Wednesday, September 29, 2004

The Question of Competence

I’m a registered Democrat (I think), a Kerry supporter, a founding member of Historians Against the War, and I’m uncomfortable with the claim that George W. Bush is incompetent. It is a claim that clearly appeals to those who have long believed that this president lacks the intelligence to lead us (on which see the September issue of The American Prospect, esp. the piece by Matthew Yglesias, who is deeply offended by Bush’s lack of intellectual gravitas and curiosity). It is a claim that also appeals to those who think that the MBA president who has surrounded himself with secretive CEO types should be “fired” for “mismanaging” the war in Iraq; at the very least, they argue, he should fire those who misled him—and us—about the purposes and consequences of an American occupation. As my dentist (he voted for Bush in 2000) put it yesterday, “If he’s the president of GE, the stockholders yank him. We gotta do the same thing. It’s our company, not his.”

Yes, I did remonstrate about the corporate analogy, even though I kind of like it because I think Kenneth Burke would have. But I also tried, I would say valiantly under the painful circumstances, to suggest that the claim of incompetence diverts us from discussion of root causes and real alternatives—it obscures the ideological sources of this war and puts us all in the position of providing solutions for the problems Bush has created by waging war. It emphasizes “bad apples,” glaring errors, technical problems, and the like, and in doing so it follows the script the administration has written in response to the revelations about Abu Ghraib: “Mistakes were made, of course, but the mission itself is beyond reproach. And, oh, don’t forget, we’ve court-martialed the rednecks who did the despicable deeds.”

To be sure, this was a “war of choice” based on faulty or fabricated intelligence. The original mistakes have now metastasized. But this was also, and more significantly, a war designed to demonstrate the feasibility of a radically new strategic doctrine—it is a war derived from an ideological urge to use American military power in unprecedented ways. That urge was not an ad hoc commitment concocted in the heat of battle against Al Qaeda after 9/11. Nor was it a function of the president’s Oedipal struggle with his father’s foreign policies.

No, this urge to make war in Iraq was devised by what is now Bush’s inner circle in the decade before March 2003. More important, it repudiated a century of American foreign policy (1) by defining power in narrowly military terms, thus reintroducing “great power politics”; (2) by adopting a unilateral notion of national security; and (3) by reverting to pre-emption as the necessary tactic of just wars against unconventional enemies (for example, the pre-emptive strikes of the Indian Wars, the Philippine occupation, and the Vietnam War). See Max Boot, Robert Kaplan, and John Lewis Gaddis for specious but often hilarious defenses of this atavism: "Hey, we've always done this, man, what's the problem, we used to kill Indians! Aren't you watching the History Channel? No? How about Fox? Oh, yeah, well, we've kicked ass for a lot of years."

Yeah, well, we should be discussing the radical new doctrine, not the energy or the efficiency or the smarts with which it has been pursued. We should be asking how and why it puts all Americans at risk by its reckless disregard for the post-imperial principles and trans-national standards the U.S. has been proposing since 1900. Otherwise we are merely reinstating the assumptions and reiterating the conclusions of Bush’s critics at the Weekly Standard: “Good idea, bad execution.” Otherwise we are merely reproducing the wrong criticism of that longest war in Asia that was often called a mistake. You remember how it goes: “Fighting communism in Vietnam was the right strategic goal, but the military tactics we used ultimately made the goal unattainable.” Robert Bork and Richard Rorty agree on this. We shouldn’t.

For the time being, we must protect our troops (our fellow citizens) with the technical and logistical means available. But we can’t confuse ends and means, strategy and tactics. Let us understand that the shortages of troops, morale, materiel, and popular support in Iraq are the results of arrogance, not idiocy, and that the arrogance flows from the ideological imperatives of the new strategic doctrine, not from intellectual incapacity. Let us understand that we need an “exit strategy” not just from Iraq but from the doctrine that put us in there. Let us understand, in short, that the Bush administration is not incompetent. Using the talents of the best and the brightest, it is quite competently pursuing untenable goals.