because he no longer wished to serve under Rumsfeld. Also, before going to Iraq, he worked at the highest level of the Pentagon, serving as the senior military assistant to Paul D. Wolfowitz, then the deputy secretary of defense.

Batiste said he believes that the administration's handling of the Iraq war has violated fundamental military principles, such as unity of command and unity of effort. In other interviews, Batiste has said he thinks the violation of another military principle - ensuring there are enough forces - helped create the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal by putting too much responsibility on incompetent officers and undertrained troops.

... Other retired generals said they think it is unlikely that the denunciations of Rumsfeld and his aides will cease.

"A lot of them are hugely frustrated," in part because Rumsfeld gave the impression that "military advice was neither required nor desired" in the planning for the Iraq war, said retired Lt. Gen. Wallace Gregson, who until last year commanded Marine forces in the Pacific Theater. He said he is sensing much anger among Americans over the administration's handling of the war and thinks the continuing criticism from military professionals will fuel that anger as the November elections approach. He declined to discuss his own views.

Another retired officer, Army Maj. Gen. John Riggs, said he believes that his peer group is "a pretty closemouthed bunch" but that, even so, his sense is "everyone pretty much thinks Rumsfeld and the bunch around him should be cleared out."

He emphatically agrees, Riggs said, explaining that he believes Rumsfeld and his advisers have "made fools of themselves, and totally underestimated what would be needed for a sustained conflict."
The narrative sure has changed, and freed up a lot of people. They're saying off things, and with Batiste there goes Big Red - "No Mission Too Difficult, No Sacrifice Too Great - Duty First."

This is a losing streak with no possible recovery. If Bush fired Rumsfeld? That would just make things worse, confirming a key person you lauded was, well, incompetent. So you keep him and let him prove it further?

It's the trap of the self-reinforcing losing streak. What to do? Cut taxes again? Nuke Iran? Say everyone is wrong about everything?

What was that about quicksand?

Posted by Alan at 23:35 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 13 April 2006 06:22 PDT home

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