Wednesday, May 28, 2008

McClellan Tells Us What We Already Know About The Awfulness Of The Bush Administration
And Bonus: The Precise Nature of the Awfulness

I'm not sure whether it's worthwhile discussing this issue anymore...but here goes anyway. It long ago became perfectly clear to anyone who was even moderately well-informed and minimally intellectually honest that the Bush administration was corrupt, as was its case for the Iraq war. A few hard-core partisans and dedicated internet apologists still grasp at the remaining pathetic shreds of what was once semi-plausible deniability. But what was once infuriating has become merely pathetic.

If McClellan were singing a solo, or if his devotion to Bush had been of a lesser order, we might be forced to take his testimony less seriously. But he was a loyal Bushy who followed Dubya from Texas, and he merely tells us what even external observers had already discerned, and what a chorus of other insiders-turned-outsiders have also told us: that the president, while not stupid, is intellectually dishonest and incurious in the extreme, that Cheney's power is inordinate, and that the case for war was dishonest.

I'm only going to make one small substantive point here. Consider the following bit, from today's Washington Post story:

McClellan stops short of saying that Bush purposely lied about his reasons for invading Iraq, writing that he and his subordinates were not "employing out-and-out deception" to make their case for war in 2002.

But in a chapter titled "Selling the War," he alleges that the administration repeatedly shaded the truth and that Bush "managed the crisis in a way that almost guaranteed that the use of force would become the only feasible option."

"Over that summer of 2002," he writes, "top Bush aides had outlined a strategy for carefully orchestrating the coming campaign to aggressively sell the war. . . . In the permanent campaign era, it was all about manipulating sources of public opinion to the president's advantage."

McClellan, once a staunch defender of the war from the podium, comes to a stark conclusion, writing, "What I do know is that war should only be waged when necessary, and the Iraq war was not necessary."

The problem here is that McClellan is on the verge of casuistry. He says that they were not "employing out-and-out deception," but were merely "shading the truth". This is not so much a criticism of McClellan as it is of the consistently imprecise application of certain moral concepts that has pervaded the attempt to defend Bush.

We do ordinarily draw a distinction between straightforward lies on the one hand and deception that does not involve outright lies on the other. However, it is not clear that, morally speaking, there is any significant difference here--the crucial fact from the moral perspective seems to be the intention to deceive--whether the deception is effected by outright lies, more subtle deceptions, or "shading the truth" is probably not relevant. But, furthermore, we should probably note that "shading the truth" is outright deception, since deception covers any effort to deceive.

There are actually two significant and related points here. First: it is not clear that the administration actually told that many outright lies, though their campaign of deception is every bit as despicable as if they had. But there is little room for subtlety in our vapid public political discourse. The most common ordinary category is lying, and the way the administration built its case was, in essence, lying. Those who publicly articulated the case against him had to choose between simply saying "he lied," which would clearly get the point across, or making a longish claim which, though simple, was too complicated for our sound-bite-driven political discussions. If they chose the latter course of action, they were largely ignored; if the former, the Bush apologists were sure to say "well, it wasn't really lying..." In fact, I once had a conservative commenter insist that one doesn't tell a lie unless one knows with absolute certainty that what one is saying is false. This is, of course, not true--though if it were, human fallibility would save us from ever lying.

Similarly, those who wished to make claims about the failings of Mr. Bush have often said that he is stupid, which is not at all clear. What he is, to use philosopher's lingo, is intellectually vicious. 'Vicious' is, primarily, the antonym of 'virtuous'--it need not mean violent or mean or sadistic. To be vicious is to have vices. And that is the President's problem. He is, perhaps, not stupid, but he is stubborn and incurious and unwilling to seek disconfirming information or admit when he is wrong. This is far worse than being stupid. If you have the choice between relying on a stupid person who is intellectually virtuous (honest, inquiring, willing to admit error) and a person who is smart but vicious, I strongly suggest that you choose the former under normal conditions.

It is no surprise that these things have gone together: an intellectually vicious president and a dishonest case for war. In fact, I would be rather surprised if anyone were surprised about this. See, here's the way it goes: you get the president you elect. Elect a dishonest president, you are going to get dishonesty from him.

Now, some might argue that if Mr. Bush is intellectually dishonest, then he is misleading himself, not us. If he is truly intellectually dishonest, then it is himself he deceives--by the time he gets around to talking to us, he is being honest--that is, he is telling us what he genuinely believes to be true. That he deceived himself into believing it is irrelevant--he believes it now. But this isn't the way it works. Lying to yourself is a tricky business, and it usually involves lying to others along the way. You convince yourself by saying it out loud, pretending that you believe it and so forth. You, as they say, bootstrap your way up into full belief. You play fast and loose with the facts, publicly and privately, and, eventually, you believe.

One might say that there's no reason to still be discussing these points, but I disagree. It is very important the precise nature of the failings of the Bush administration be made as clear as possible to the American public--first, because it is important to know the truth, but, second, so that we lower the probability of electing another George W. Bush or someone like him.

Furthermore, it might be worth noting that--or so it seems to me--it is largely those of us who have focused carefully on the vices of the current administration who find Obama's candidacy so appealing. A final quote from the Post story:
McClellan has some kind words for Bush, calling him "a man of personal charm, wit and enormous political skill." He writes that the president "did not consciously set out to engage in these destructive practices. But like others before him, he chose to play the Washington game the way he found it, rather than changing the culture as he vowed to do at the outset of his campaign for the presidency."
Choosing to play the reprehensible game as you find it is itself a reprehensible decision, though one might, under certain circumstances, be excused for it. Though Bush not only played the game, he became, as it were, a virtuoso, taking it to new levels of dishonesty and viciousness. But it is, I think, worth reflecting on the fact that playing the vicious game is exactly what Obama has promised he will not do--he will, instead, strive to change it into something more virtuous. I'm currently inclined to think that this is the most important thing a president could do.


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