Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Analysis of the analysis of Bush's press conference

Over on Slate.com, Fred Kaplan's posted an article ripping Bush's press conference yesterday. A Some observations about Fred's observations of George:

Among the many flabbergasting answers that President Bush gave at his press conference on Monday, this one—about Democrats who propose pulling out of Iraq—triggered the steepest jaw drop: "I would never question the patriotism of somebody who disagrees with me. This has nothing to do with patriotism. It has everything to do with understanding the world in which we live."

George W. Bush criticizing someone for not understanding the world is like … well, it's like George W. Bush criticizing someone for not understanding the world. It's sui generis: No parallel quite captures the absurdity so succinctly.

This, after all, is the president who invaded Iraq without the slightest understanding of the country's ethnic composition or of the volcanic tensions that toppling its dictator might unleash. Complexity has no place in his schemes. Choices are never cloudy. The world is divided into the forces of terror and the forces of freedom: The one's defeat means the other's victory.

Much as it pains me to defend President Bush, seems to me Kaplan's missing the mark here. Bush's comment is not about whether Democrats have a nuanced understanding of the world. Indeed, in Bush's view, part of the problem is that nuanced understandings leads to paralysis and indecision. Rather, Bush believes that Democrats fail to perceive the interconnection between Middle East dictatorships and threats to American security interests -- the world in which we live, according to Bush, is a very dangeous one. Now, he may be wrong about that, but Kaplan should at least get the argument straight.

But here, from the transcript of the press conference, is how he sees the region's recent events:

  • What's very interesting about the violence in Lebanon and the violence in Iraq and the violence in Gaza is this: These are all groups of terrorists who are trying to stop the advance of democracy.
What is he talking about? Hamas, which has been responsible for much of the violence in Gaza, won the Palestinian territory's parliamentary elections. Hezbollah, which started its recent war with Israel, holds a substantial minority of seats in Lebanon's parliament and would probably win many more seats if a new election were held tomorrow. Many of the militants waging sectarian battle in Iraq have representation in Baghdad's popularly elected parliament.

Well, wait a second. Hamas and Hezbollah certainly have done well in local elections they've decided to participate in. But both groups have evidenced a complete disregard for the elected leadership of Palestine/Lebanon, and have engaged in terrorist tactics against their respective governments. The IRA had a political wing -- Sinn Fein was its name-o -- but I doubt many would call the IRA "prodemocracy."

After these two missteps, Kaplan buries a much more interesting argument at the end of his piece:

Asked if it might be time for a new strategy in Iraq, given the unceasing rise in casualties and chaos, Bush replied, "The strategy is to help the Iraqi people achieve their objectives and dreams, which is a democratic society. That's the strategy. … Either you say, 'It's important we stay there and get it done,' or we leave. We're not leaving, so long as I'm the president."

The reporter followed up, "Sir, that's not really the question. The strategy—"

Bush interrupted, "Sounded like the question to me."

First, it's not clear that the Iraqi people want a "democratic society" in the Western sense. Second, and more to the point, "helping Iraqis achieve a democratic society" may be a strategic objective, but it's not a strategy—any more than "ending poverty" or "going to the moon" is a strategy.

Strategy involves how to achieve one's objectives—or, as the great British strategist B.H. Liddell Hart put it, "the art of distributing and applying military means to fulfill the ends of policy." These are the issues that Bush refuses to address publicly—what means and resources are to be applied, in what way, at what risk, and to what end, in pursuing his policy. Instead, he reduces everything to two options: "Cut and run" or, "Stay the course." It's as if there's nothing in between, no alternative way of applying military means. Could it be that he doesn't grasp the distinction between an "objective" and a "strategy," and so doesn't see that there might be alternatives? Might our situation be that grim?

To answer Kaplan's first question: Yes, Bush understands the distinction between objectives and strategy (although, admittedly, this was not evident during the press conference yesterday). The problem stems from our political versus military strategy dilemma in Iraq. No one wants to commit more troops, for political reasons, yet, the chief strategic failure in Iraq seems to be the failure to commit enough troops to the invasion. The Democrats only coherent alternative strategy -- a timetable for withdrawal -- pleases almost no one, as it will essentially be an admission of failure. Unfortunately, that means the situation may indeed be that grim.


Post a Comment

<< Home