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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)

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Wednesday, 26 April 2006
The conceptual flaw in the
Topic: Political Theory

The conceptual flaw in the 'intimidation model' for getting what you want...

In these pages last November, around the time the president gave his Veterans Day speech and John Murtha, the previously hawkish congressman from Pennsylvania, caused a firestorm by suggesting we ought to get at least our troops out of Iraq and do this Iraq thing a different way, in Things Coming to a Head there was a reference to the third volume of the C. S. Lewis "Perelandra" trilogy, That Hideous Strength (1945), where one of the characters says this -
If you dip into any college, or school, or parish, or family - anything you like - at a given point in its history, you always find that there was a time before that point when there was more elbow room and contrasts weren't quite so sharp; and that there's going to be a time after that point when there is even less room for indecision and choices are even more momentous. Good is always getting better and bad is always getting worse: the possibilities of even apparent neutrality are always diminishing. The whole thing is sorting itself out all the time, coming to a point, getting sharper and harder.
Back then, Thursday, November 17, 2005, seemed like a day full of "the possibilities of even apparent neutrality" diminishing really fast. (Oh yes, as before, you can learn about the CS Lewis book here, if you're into theological science fiction.)

But Lewis was right - elbow room disappearing is a continuous process as things get "sharper and harder" day by day, month after month, and in America today too, as if the current administration wants it to be so, in some kind of "final showdown" way. Call it governing by confrontation, and in foreign policy, replacing diplomacy with carefully stage-managed public conflict.

Maybe it's a Texas thing. You get done what you need to get done with your squinty-eyed look and threats, and sometimes you shoot.

The problem is, as we see with Iran - Iran Threatens To Strike At US Targets If Attacked. If you want to bring something to a head the other side sometimes doesn't back down like they're supposed to.

And now we have a domestic example. The president's opponents have a large bill of particulars, from telling us we had to war because of the nuclear and chemical and biological weapons we could prove Iraq had in stock, which turned out not to exist, and now we know all the warnings that they didn't exist were dismissed, to the various scandals, almost too many to mention, to the claims the president has the right to ignore this law or that, to the far less than half-hearted response to Hurricane Katrina, to the Dubai ports deal, and so on and so forth. The president's opponents - rather than caving in to all the claims that being bothered by any of this means that they just "hate America" and are, in effect, "on the side of the terrorists" - are not rolling over and seem to be willing to say "not so fast." Two can play that game.

There seems to be a basic, conceptual flaw in the "intimidation model" for getting what you want. Projecting power and refusing to compromise were, we were told, what would win the day in Iraq and cow North Korea into dropping their push to build nuclear weapons, and what, we are being told now, will force Iran to back down from their efforts to do that too. It doesn't work, and there's no evidence it ever has. But we are told it always works, and that it's the only solution to get what we want.

Anyone can see it has the opposite effect, but we are told that's just because we just haven't been intimidating enough, so far, and the bad guys sense some of us want to compromise, so that dilutes the effect. So we must show more resolve, and the thoughtful and questioning should just shut up, as they're ruining everything. Well, maybe so. There's always a first time for everything. In the history of the world this "intimidation model" has never worked even once. But it sounds good, if you're from Texas.

As a grand experiment in redefining who we are and how the world works, it is interesting in a theoretical way. It's something new, and captured in the core doctrine of "preemptive war" - we reserve the right to wage war on any nation on earth that sometime in the future might act in a way that threatens us, and we'll use our own secret evidence of what they might do one day and no one else's. The neoconservatives and their easily manipulated and somewhat clueless president really do have bold ideas. Confusing "bold" with "sound" seems to be at issue, of course. It's an easy mistake to make.

As for the purely domestic example of "push-back" that really isn't supposed to happen, there's new talk of impeachment. It seems someone looked in the user manual, the constitution, and found that the framers, in assigning rights to the states to balance the powers of the federal government, added a curious provision - if both houses of any state legislature vote that the president should be impeached, congress must take it up and hold hearings. And there's a move in both Illinois and Vermont to do just that, as noted here in the Boston Globe. The modern conservative movement made its bones on "states rights" - fighting integration and fluoridation and nationally-mandated Daylight Savings Time and all the rest - and the irony here is delicious. Not that anything will come of it. Vermont may be able to pull it off, maybe, but in Washington the Republican-controlled House will schedule the required hearings for sometime in 2025, or later. Still, it's push-back, Texas-style, from Vermont.

And then there's this, a discussion of a short speech that Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia gave on the floor when everyone came back from their two-week Easter break -
"Despite more than two centuries of pressures to change and 'modernize,' the Senate, as an institution, remains remarkably similar to the body created at the Constitutional Convention in 1787," Byrd said. "It retains all of its original powers, including providing advice and consent - yes. You said it. You better read that again in the Constitution. It retains all of its original powers, including providing advice and consent to presidents on nominations and on treaties, serving as a court of impeachment. You better believe it, Mr. President. The Senate can send you home. You better believe that. If the House impeaches you, the Senate will try you."
So the old coot from West Virginia talks Texan too. The president a few years back, when asked what he thought about all the folks fighting us in Iraq long after we had "won" and whether we could handle that without increasing the number of troops we had there, famously said there was no problem - "Bring it on." Two can play that game.

But the other side is supposed to back down, isn't it? You can almost hear the befuddled anger at the White House. What's wrong with these people? Don't they know how things work?

What could this mean?

It could mean that the days of "shock and awe" as both a military tactic, and a political one, seem to be passing. Yeah, we captured Baghdad brilliantly and the regime of Saddam Hussein fell quite nicely, but "shock and awe" are not very effective long-term tools. There's resentment, and blow-back. The neoconservative might claim it's just not fair, as the tactic is so impressive. Maybe we should do more of it and see if it still works. But it just doesn't. That's life. And on the political side, the bold and audacious radical remake of who we are and how things work, with its own "shock and awe," turns out to be only useful in the short term. Either way you create insurgents - a nasty army of the resentful. And they fight back.

So C. S. Lewis was onto something - things come to a point, "getting sharper and harder." The process continues.

How does the president respond now?

For that you might go read Sidney Blumenthal on how he sees the White House.

The passion of George W. Bush
"The president doesn't care that he is reviled. He is a martyr, and someday all will see his glory. Meanwhile, he's got Karl doing his dirty work."
April 27, 2006, SALON.COM

That opens with this -
The urgent dispatch of Karl Rove to the business of maintaining one-party rule in the midterm elections is the Bush White House's belated startle reflex to its endangerment. Besieged by crises of his own making, plummeting to ever lower depths in the polls week after week, Bush has assigned his political general to muster dwindling forces for a heroic offensive to break out of the closing ring. If the Democrats gain control of the House or Senate they will launch a thousand subpoenas to establish the oversight that has been abdicated by the Republican Congress.

In his acceptance speech before the Republican National Convention in 2004, the "war president" spoke of "greatness" and "resolve" and repeatedly promised "a safer world" and "security," and compared himself "to a resolute president named Truman." Afterward, Bush declared he had had his "accountability moment"; further debate was unnecessary; the future was settled.

But Rove's elaborate design for Republican rule during the second term has collapsed under the strain of his grandiosity. In 2004, Rove galvanized "the base" (ironically, "al-Qaida" in Arabic) through ruthless divide-and-conquer and slash-and-burn tactics.
This is followed by a great deal of discussion of Rove, but gets interesting when it gets beyond that one man -
For Rumsfeld and Cheney the final days of the Bush administration are the endgame. They cannot expect positions in any future White House. Since the Nixon White House, when counselor Rumsfeld and his deputy Cheney watched the self-destruction of the president, they have plotted to reach the point where they would impose the imperial presidency that Nixon was thwarted from doing. Both men held ambitions to become president themselves. The Bush years have been their opportunity, their last one, to run a presidency. Through the agency of the son of one of their colleagues from the Ford White House, George H.W. Bush (whom President Ford considered but passed over for his vice president and chief of staff, giving the latter job to Cheney), they have enabled their notion of executive power. But the fulfillment of their idea of presidential power is steadily draining the president of strength. Their 30-year-long project on behalf of autocracy has merely produced monumental incompetence.

Yet Rumsfeld and Cheney do not really care. Bad public opinion polls do not concern them. Their ambition is near its end. They want to use their remaining time accumulating as much power in an unaccountable executive as possible.
And as for the president -
The more beleaguered Bush becomes, the more he is flattered by his advisors with comparisons to great men of history whose foresight and courage were not always appreciated in their own times. Abraham Lincoln is one favorite. Another is Harry Truman, who established the framework of Cold War policy but left office during the Korean War deeply unpopular with poll ratings sunk in the 20s. Lately, Bush sees himself in the reflected light of Winston Churchill, bravely standing against appeasers. "Never give in - never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in," Churchill said in 1941 as Britain stood alone against the Nazis. "Bush tells his out-of-town visitors to think of how history will judge his administration twenty years hence and not to worry about setbacks in Iraq," conservative columnist Arnaud de Borchgrave writes.

... The greater the stress the more Bush denies its cause. In his end time he has risen above his policy and is transcending politics. In his life as president he has decided his scourging is his sanctification. Bush will be a martyr resurrected. The future will unfold properly for all the wisdom of his decisions, based on fervent faith, upheld by his holy devotion. Criticism and unpopularity only confirm to him his bravery and his critics' weakness. Being reviled is proof of his righteousness. Inevitably, decades hence, people will grasp his radiant truth and glory. Such is the passion of George W. Bush.
Could this be so? Is this where ruthless divide-and-conquer and slash-and-burn tactics end up, with an apparent failure muttering to himself that nothing in the polls matter, that most of the world's nations now at best don't trust America but more generally see America as both foolish and dangerous doesn't matter, that the enormous federal deficit and massive trade deficits don't matter, that the scandals don't matter - history will prove him right? "The whole thing is sorting itself out all the time, coming to a point, getting sharper and harder." Cold comfort. One wonders if uses the "history will prove me right" line on his father, the president who decided against taking Baghdad.

And the hits just keep coming.

Wednesday, April 26, was the surprise testimony of Karl Rove, this for the for the fifth time before the grand jury investigating the Valerie Plame case. It seems the "intimidation model" may not have worked so well there, having the team go after her husband, who revealed embarrassing things, by leaking to the press that his wife was a CIA agent and set the whole thing up to get him out of the house. Now that gets sticky.

The Washington Post has details of what it was all about here, but it's very complicated. Kevin Drum untangles it all nicely here, or you might go to a famous defense attorney here. It comes down to Rove probably bargaining for lesser charges, but being charged none the less, and Fitzgerald works his way up through Stephen Hadley to Vice President Cheney. This wasn't supposed to happen. When you're indicted for a crime you sort of have to leave office. Who will be left?

Then there's this - "Investigators for the European Parliament said Wednesday that data gathered from air safety regulators showed that the CIA had flown 1,000 undeclared flights over Europe since 2001, sometimes stopping on the Continent to transport terrorism suspects kidnapped inside the European Union to countries using torture."

From Reuters, this -
A senior EU lawmaker on Wednesday backed accusations the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency had kidnapped and illegally detained terrorism suspects on EU territory and flown them to countries that used torture.

"The CIA has, on several occasions, clearly been responsible for kidnapping and illegally detaining alleged terrorists on the territory of (EU) member states, as well as for extraordinary renditions," Claudio Fava said in his first interim report of the European Parliament's probe into the suspected CIA abuses.
No one was supposed to know, and the cooperating people within certain governments were supposed to keep quiet. Too many things are coming out.

Luckily a good number of Americans think kidnapping and torture are just fine, as these people aren't like us but merely depraved evil devils. We are the people who did the Salem witch trails in the seventeenth century. We get it. Who cares what the Europeans think? And whatever it was we did it was only to keep us safe, and that's our right, and we're the good guys. Right.

But there are other things.

Will people, angry over the high price of gasoline these days, put two and two together and figure out that if you go to war with a major oil producing country you take maybe thirty percent of the world's oil out of production for a time, and in this case the time has stretched to over three years. That might make for tight supplies and, as a result, high prices. World demand is high and the insurgents keep blowing up the pipelines in Iraq, and making the rebuilding of the refineries and ports damned hard. They were supposed to greet us as liberators and we'd be out in six months, as Rumsfeld said, with Ahmed Chalabi running the place for us. Should have happened, but didn't. If people think about the crude removed from the market, as the result of the long war, as they're now calling it, and see the enormous profits from Exxon-Mobile and the rest, and think about the president and vice president coming from the oil industry... this could be trouble.

Well, at least there's a new White House press spokesman, that fellow from Fox News, Tony Snow. A well-spoken and well-liked new press secretary, energetic and photogenic, can explain it all.

What's to say about that? He has a hard job, of course. Yes, he comes straight from pro-Bush Fox News, which is more of a political movement than a news network, but that hardly matters. The White House would hardly pick Dan Rather or Bill Moyers, and Snow has been blunt at times in the past. He'll do. He's rather pleasant. He has a nice smile and a good sense of humor. And he will tell us what?

Walter Shapiro imagines that here -
Question: Karl Rove is making his fifth appearance in front of the grand jury today. And I'm wondering how you would characterize its effect on the administration? Is it a disruption, a distraction?

Press Secretary: Actually, it's a great tension release mechanism around here. We all have a great laugh imagining Karl sharing a cell with Tom DeLay and Kenny Lay. Of course, we try not to make those jokes when Karl's around. But then we don't see much of him, since he's constantly with his lawyers or sitting in a darkened office muttering about running off to Tahiti to write a McKinley biography.

Question: What do you think the impact is going to be at the gas pump of relaxing environmental rules, and how soon do you think that will show up?

Press Secretary: Is the Twelfth of Never soon enough for you? If the inky-dinky spider fell down the water spout, we'd use that as an excuse to relax environmental rules. But seriously, no president - Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative - can do much about gas prices in the short run. It's like King Canute trying to command the tides.

Question: Has the president been briefed at all on the CIA's firing of Mary McCarthy for allegedly leaking classified information? Does he have any reaction to this?

Press Secretary: Look, it's not coincidental that the most leak-obsessed president in history has named the most leak-obsessed CIA director. It's also not coincidental that the first victim of this internal investigation happens to be somebody who donated $2,000 to John Kerry in 2004. As far as the president is concerned personally, he's totally in favor of finding out the truth. As long as it doesn't come too close to the Oval Office.

Question: How would the president assess his final 1,000 days in office?

Press Secretary: Like a prison sentence.

Question: Does the president support Senator Clinton's move to have the generals who are calling for Secretary Rumsfeld's ouster testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee?

Press Secretary: This administration rarely supports Hillary Clinton on anything, of course. But we would even let Laura and Barbara Bush testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee if it would convince Don Rumsfeld to quit. In case you haven't noticed, we are at an impasse here. One of President Bush's most admirable human qualities is his reluctance to fire anyone. One of Secretary Rumsfeld's least admirable qualities is his refusal to take a hint. I'll let all of you in the press room connect the dots.

Question: What does the president plan to do differently between now and November to get Republicans elected or reelected?

Press Secretary: Raise money in private for any Republican who asks and avoid appearing in public with any Republican who has serious opposition. If you've got another strategic idea for us, please call Karl. That is, if you can find him.

Question: The president made a phone call to Canadian Prime Minister Harper on the weekend? Can you tell us the contents of that call?

Press Secretary: About all I know is that the conversation was short. Very short. With all the problems facing President Bush, do you think he cares about the mood of Moose Jaw?

Question: Just a personal question, just wondering how you're feeling today with this transition, what your plans are for the future? What do you want to do when you grow up?

Press Secretary: I feel envious of my predecessor Ari Fleischer for so wisely getting out in time. I feel pity for my successor who doesn't fully understand how hard it is in this White House to be allowed to say anything publicly. I feel a trifle bitter that the president I have so loyally served set me up to fail in this job. I feel hopeful that I will be rewarded in the private sector for all the abuse I have taken in this room. And, most of all, I feel sorry for all of you in the press corps who somehow cling to the illusion that asking a White House press secretary - any press secretary - a snarky question at a televised briefing is an exercise in uncovering the truth.
Well, it will be an interesting charade.

But the fact remains, there was a time "when there was more elbow room and contrasts weren't quite so sharp" and "there's going to be a time after that point when there is even less room for indecision and choices are even more momentous." Of course "the whole thing is sorting itself out all the time, coming to a point, getting sharper and harder."

That may be the grand experiment in governing by intimidation. And it's too bad it just doesn't work.

Posted by Alan at 22:29 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 27 April 2006 07:43 PDT home

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