December 18, 2006
Retreat from Empiricism: On Ron Suskind's Scoop
"Realist, a classic term in foreign policy debates, and reality-based, which is not a classic term but more of an instant classic, are different ideas. We shouldn't fuzz them up. The press is capable of doing that--fuzzing things up--because it never came to terms with what Suskind reported in 2004."
Even realism has an obligation to be realistic. — George Packer.
The only piece of political journalism ever to make me cry was Ron Suskind’s article, Without a Doubt, published in the New York Times Magazine shortly before the 2004 election. It was in that article that the famous passage appeared quoting a senior administration official on the myopia of the “reality-based community” when it came to understanding the government of George W. Bush.
Lately I have been thinking a lot about that article because the “realist” school in foreign policy is thought to be back in charge. The release of the Iraq Study Group’s report on December 6th and the re-emergence of James Baker, famous for being pragmatist, a realist, and a fixer, were the triggers for this observation. The Guardian’s report was typical: “This is a return to the realist policy of Mr. Bush’s father.”
Dan Froomkin said the report and reactions to it “marked a restoration of reality in Washington.”
Realist, a classic term in foreign policy debates, and reality-based, which is not a classic term but more of an instant classic, are quite different ideas. We shouldn’t fuzz them up. The press is capable of doing that—fuzzing things up—because it never came to terms with what Suskind reported in 2004. Of course, neither did the political system. Or the Republican party, or its sensible wing— the elders, the responsible people.
I think they all regret it now. But they’re happy with this month’s theme, “realists are back.” It sounds almost… normal.
An intellectual scoop
In Without a Doubt (subtitled “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush”) Suskind was not talking about an age old conflict between realists and idealists, the sort of story line that can be re-cycled for every administration. It wasn’t the ideologues against the pragmatists, either. He was telling us that reality-based policy-making—and the mechanisms for it—had gotten dumped. A different pattern had appeared under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. The normal checks and balances had been overcome, so that executive power could flow more freely. Reduced deliberation, oversight, fact-finding, and field reporting were different elements of an emerging political style. Suskind, I felt, got to the essence of it with his phrase, the “retreat from empiricism.”
Which is a perfect example of what Bill Keller and others at the New York Times call an intellectual scoop. (“When you can look at all the dots everyone can look at, and be the first to connect them in a meaningful and convincing way…”) Over the last three years, and ever since the adventure in Iraq began, Americans have seen spectacular failures of intelligence, spectacular collapses in the press, spectacular breakdowns in the reality-checks built into government, including the evaporation of oversight in Congress, and the by-passing of the National Security Council, which was created to prevent exactly these events.
This is itself a puzzling development which as far as I know has not been apprehended by our professional students of politics, whether they write columns, run campaigns, work in think tanks, or teach about government in universities. None, so far as I know, has tried to explain why we saw a retreat from empiricism under Bush and how we could actually go to war that way. A review in the American Conservative, Pat Buchanan’s magazine, asks:
How did realism become a submerged, almost dissident philosophy amongst American elites, and how did its opposite triumph so completely? Unless one chalks it up simply to the historical caprice of the Bush presidency combined with 9/11, one must consider the motivations of major donors and the myriad factors that determine the acceptable limits of what people in think tanks think. If powerful Americans think differently about the world than they did in the late 1940s and 1950s, an explanation should be sought.
Action vs. behavior
Mine would begin this way: The alternative to facts on the ground is to act, regardless of the facts on the ground. When you act you make new facts. You clear new ground. And when you roll over or roll back the people who have a duty to report the situation as it is—people in the press, the military, the bureaucracy, your own cabinet, or right down the hall—then right there you have demonstrated your might. (See my essay called Rollback.)
The contrast I would draw is between the actions of Bush, a political innovator, and the behavior of previous presidents, Republican and Democrat. (The distinction between action and behavior is originally Hannah Arendt’s.) In everything bearing on national security, the Bush Government has been committed to action first, to making the world (including the map of the Middle East) anew, to a kind of audacity in the use of American power. It simply does not behave as previous governments have behaved when presented with the tools of the presidency, which includes the media, and the greatest public address system in the world: the White House podium and backdrop.
This is what the press—which is generally full of behaviorists—has been reluctant to apprehend about the Bush government. But Suskind was onto it.
“In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush,” Suskind wrote, introducing his characters. “He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.”
The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
That passage caused a sensation when it was published, and the sensation introduced a new term, the reality-based community, into political talk. Two things happened right away. Many on the left adopted the term. “Proud Member of the Reality-Based Community,” their blogs said. The right then jeered at the left’s self-description. (They’re reality-based? Yeah, right.)
Neither of those responses highlights the fact that in Suskind’s reporting it was Republicans spooked by Bush and his anti-empiricism who were beginning to speak out. After his portrait of Karen Hughes, after his book with bounced Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, after he wrote about Karl Rove’s operation, Suskind’s phone began to ring. His sources, he has said, were people who had been left out of decision-making or put off by the Bush team’s projections of certainty. Republicans, insiders. They had a disturbing pattern to report.
“By midyear 2001, a stand-and-deliver rhythm was established. Meetings, large and small, started to take on a scripted quality.”
“The circle around Bush was tightening.”
“The president would listen without betraying any reaction.”
“The president would rarely prod anyone with direct, informed questions.”
“By summer’s end that first year, Vice President Dick Cheney had stopped talking in meetings he attended with Bush. They would talk privately, or at their weekly lunch.”
Suskind had a lot of it figured out:
A cluster of particularly vivid qualities was shaping George W. Bush’s White House through the summer of 2001: a disdain for contemplation or deliberation, an embrace of decisiveness, a retreat from empiricism, a sometimes bullying impatience with doubters and even friendly questioners.
That “cluster” is not idealism. In the current New York Review of Books, Mark Danner talks of a “war of imagination” that Bush and his advisers preferred to fight. The thing is, it takes a leap of imagination to realize they did it that way. As Danner puts it, anyone trying to understand how the current mess in Iraq started “has to confront the monumental fact that the United States, the most powerful country in the world, invaded Iraq with no particular and specific idea of what it was going to do there, and then must try to explain how this could have happened.”
Empiricism isn’t policy
And remember Sir Richard Dearlove, the British intelligence official who in July 2002 took notes on the way it happened, so as to inform his colleagues: “The intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”
Or consider Lawrence D. Freedman’s observation in Foreign Affairs (Jan./Feb. 2006): “It suited the White House to take at face value assertions from Iraqi exiles that solving postwar problems would be relatively straightforward.” There was no attempt to ascertain. Empiricism wasn’t the policy.
Now here’s what Glenn Kessler and Thomas E. Ricks reported in the Dec. 7 Washington Post: “The Iraq Study Group report released yesterday might well be titled ‘The Realist Manifesto.’” And I suppose it might. But what if our problems in Iraq are due not to a lack of realism, but to the total breakdown of reality-based policy making, a deliberate withdrawal from an empirical mindset in order to conduct abroad a war of choice and expand at home executive power?
Ricks and Kessler drew me up short when they wrote: “The report’s description of the violence in Iraq, which amounts to an attack on the administration’s understanding of the facts on the ground, will likely set the new baseline for how the Iraq conflict is portrayed.”
How are these baselines for day-to-day description normally set? Who has the authority to do so and where do they get it? We’re deep into the reality-making machinery with that phrase. According to the Post reporters, there would be new baselines from now on. The power to set them had apparently shifted, away from Bush, toward Baker and the so-called realist wing. According to the study group, “Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes discrepancy with policy goals.”
Go, realists! Note, however, that Baker’s group still assumes that “good policy” is by definition reality-based, exactly the assumption Bush the younger tried to overturn. Good policy was to Bush, Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld action-based. It worked in creative friction with facts on the ground. Fogs of confusion inside the government were fine because deeper within the government a few had the clarity of action.
There’s another story almost as iconic as Suskind’s senior adviser: “we make our own reality.” When Jay Garner returns to the White House from running the American effort in Iraq, Bush, Cheney, Condi Rice and Rumsfeld are there to greet him. Not only does he know to give a falsely upbeat assessment in his written report and stick to cheerful banter during the meeting, but he finds that no one asks him a single question about the situation on the ground in Iraq. Here you have the best possible reporter, but there is no report. The scene (as described by George Packer) is highly ritualized. A message is being sent about who gets to define what’s happening on the ground, and it isn’t the people on the ground. Garner told Packer that “Bush knew only what Cheney let into his office.”
The erasure of reality could get quite personal. You had to be willing to erase people. As part of a profile that Suskind wrote for Esquire about Karl Rove, John DiIulio, who served briefly as director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, sent the reporter a seven-page memo about his resignation, explaining that the White House suffered from “a complete lack of a policy apparatus.” The normal checks had been overridden. Later a strange thing happened. DiIulio apologized like an official of the Khmer Rouge following arrest. He said his own story had been false. He erased himself in public.
Before the election I heard Suskind give a rousing talk to students at NYU. He talked a lot about Dilulio. When Suskind recounts the story, the detail you focus on is not what DiIulio said about White House decision-making but the extreme tactic of making him disown his own experience, the reality of his own (typed) words to Suskind. “That’s when my phone began to ring,” he said. Others saw it happening to them.
Confronted with “…when we act, we create our own reality,” what could the press have done differently?
- It could have tried to cover Dick Cheney. Instead, Cheney is by common agreement in the press the most powerful and least scrutinized Vice President in modern American history. Much of the time the press does not know where he is or who he’s meeting with. His is almost a stealth office. Yet he helped engineer the overawing of all reality checks as part of his effort to reclaim “lost” powers for the executive branch. It would have taken a monumental effort to scrutinize Cheney because he was determined to operate without scrutiny. In any event it never happened.
- It could have covered the entire retreat from empiricism, which took place across the government, and not just in war-making. There have been thousands of conflicts between the Bush political machine and every variety of reality check known to modern government. Reporters could have connected those dots.
- The press could have gone to the old-fashioned empiricists in the Republican Party and asked them if they were worried. (As with this famous piece.) To this day it remains a mystery why supporters of the Bush Agenda saw no threat to its success in the President’s concave habits. (Bush in 2003: “The best way to get the news is from objective sources. And the most objective sources I have are people on my staff who tell me what’s happening in the world.”)
- It could have followed up on Suskind’s intellectual scoop by, for example, asking how the military dealt with the shift away from a reality-based command. The alarms must have gone off somewhere.
- It could have defined Bush not as a conservative or a traditional Republican but as an innovator. For example, Suskind told Salon: “When I was at the White House in 2002, I had a variety of discussions with them about their newfangled message control machine, and their prized discipline. They made a clear decision: We will ignore as best we can the mainstream press and let’s see if there’s any penalty for doing that.” He said the view of Karen Hughes, Bush’s former chief communications advisor, was, “‘We’re not concerned; we don’t see there being any penalty from the voters for ignoring the mainstream press.” That’s innovation.
Why didn’t the press do these things? Part of it is the reluctance to appear partisan. Of course if Suskind’s reporting was correct, the people to whom this news would matter most were reality-based Republicans, members of the military who cannot afford to have any other “base” but reality, and intellectually honest conservatives who believed in Bush and wanted to see him succeed. There’s a lot of truth in what Atrios says about Washington pundits, “They’d rather be wrong than agree with the dirty fucking hippies.”
Small shelf of books
I once tried to ask John Harris, then the political editor of the Washington Post, about the Bush government’s various conficts with the reality-making machinery. (See my recent interview with him upon leaving the Post.) I said to Harris that “aside from the coverage of weapons of mass destruction, which is seen to have failed, my sense is that you and your colleagues think you have handled the challenge of covering this government pretty darn well.”
The game hasn’t changed, you contend. We’re still in a recognizable, fourth-estate, meet-the-press, rather than beat-the-press universe. Those — like me — who accuse Bush of taking extraordinary measures to marginalize, discredit, refute (and pollute) the press are said to be exaggerating the cravenness of this Adminstration and ignoring the parallels and precedents in other White Houses, including the Democratic ones.
Actually, I may have understated the magnitude of the change Bush and company have brought to your world, because I didn’t connect the pattern we can find in journalism to the Bush Administration’s treatment of science, its mistreatment of career professionals and other experts in government, and of course its use and misuse of intelligence. All have to be downgraded, distorted, deterred because they’re a drag — also called a check — on executive power and the Bush team’s freedom from fact.
Well, I tried. (Read about the misbegotten answer here.) Today it is extremely difficult to find language adequate to “reality gets dumped,” which is still in most respects an unbelievable and unbelieved tale, even though we know a lot about it from columnists like Dan Froomkin, Frank Rich, Hendrick Hertzberg and Eric Boehlert, from sites like Tomdispatch.com and writers like Mark Danner. We can also point to a small shelf of books that are largely about the collapse of empiricism— including two by Suskind (The Price of Loyalty and The One Percent Doctrine) George Packer’s The Assassins’ Gate, Thomas Ricks’s Fiasco, and most recently Bob Woodward’s State of Denial, the title of which gestures toward the story Suskind tried to tell but shrinks a bit from it.
Denial is a psychological state we are all somewhat familiar with and is therefore a more comforting description of the Bush government than the bizarre flight from empiricism that Suskind tried to alert us to. Similarly, realists vs. ideologues is a conflict we can understand without spraining our brains too much. This makes the Dana Milbanks and Joe Kleins of the world happy. When a sturdy distinction still works it’s good news for incumbent interpreters—and journalists are interpreters even when they are “just” reporting—because they don’t have to introduce an unfamiliar language to describe what they are seeing.
More accurate, less credible
Whereas if they tried to narrate the expansion of executive power (led by the vice president) through a revolt against empiricism (led by the chief executive) their story would be more accurate (to what happened) but less credible to more people. Because it sounds so extreme.
This is in fact a way to discredit the press that the press has not fully appreciated. Take extreme action and a press that mistrusts “the extremes” will mistrust initial reports of that action— like Suskind’s. This gives you time to re-make the scene and overawe people. There are all kinds of costs to changing a master narrative that has been built up by beat reporters and career pundits. When the press can hang on to an old and proven one it will. The Bush people understood that. They knew they could change the game on the press because the press finds it hard to act in reply. Therefore it tends to behave.
The idea that accuracy improves credibility is comforting. The more accurate you are, the more credible you will be, right? But in extreme situations—and invading Iraq with no particular and specific idea of what to do once there is an extreme situation—an accurate description is likely to be rejected, and the describer treated as in-credible. Reporters and editors are, I believe, intimately aware of this. Bob Woodward, as I have said elsewhere, wrote Plan of Attack because at the time it was a more credible book, even though Attack Without a Plan would have been more accurate.
When I read “Without a Doubt” I felt an immediate kinship with Suskind. Because I could see what he was trying to do: warn us about something that sounded crazy but was all too real. I could see he was going to fail in that, and I sensed that he knew it too. That’s what made it so sad to read.
Journalists and talking heads: if this month you wish to tell me that realism is back kindly tell me where you think it had gone to.
Posted by Jay Rosen at December 18, 2006 10:40 PM
I wish Suskind had presented better evidence to support his claims. Consider the conversation with Lantos, that is provided by Biden to Suskind:
''I don't know why you're talking about Sweden,'' Bush said. ''They're the neutral one. They don't have an army.''
Lantos paused, a little shocked, and offered a gentlemanly reply: ''Mr. President, you may have thought that I said Switzerland. They're the ones that are historically neutral, without an army.'' Then Lantos mentioned, in a gracious aside, that the Swiss do have a tough national guard to protect the country in the event of invasion.
Bush held to his view. ''No, no, it's Sweden that has no army.''
The room went silent, until someone changed the subject.
A few weeks later, members of Congress and their spouses gathered with administration officials and other dignitaries for the White House Christmas party. The president saw Lantos and grabbed him by the shoulder. ''You were right,'' he said, with bonhomie. ''Sweden does have an army.''
Bush was wrong that Sweden has no army, but he was right that it is neutral; Lantos seems to imply that Sweden is not neutral. And Lantos was wrong about Switzerland -- it does have an army, not a "national guard." And Bush admits he was wrong! At some point, someone on his staff checked up on Lantos' claim and told Bush about it. This is not a good example of how the White House ignores facts.
Moreover, Suskind misses the point of the adviser critical of the "reality-based community."
The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''
It seems quite clear to me that the adviser is arguing that the US is a force for change and that Suskind and other journalists critical of the Bush administration are harping about what cannot be done while the US goes and does it. The key part is:"We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality... We're history's actors."
If anything this statement is remarkable as a paragon of the "arrogance of power" that Fulbright discussed back in 1966.
What Suskind and his sources describe more accurately is not faith-over-fact but the amazing insularity of the Bush team. The emphasis on "loyalty" is pathological. To me, this more reflects the degree to which the Bush admin. acts and is staffed at the White House level as if it were back in Austin.
The recent Whitehouse effort to kill Flynt Everett's N.Y. Times editorial for revealing "classified" information that is already in the public domain and which has been repeatedly cleared by the CIA strikes me as a gauntlet thrown down in defense of the retreat from empiricism. Where has the baseline for reality got to if public information can be reclassified by decree? How absolute is executive power that can declare already public facts to be secret? This is practically a legal declaration that, when it is convenient for the Bush administration, "up" will legally be considered to be "down." How much plainer can they make it for us?
This administration has made such claims repeatedly, and they largely seem to be inspired by challenges to administration dogma of one sort or another. They tend to fall hardest on dissident, reality-based Republicans because those are the folks who witnessed the reality atrocities from within. For example, there was a grand diplomatic bargain offered by Iran a couple of years ago, but that must be disappeared from public memory because it was simply too embarassing and inconvenient.
According to the Danner piece, the nut of it is that even within the administration, and even within the Pentagon, the reference points for reality construction continue to compete with one another and there is no force within the administration that requires they be adjusted to one another. The competing realities simply rage on in conflict with each other and any conceivable national interest from any conceivable ideological perspective. I think the level of Bush administration dysfunction may verge on a new definition of failed state.
This affair has made Juan Cole fed up. He understandably calls for Elliot Abram's resignation over the matter (I guess accountability has to start somewhere), but, as Henry Waxman has said, with this administration the challenge is where to begin with the Boltons and the Cheneys and the Feiths and the Libbys and the Rumsfelds to choose from? This administration increasingly looks to be a cabal within a cabal wrapped up in a cabal. According to Danner, even most administration officials apparently don't know what's going on--how are we supposed to figure it out?
As you suggest, Danner finds that Bush and Cheney got the lack of interagency process they demanded. He also says that the Pentagon effectively removed the president of the United States and the NSC from all discussion surrounding several of the most critical decisions on Iraq occupation policy.
Along with the retreat from empiricism, doesn't this mean we've also unknowingly witnessed some sort of coup d'etat on the part of agents in the Pentagon or the vice president's office? We have not only a retreat from empiricism, but a retreat from policy-making, a retreat from accountability, and apparently, a retreat from coherence.
Re: that famous Suskind quote.
The problem I've always had with it -- and the problem I still have with it -- is that it's almost too perfect an expression of the self-entitled arrogance that people like me tend to ascribe to this administration and its bad actors.
That it's anonymous is one thing. That it's long and perfectly worded is another.
I've read conservatives who simply dismiss it as made up. I don't think it's made up. But I don't use it or make reference to it because ...
... Well, because it's part of the dynamic you describe. Because it's so extreme, the statement is hard to believe... so I instinctively don't want to use it in public writing, because it fits so nicely into my private assessment of how things actually work.
Journalists describe that cautious instinct in positive terms, and that's OK... but an instinctive aversion to anything outside the master narrative isn't really a journalistic virtue. It's ingrained in my mainstream editor's head that if something looks too good to be true, it isn't true, so I wind up doubting Suskind's reporting because I'm biased against anything that could blow up in my face and publicly confirm that I'm an idiot.
The way I rationalize this is to say that "for something that explosive and important, I need special proof." Which is generally good journalism practice... except how are you going to ever confirm something like this? How would you source a sentiment, unless the speaker said it at a podium during a publicly witnessed press conference?
And what if the source said it on the record and later recanted under pressure? If I didn't have proof of my accuracy, could I withstand the heat?
When the reputable people all agree on the same narrative, to disagree is to be disreputable. Nobody in mainstream journalism wants to be considered disreputable these days, and those who don't mind tend to get weeded out early. This is as true with politics as it is with reports of police misconduct toward prostitutes. It's not that one thing or another is likely or unlikely to be true -- it's that we simply have no public system of knowing.
Thanks, everyone. All good points.
I agree with C.L. that the Sweden story is weak. It doesn't say what Suskind thinks it says. But the real power of his "thesis," if you will, is that other accounts by other reporters (mostly in books) have confirmed and fleshed out the basic insight.
Paul: I agree with you and many others that Katrina is the turning point in people waking up to this story. What happened after the hurriace is that the flight from empiricism by Bush and his team was televised live in front of the whole nation during a genuine national emergency. Nothing is the same after something like that.
Dan: This was completely "known," and even people outside the Beltway knew it. But it took an "independent commission" that was "bipartisan" to validate this knowledge. Which ought to give everyone pause.
Yes, it ought.
What were Ricks and Kessler saying with their comment that baselines for the "portrayal" of conditions in Iraq will shift after the Study Group report. One would think that "reality," the facts on the ground, would have shifted that baseline a long time ago. ...Right? Why couldn't the press have shifted it?
Maybe because "we will ignore as best we can the mainstream press and let's see if there's any penalty for doing that." So went the thinking. What penalties do you think they had in mind? How are they extracted and by whom?
I continue to find it weird and puzzling that people who were disposed toward Bush, part of his coalition, on his team, under his command... weren't more concerned about the possibility that Suskind's sources were real, his reporting good, his picture accurate enough to matter.
I mean it's fine to feed media bias to the base as the reason for disbelieving all critical coverage, thus keeping morale high and the flow of hostility into newsrooms heavy, and I understand all that, but... I always figured that savvy people on the Republican side knew that reporters like Suskind don't usually make things up, and therefore there was a very good chance that his sources were Republicans trying to warn other Republicans.
In this sense "Without a Doubt" was in part an internal communique from one part of the Bush coalition (theunseen insiders) to another (the outsiders trying to see in.) But the culture war allowed the signal to be misread.
Steve about 2004. "It was like watching a train move down the only tracks available to it."
Yes, that's how the narrative engine works. Without risky, difficult and controversial improvisation, the story will run on the existing tracks. All pressures point that way.
It's head-splitting work to replace a master narrative that's been extended over many Administrations, and proven flexible, efficient, understandable to audiences, plausible to editors, easy to transmit to newcomers on the beat, "safe" enough for everyday use...
But the problem is actually one degree worse than that (and this took me several years to understand, Steve...) because if it's a choice between the chance for greater accuracy with an unproven narrative, and lesser accuracy but more immediate credibility and far fewer hassles by sticking with what you got, then most of the time the press will stick with what it has, but since, according to its own code, it can never choose "against" accuracy (even though it happens) and since a good journalist never does, journalists who want stay within their code will simply hide from themselves the terms of the terrible bargain they are striking.
Now they've just become harder to talk to, or reach with criticism. (Subtext of the tension with bloggers, who can see a down-and-out narrative and make merciless fun of it.)
The problems of an outworn narrative, huge enough by themselves, are compounded by a professional mythology, a self-image that has to be upheld, causing misrecognition of the choices one has actually made.
If Bush loads more power onto Cheney's plate and Cheney is then made less legible, more invisible, the press has to respond aggressively and with creative measures just to keep executive branch power under normal levels of scrutiny. And if it fails to call itself into emergency session and get on the Cheney case, it has just surrendered territory to the White House. (Which is exactly what Cheney was seeking.) The press corps is "behind" where it once was in the levels of scrutiny if can offer as the public's watchdog, rep and baseline setter. In a sense it is accepting a less accurate picture.
Force 'em to innovate to keep up with you. Chances are they won't. Would you take those odds if you were Dan Bartlett or Dick Cheney? If you know the press think and how it works in White House coverage, you would.
Ron Suskind definitely got it right, but he was not the first to make the claim that this White House was driven by something not rooted in reality.
Paul Krugman discussed this in his book, The Great Unravelling, which I touched on in my interview with him.
Back in 1957, Henry Kissenger -- then a brilliant, iconoclastic young Harvard scholar, with his eventual career as cynical political manipulator and, later, as crony capitalist still far in the future -- published his doctoral dissertation, A World Restored. One wouldn't think that a book about the diplomatic efforts of Metternich and Castlereagh is relevant to U.S. politics in the twenty-first century. But the first three pages of Kissinger's book sent chills down my spine, because they seem all too relevant to current events.
In those first few pages, Kissinger describes the problems confronting a heretofore stable diplomatic system when it is faced with a "revolutionary power" -- a power that does not accept that system's legitimacy. ... It seems clear to me that one should regard America's right-wing movement -- which now in effect controls the administration, both houses of Congress, much of the judiciary, and a good slice of the media -- as a revolutionary power in Kissinger's sense. That is, it is a movement whose leaders do not accept the legitimacy of our current political system. [pp 5-6]
I believe that Bill Woodward reported this in his first book on Bush, but didn't really understand what was being said. Here's what he wrote that Bush believed:
But action, confident action, that will yield positive results provides a kind of slipstream into which reluctant nations and leaders can get behind and show themselves that there has been, you know, something positive has happened towards peace.
The whole idea that they've been playing out is that true confidence in setting the way will change reality. Many management books talk about how one can harness chaotic change to shape the future they want - and these guys live that. That was why I was not surprised to see Suskind's article because it was clear watching them that this was how they were governing. How about this article from March 2003 which describes Bush's management style wondering what would happen if it failed?
But another, emerging theme is the "riskiness" of the Bush leadership style, the notion that the single-minded pursuit of daring policies at home and abroad will reap either big rewards or big trouble.
With Bush juggling war, a diplomatic crisis and a stalled economy, there's a note of all-or-nothing suspense about his presidency.
"This one will either end with huge success or spectacular failure," Kettl suggests in an interview.
In a recent New York Times magazine piece about Bush's Reaganesque policy ambitions, Bill Keller hits a similar chord: "If (Bush) fails, my guess is that it will be a failure not of caution but of overreaching, which means it will be failure on a grand scale."
What Paul Krugman called Revolutionary Power, Eric Hoffer described in The True Believer. I think if you want to understand the crisis of our time, one should read that book again, because I think the world is facing two incipent mass movements -- the Islamic version with the face of bin Laden and the version with George Bush as leader of the Christian right looking to pull down the current world and replace it with their own theistic vision of the world.
And as you say, Jay, too many people (our press, our elected leaders and the Republican moderates) think this is too extreme. But it is what one sees when one looks at the actions and the results of this President. That's why you see so many worried Cassandras like me.
Andrew: When Suskind spoke at NYU, he said that his source for that story has recently checked in with him. He said source is still a senior official in the Administration. They had a conversation along the lines of, "We're okay? Yep, we're okay," Suskind said. Which means: I want to remain unnamed and you continue to respect that, right? Right.
Meanwhile, I got this rather interesting note from a reader. (Not that his suggestion would or could ever happen.)
Dear Jay Rosen,
I'm a licensed professional, a professional engineer (P.E.) I perceive that rules of professional conduct for recognized secular professions are premised on empiricism, fact-based reality, not on acting in such a way as to create reality, without much regard to current reality.
I am trying to spur Congressional oversight of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) and, to lesser degree, U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) for their compliance with relevant law in protecting federal employees from Prohibited Personnel Practices (PPPs), particularly whistleblower reprisal. There has been no such specific oversight since the Republican takeover in 1994, shortly after the law to protect federal employees from PPPs was last amended (significantly increasing the statutory obligations of OSC to protect feds from PPPs).
Frankly, I have become disappointed in the press. No matter how many facts I adduce about OSC/MSPB non-compliance with law (go here for eye-glazing detail - I really am a nuclear safety engineer!), there is no interest in a story to help spur such Congressional oversight.
As a licensed P.E., I have a positive duty to "blow whistles" when necessary to protect public health and safety. I suggest part of what ails the press is that there is little, if any, self-regulation of its practitioners (many of whom think it a trade, not a profession). While State licensure, an essential tool for regulating other professions, is not available to the press, other professions regulate themselves without State licensure, generally via national consensus boards which issue "board certified" credentials to their members, credentials that require adherence to rules of professional conduct to maintain.
The press failed in its job in Iraq and other areas under Bush, in many people's opinion. Why? What, if anything, does it evidence about inadequacies in the scope and implementation of journalism ethics? I think your profession is similar to mine in that its members are almost always employees in corporate settings - so what happens when the employer does not much care about the demands of their professions on some of their employees?
Say there were a national credentialing board for journalists and Suskind held the credential. Then, in making his case, he would have more credibility, because if evidence and arguments did not comport with the "standard of care" for journalists, he could be disciplined by the credentialing board, if someone advanced a valid complaint against him. Ditto Tony Snow - if he were credentialed, and did not comply with the rules of professional conduct of the credentialing body, he could be subject to professional discipline for it.
What is left out of your piece on Suskind is the focus on pragmaticism - "because we can" - employed. There is no individual professional consequence for being an illusionist, instead of an empiricist, in one's actions and statements, because their is no established professional standard of care that controls, apparently.
Joe Carson, P.E.
One of this team's key strategies is to keep everyone guessing. We act, you study.
Is Bush really in charge or is he a front for Cheney?
Is Iraq a disastrous mistake, or is the disaster all unfolding according to plan?
Is team Bush ignoring global warming because they don't understand it, or because they DO understand it, and they want it to happen?
If you do as Charles Newlin suggests above, and follow the money, you will see that, as he suggests, everything that has happened has been extraordinarily good for the very elements that bankrolled Bush-Cheney 2000.
Including a wasted decade in which the "sole superpower" failed to act on global warming ... virtually guaranteeing the further melting of the polar icecaps.
Which, of course, would open access to new oilfields -- as well as new shipping channels through what was once solid ice.
I think they are keeping so many balls moving in so many fields, that it is very difficult for any press entity, let alone the American people, to get a grasp on what is happening.
Make no mistake -- this is an information war that is being waged against the American people's right to know enough to make decisions. That aforementioned rejection of the fundamental principles of this Democracy is it -- these are royalists, not democrats. And this is Republicanism today -- government from the top down.
This is why Bush continually stresses, even now in talking about the war, how he is going to say, rather than what he is going to do.
From Abramowitz' analysis of Bush's WashPost interview:
"I, of all people, would like to see the troops come home," he said during the interview. "But I don't want them to come home without achieving our objective, because I understand what happens if there's failure. And I'm going to keep repeating this over and over again, that I believe we're in an ideological struggle that is -- that our country will be dealing with for a long time." (emphasis added)
The problem is not that anything is going wrong -- it's that the American people do not have the perception of reality that the Bush team desires them to have.
Therefore, repeat, repeat, repeat, until they get it.
I said above: (How did they "flummox the process"? Secrecy. Don't let anyone in the reality based community see our phase IV "plan". That might jeopardize achieving the war. It's all in Assassin's Gate.)
This is probably too much of a bumper sticker version. I should explain more: The dogma coming out of the OVP and DOD was "we will be greeted as liberators, Democracy will flower practically on its own." As George Will pointed out, this is not empirical, it's ideological dogma. It's a belief--a massive, generalized, historical determinist assumption.
And as George Packer described, the people who held this view tended to be Straussians--they valued secrecy. Why name something the "Office of Special Plans" if you didn't want to keep it secret? So lots of things were deliberately protected from sunshine.
One thing Packer does not go into that much is the details of the ongoing conflict between the Pentagon and the State Department. If, as Packer describes, there are so many empirical-thinking dissenters at the Pentagon (Shinseki, for example), there must have been even more reality-based assumptions at the Department of State. So much so that the Pentagon finally grabbed power and cut State out with NSPD 24. And what you finally had coming out of the process was something a bit naive, from a "nation building" perspective.
The dogma was further blocked from sunshine by the larger political necessities. If you wanted to appear to the UN like you hadn't made up your mind to go to war, you couldn't be seeking your advice from a very wide circle (say, other government departments like Agriculture or Commerce). At the same time, since their phase IV planning was so disorganized, and such an afterthought, you had to keep that secret as well. Packer says congress were given these "Zen-master-like" answers to phase four. So no reality-based review from congress. And of course, the last people that should hear about this state of affairs was the American people. As Packer put it, "The senior leadership at the Pentagon was very worried about the realities of the postconflict phase being known… Because if you are Feith or you are Wolfowitz, your primary concern is to achieve the war." In the end, what everyone was betting massively on the assumption that non-empirical dogma was right. We'll be greeted as liberators. Democracy will flower on its own.
For some reason we needed to rush. Probably there was politics in play. So phase IV was a shambles with little good reality-based review. Anyway, the consequences of these assumptions have been devastating. Packer quotes major Isaiah Wilson, a historian in a study group formed by Shinseki: "The United States, its Army, and its coalition of the willing have been playing catch-up ever since."
If you haven't already, read Packer's book.
Yes, we remember Orwell, who was mentioned in this thread. And I love a good "this is nothing new, haven't you ever heard of..." post. I've gotten hundreds and hundreds of them as a blogger. People cross the street to tell me that what I am saying isn't new, and then cross the street again to continue on their way.
Typically, I agree with them.
Thanks to all those who have spread links to "Retreat from Empiricism" in comment threads at other blogs. That actually works.
"Part of the problem of any thinking Republican within spitting distance of power entering into this conversation is where the conversation leads." True. Could be one reason they don't have the conversation.
And that's essentially what I argued about the press. If the implications are small-- that's a page A17 story. Medium, that's a front page, below-the-fold story. Large, Page One story with banner headline.
But at a certain point if a story is too large the incentives start to cut the other way. To report it would take more than a Page One story; it would take many over months. It would take a shift in assumptions. Moreover, after the shift a lot of the previously-reported stuff would be undermined, so you're talking about correcting prior coverage in which a lot of professional effort has been invested. That happens very rarely and only in cases of blatant collapse (as with WMD's.)
The longer a consensus narrative has served the engines of news, the harder it is to drop it. It drifts into the background of people's thinking, and they begin to speak and talk in ways that vindicate their own broken narrative.
"Realists vs. idealists" for example. I could just feel the relief in Washington when that old riff became usable again. It still works! they all shouted. Hark! The pragmatists have taken over from the ideologues. To every thing, turn, turn, turn. There is a season...
That's why I wrote my post. To interrupt all that. Like Suskind's original article, the attempt has failed. But it was still worth doing. I did get one email from a Washington bureau reporter (won't go on the record of course.) The message: Bravo.
I think that is totally on target, mjr.
How do you publicly discredit a watchdog? By doing outrageous things in the open and saying, "go ahead, assholes, bark at that."
If the press doesn't bark, that's some watchdog! Journalists absorb their own humiliation and now they know, "We're not the watchdogs. Not really." The humiliation saps their will, and makes them defensive when their own ineffectiveness is pointed out to them.
If the press does bark, but there is no outrage, again... some watchdog. Journalists absorb their humiliation and, in a different way, they now know, "We're no watchdog."
The press never caught on to the fact that the Bush team understood its weaknesses. If you're willing to take radical measures, the press will normalize those measures to avoid the radical changes it would take to keep up with you.
That's the significance of... Let?s see if there's any penalty for doing that.
Previous Administrations hadn't gone this far because they assumed a "penalty" would be extracted-- a hit in credibility, reputation, legitimacy, approval ratings, something.
What if there is no penalty? was the breakthrough that led to rollback.
JJW: Jason doesn't care about Packer, he doesn't care about George Will, or Suskind. The one he cares about discrediting at all costs is Tom Ricks.
Why? Because Ricks (a military correspondent for the Post) wrote a book that relies on sources and documents from within the military itself. His book is basically the reality-based military fighting back against the retreat from empiricism that it somehow permitted, a monumental mistake that will be studied for years and years in the military academies.
Notice how Jason goes for the total dismissal-- Ricks is incompetent, uninformed, clueless, wrong on the facts, wrong in his assumptions, wrong about everything! In 30 seconds, in 200 words his book falls apart. Falls a-part, I tell you!
Fiasco is what worries him. Because on page after page it documents the retreat from empiricism and exactly how it happened.
Well, I corresponded a little with Lawrence Wilkerson (Colonel in the Army, lifelong Republican), who was Colin Powell's chief aide, after he wrote in the Los Angeles Times about the people in the White House being radicals, not conservatives, which is an analytical club I belong to.
I sent him Rollback as an illustration of what he had been saying. This is what he wrote back:
"I agree with your analysis of the way this administration treats the press. They seem to believe that what they say, if they say it often enough, is the truth and there is no other truth."
And that's from someone who was around for these events (on the losing side in many power struggles that eventually forced Powell out, and on the losing side in Powell's UN Speech.)
Bush's interest in keeping the suspension of empiricism, and the War in Iraq alive to stave off defeat and massive reputation collapse will collide not only with a Congress recovering its oversight mission, but with the interests of the Republican Party in 2008 and beyond.
Are they willing to sacrifice the party for Bush? As the pressure grows on that group, the press will, I think, dig into that story. Intra-party tensions: there's dozens on templates for that! And there's a lot of people who feel as Wilkerson does. People within the GOP, the Pentagon, the Bush coalition. Everything that kept them from speaking up before has ended, is ending or will soon end.
The moment for heroism was a few years ago. I think Wilkerson knows that, but made up for lost time when he finally got out.
I don't see Bush being forced out by elders in the Party, no. And I don't see him backing down, either. But losing support, credibility, legitimacy, and the good opinion of former friends and supporters... yeah. Now Cheney is another story. A complete wild card, and a dangerous man.
I notice how Mr. Rosen can't deal with my arguments with Mr. Ricks on the merits.
Some "reality-base" there.
And comparing the press to a beaten wife, with Rove as the wife-beater?
That's one for the books.
No, I don't care about Will. I don't read him. I do read Ricks on occasion. I didn't set out to discredit him. He discredits himself based on his incredibly flawed perception of the Iraq war, specifically on verifiable factual issues which I pointed out, and with which Rosen cannot formulate a counterargument.
No. The "prevailing narrative" here is that Ricks is the victim of a Rovian wife-beater.
You guys are getting more laughable all the time. Press Think didn't use to be this way. It's becoming a cesspool of groupthink. True, it's become a cesspool of extremely articulate groupthink, because unlike the commenters at Pandagon and Kos, most of you guys write for a living.
Yes, I'm sure Ricks is to be commended for spending a few weeks in country. My own time in Ramadi, of course - which dwarfs Ricks' time in country, is immediately discounted by the "reality-biased" community.
Bear in mind the common fallacy of argument from authority. It's acceptable where all involved accept the authority of those cited. But when those cited include people like Ricks and Hersch (and why anyone would accept Wills as an authority on Iraq is beyond me - but this place isn't too good at assessing sources) - then arguing from authority falls apart.
Here's the difference between my arguments and Rosen's:
I cite facts; Rosen drops names.
No, Jason. Not names. I drop books on you. Books, Jason. Detailed books by people who know how to gather information and ask questions, with lots of quotes from other people who know way more, and assertions based on material taken from documents one can examine. (Along with some anonymous sources too.)
When Ricks wants to know what Norman Schwarzkopf thinks about the quality of the case for going to war, and the planning for what would happen after, he goes to speak to the retired General, who is in favor of going in after Saddam.
But the General tells him that it just doesn't seem that Rumsfeld has taken the reality of today's Iraq into account. And his team hasn't consulted the career military people who have spent a lifetime planning operations. That's two pages. There are 439 pages, plus the footnotes.
Now I understand that you demolished Tom Ricks in 30 seconds. No, he demolished himself inside 200 words, wasn't that it? Anyway, it was over pretty quick and Jason won. So much for that name.
It's not names, or some "authority" that is supposed to impress, but books you are supposed to read and grapple with. Think about, even. Books where lots of other people (who were in a position to know...) are speaking up. I have presented an interpretation based on those books. You keep saying, in your inanely catgeorical style, that I have offered "no evidence," but this is not so. I think if you read the evidence presented in these books...
* Ron Suskind's The Price of Loyalty
* Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine
* George Packer's The Assassins' Gate
* Thomas Ricks's Fiasco
* Bob Woodward's State of Denial
* Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor's, Cobra II.
You will find that a common theme is the retreat from empiricism, including reduced deliberation, oversight, fact-finding, field reporting, contingency planning based on what was likely to happen, with contemptuous treatment of career professionals who had been doing the planning, or who had studied the subject, whatever the subject. In hundreds upon hundreds of cases, these things were critical factors in the planning disaster that unfolded.
They tell a common tale. Reality-based policy making got dumped and the military got put in a very bad position as a result. But it's not just the military. These same events are the biggest defeat and black mark that the intelligence community has ever suffered, and the most consequential screw up in journalism (in the sense of getting the story wrong) post-World War II.
Here's Mark Danner on the retreat from empiricism, in a review of three books (Suskind's One Percent Doctrine, Woodward's State of Denial and James Risen's State of War...)
It is unlikely that the Pentagon's vision of a rapid departure ever could have worked, Bremer or no Bremer. What is striking, however, is the way that the most momentous of decisions were taken in the most shockingly haphazard ways, with the power in the hands of a few Pentagon civilians who knew little of Iraq or the region, the expertise of the rest of the government almost wholly excluded, and the President and his highest officials looking on. In the event, the Bush administration seems to have worked hard to turn Kennan's problem of knowing the facts on its head: the systemic failures in Iraq resulted in large part from an almost willful determination to cut off those in the government who knew anything from those who made the decisions. Woodward tells us, for example, that Stephen Hadley, then Rice's deputy and now her successor,
"first learned of the orders on de-Baathification and disbanding the military as Bremer announced them to Iraq and to the world. They hadn't been touched by the formal interagency process and as far as Hadley knew there was no imprimatur from the White House. Rice also had not been consulted. It hadn't come back to Washington or the NSC for a decision....
"One NSC lawyer had been shown drafts of the policies to de-Baathify Iraq and disband the military -- but that was only to give a legal opinion. The policymakers never saw the drafts, never had a chance to say whether they thought they were good ideas or even to point out that they were radical departures from what had earlier been planned and briefed to the president."
As for the uniformed military, the men who were responsible for securing Iraq and whose job would thus be dramatically affected both by de-Baathification and by the dissolution of the Iraqi army, they were given no chance to speak on either question. Woodward writes:
"General Myers, the principal military adviser to Bush, Rumsfeld and the NSC, wasn't even consulted on the disbanding of the Iraqi military. It was presented as a fait accompli.
"We're not going to just sit here and second-guess everything he does,' Rumsfeld told Myers at one point, referring to Bremer's decisions.
"I didn't get a vote on it,' Myers told a colleague, "but I can see where Ambassador Bremer might have thought this is reasonable.'"
Since it is the cashiered Iraqi troops who, broke, angry, and humiliated ("Why do you Americans punish us, when we did not fight?" as one ex-soldier demanded of me that October), would within days be killing Myers's soldiers with sniper fire and the first improvised explosive devices, one has to regard the general's expressed forbearance as uncommonly generous.
At the time, the civilians in the Pentagon had attained their greatest power and prestige. Rumsfeld's daily press conferences were broadcast live over the cable news channels, with an appreciative audience of journalists chortling at the secretary's jokes on national television.
And that, ladies and gentleman, is the retreat from empiricism. It's what Danner said: the "almost willful determination to cut off those in the government who knew anything from those who made the decisions."
Jay Rosen is certainly correct that the folly in Iraq stems not simply from a rejection of the tenants of one particular school of foreign policy, but rather from a general retreat from reality. But I have one quibble:
The distinction between action and behavior is not the most illuminating one to use here. I would instead opt for Arendt's carefully drawn distinctions between action and power, on the one side, and fabrication and force, on the other.
It is indeed in the nature of all political action to mobilize political power with the goal of shaping political reality. To attempt to read all political outcomes off of existing facts and trends, is to condemn oneself to being endlessly surprised (as, ironically enough, the neocons were surprised -- along with most everyone else -- by the collapse of Soviet power).
This was the all-too-persuasive grain of truth in that annonymous White House official's now-infamous assertion to Ron Susskind. Politics, after all, really is about things that can be other than they are, and to do politics is in some very real sense to change the world.
But there is a crucial qualification here, that decisively separates political action from all kinds of fabrication (the making of things being an ancient but deeply misguided metaphor for poltical action). This is that, in a political situation, other people are also present, and are also acting. They are not inert clay (as Wesley Clark recently put it while discussing Kagan's so-called "surge" option on the Diane Rhem show), passively suffering whatever we choose to do. We may indeed be among "history's actors" who "make" the world -- but, whoever we are, we are never alone in that capacity. This is the blatantly-obvious, but somehow easy-to-overlook aspect of the human condition that Arendt called "plurality."
The picture of politics as a kind of fabrication (naturally requiring a large quantity of force and violence to achieve its aims -- breaking eggs to make omelettes) gives rise to a recurrent fantasy of being the only true actors on history's stage. All others are mere creatures of one's superior designs.
Such a vision of politics is not foreign to any age or polity. It is a temptation internal to the hazards and uncertainties of political life. But always ends in the same way -- with the idea that all political action can be reduced to force; that, in Arendt's mordant phrase, "politics is a rather inefficient substitute for martial law." It always ends, in other words, with some version of the imperial temptation -- the fantasy that one is strongest when one is alone.
It is this old fantasy, elaborately redrawn by the White House and its allies in the right-wing media, that temporarily won the battle for elite (and I think also popular) public opinion in the anxious months after 9/11. That is why the so-called "reality-based community" seemingly had so few members in good standing in the Washington press corps during Bush's first term -- and indeed until quite recently.
That is also why the Baker-Hamilton Commission's recommendations for regional dialog were rejected out of hand by the administration. To have entertained them would have been to surrender the fantasy of which the entire Iraq policy has been an expression.
I have rather more faith in Tommy Franks' ability to understand the war than in Ricks', for example.
Now, once upon a time, when I was writing some essays from Iraq that were critical of some things, a number of reporters, including Ricks and Danner, contacted me by email, looking to develop stories, or follow up on things I wrote.
Now, eventually they stopped. Why? Well, what I was writing didn't fit in with the "tyranny of the prevailing narrative (TM)."
Here's the editorial policy: Bush = Bad. Rove = antichrist.
Now, reporters: Go fix your facts around the policy.
As for the books - well, a lot of the people most soundly criticized by Ricks, Danner, et. al are, well, busy fighting or directing a war. They don't have time to write books. In the fullness of time, they will.
Bremer has published a book. So has Franks. So has Georges Sada and Mahdi Obeidi. Oh, then there's the Hamza book, "Saddam's Bombmaker."
See, each of these books has some things in common, too: Specifically, these last three authors, all highly placed primary sources themselves, all agree that Saddam was hell-bent on developing WMD as soon as the sanctions were lifted.
In other words, Bush, et. al., was right.
I also have a hell of a lot more faith in Stephen Vincent's on-the-ground reporting than in Seymour (Five W's? What Five W's?) Hersh's.
Bill Roggio does a better job than any full-time reporter today reporting on the operational picture in Iraq by an order of magnitude. It's really not even close.
Then there's Stephen Hayes, who's been a one-man tour-de-force.
I notice the groupthinkers here don't bring any of these guys up very much.
Bill Sammon has written a couple of books himself - "Strategery" and "Misunderestimated" - both of which would take issue with the prevailing narrative you set forth by namedropping as though that were somehow conclusive.
Now, I will concede that Sammon has long been a partisan. But I concede that point mostly to shine a spotlight on your endearing, childlike faith that Ricks, Danner, and Hirsh are not every bit as partisan as Sammon is.
Ok, so you got to drop your names. And I dropped some of mine. Big frigging deal.
Those of us in the "reality-based community" prefer to deal in facts, not names.
We also prefer the concrete to the ethereal.
You know...like a good reporter?
Jus' sayin,' y'all.
Happy holidays, everyone.
Jason: I have rather more faith in Tommy Franks' ability to understand the war than in Ricks', for example.
Which underscores the point of this discussion.
You tell us that Saddam was hell-bent on producing WMDs after sanctions were lifted.
And that Bush, therefore, was right.
But the Bush argument was that Saddam HAD WMD's, and could deploy them imminently (within 45 minutes as I recall was Tony Blair's assertion).
The prevailing COUNTERARGUMENT was that the sanctions were working to prevent Saddam from acquiring WMDs.
With this, you appear to agree when you say that "Saddam was hell-bent on developing WMD as soon as the sanctions were lifted."
But when you agree with that premise, you ain't agreeing with Bush.
I suspect your aim here is to muddy the water of this discussion by driving it off-topic.
This is NOT a discussion of the quality of war reporting. It is a discussion of reporting on policy-making.
Jason, what evidence do you have that Bush policy agrees with the facts as they are, rather than the facts being fixed around the stated policy goal? Which of your preferred reporters' accounts show that any of this was based on actual evidence that, for example, Saddam posessed WMDs and had links to al Qaeda and therefore posed an imminent threat?
The argument Jay makes is that
1. under Bush, the "facts" are fixed to support the policy aims.
2. that was pointed out by partisan Republican sources in Suskind's piece.
3. after Suskind, that story was underreported or not reported.
You are arguing that premise 1. is invalid, but you have not presented any evidence to support your claim. You are arguing that premise 2. is invalidated because other inside sources contradict those Republicans, but you have not supplied any evidence.
Well, whether Saddam Hussein had WMDs is now settled fact. He did.
Now, if your fund of information is so limited that you didn't know that, then you aren't ready to assess the formulation of policy, because you don't have the grasp of the concrete neccessary to make sound arguments concerning the ethereal (e.g., the so-called "retreat from empiricism.")
As for "imminent threat," please point out for me where Bush ever made that claim. The whole point was to remove Saddam before the threat became "imminent."
As for engaging the authors Jay cited, I started with Ricks and was very specific in my criticisms of Ricks. No one has bothered to address them on the merits.
I've also made specific criticisms of Hersh. Again, no one has tried to defend Hersh on the merits of his recent reporting (how's that hunt for the footage of the soccer game going, Sy?)
As for Lovelady's "errand boy" comment, that comment says a lot more about his own pettiness than it says about me.
He also makes a specific factual claim he can't back up: that I was "sent" by someone.
Sent by whom, scoop?
Let's have the goods.
As for the burden of proof, that burden is on Rosen, not me. Rosen is making the affirmative claim: That the Bush Administration is divorced from empiricism.
I simply pointed out that he hasn't posted his evidence for it. And "Because Ricks, et. al. say so" is an argument from authority fallacy. Ricks is not an authority. Someone he uses as a source might be...but Rosen has not developed his argument to that level as yet.
I mean, it may well be true - the Harriet Myers decision is certainly a case of some very suspect decisionmaking processes. I think something probably is awry at the White House. But not for the reasons set forth here.
The argument Jay makes is that
1. under Bush, the "facts" are fixed to support the policy aims.
Yes, that argument is nothing new. As TallDave pointed out, that's something different from retreating from empiricism. I think all of us were conflating empiricism from reason, in the classical sense, as applied to decision making.
My argument is as follows:
1. In today's news media, the facts are made to fit around editorial policy.
In my post on Ricks' book linked to above, I pointed out a number of specific factual errors Ricks make - and these factual errors represent assumptions underlying Ricks' entire argument. They are the same factual errors (misconceptions? Myths? Lies?) underlying Rosen's argument.
To recap, here are some of the misconceptions off the top of my head:
1.) That Saddam had no WMDs (false)
2.) That Saddam had nothing to do with Al Qaeda (false)
3.) That there were no terrorists in Iraq before we invaded (false)
4.) That the invasion was launched with "scant international support" (false)
5.) That the Administration overruled the advice of commanders and forced them to go into Iraq with fewer troops than commanders wanted (false)
6.) Shinseki was retired early (false)
But since all these assumptions support the editorial policy (Bush = bad), they get rereported uncritically time and time and time again. They become part of the gheist of the beltway, as accepted as the bluish color of the sky.
But all of them are demonstrably false.
The facts are fit around the editorial policy. The press corps is guilty of failing to check its underlying assumptions.
To the extent the press perpetuates these myths, then I would posit that it is the news media that has divorced itself from empiricism.
And if this is the case, then you cannot make any reliable judgements concerning the Administration based on news media reports.
This is why the laziness endemic in the news profession - the intellectual slovenliness, the poor critical thinking, the arguments from authority, the petty, childish ad hominems of Lovelady, and the utter intransigence of people like Kathleen Carroll of the Associated Press is so destructive.
By the way - how's that hunt for police captain Jamil Hussein coming?
Last I looked the same reporter who quoted him most recently also makes reference to a morgue that turns out not to exist.
Find Jamil Hussein. Then talk to us about a retreat from reason.
Until then, the press is just as unreliable as a press release.
The are very polarizing times. I've even had trouble when discussing things with my fellow liberals. It seems like everyone is so quick to take the gloves off these days, like they're too weary to have much curiousity about the other position...
I have deep respect for conservatives. As Woodrow Wilson said, "Burke was right." There were tons of things that Burke got right and his liberal contemporaries got wrong.
But there is a reason why the term "reactionary" was coined. There are conservatives and there are reactionaries. While conservatives are trying to conserve, which is laudable, reactionaries believe they're setting things right, but don't understand the past that they're bringing us back to. And as we can see today, that effort not only hurts others, but hurts themselves as well. Because there are reasons why we have the traditions we do. And reactionaries are not conserving traditions-- they're disrupting them.
George Deutsch, with his limited education and completely unearned power, thinks he is setting things right by stifling James Hanson. But before Hanson, there were generations of scientists who published lots of inconvenient findings that shook up the establishment. And we have a long tradition of letting scientists do that in this country. And in some cases, they helped build the country in the first place.
The architects of the Iraq War think they were setting things right by cutting out the reality-based people in the State Department, in favor of Rumsfeld's Pentagon. But before Lawrence Wilkerson and Rachel Raphel, there were a a number of educated people a couple of centuries ago who talked about winning hearts and minds. (And they did not mean just having a bunch of flacks in a PR office.)
Karl Rove thinks he's setting things right by bypassing the smarty pants academics who came up with polling methodology. But before Robert Siegel, there were all the intelligent people who developed statistics, and there was Karl Rove's math teacher. And there was Karl Rove's mother, who told him to have a Plan B.
I'm probably being a little bit of a smart alec here myself. But without a doubt it's true, there's a big difference between a conservative, whom I respect, and a reactionary, who I think is dangerous--even to him or herself.
I think this provocative essay by Sidney Blumenthal, published after the elections, got it right.
Kristen. Since my webmaster installed Movable Type version 3, I have had innumerable problems. It's the usual software industry thing: too many features jammed into a system overgrown, and only the most tech-savvy users can figure them out.
Anyway, your comment was awaiting moderation and when I saw it, I published it. My apologies.
You ask: are we having a philosophical discussion? Maybe we are, but with Jason, no. Strictly culture war theatre. Jason says: Gen. Shinseki was not forced to retire! True, he retired on schedule as Army chief. Is that a concession? Then I concede. Jason is right about that. Right, right, right. Facts, facts, facts. Score one for Jason! Did you hear me? Good!
And (this part Jason does not tell you, but Ricks does...) Rumsfeld named his replacement 15 months before the retirement date so as to completely undercut his authority, Wolfowitz said Shinseki's estimates for how many troops were needed were "wildly off the mark," and the message went out that the Bush Administration doesn't want to hear what commanders really think. (Wolfowitz also said the Iraq operation would pay for itself through oil revenues, which was not a reality-based statement.)
And that's what "van Steenwyk's earnest effort" is all about. It's hand-to-hand combat about disconnected facts that might discredit the other side. I call that culture war theatre. You can call it what you want. It has nothing to do with debate.
On some of our other terms...
I think of empiricism as all efforts to understand the world based on experience, observation and seeing what happens in the world when you choose a particular course of action. This is what Bushco dumped. Defenders of the military ought to be very mad about it. Why they aren't is a mystery to me. Probably they are but culture war prevents them from saying so.
Bush's doctine of pre-emption is a rational policy, Kristen. I can follow the logic of it, and it does not assume divine intervention. It is also a radical one, and in my view misguided. I want Bush to be called a radical because it is more descriptive.
Might makes right.
That could have been written by King George III. I guess we're back to fuedalism.
No, might does not make right. Right makes right, by definition.
This goes to my central argument in this thread - the young man at NASA was entirely, 100% correct in referring to the Big Bang theory as just that - a theory to explain observable phenomena.
The Big Bang is a theory, not a fact. That is a fact. My criticism is this: The fact didn't matter a whit to you. You wanted to slam this young man, and by extention, the entire administration, and damn the facts.
You were willing to mis-state the first amendment in order to do so.
You were willing to pervert the meaning of the word "censorship" in order to do so.
You were not willing, however, to look hard enough into this particular instance to examine whether your assumptions were correct - you are bound and determined to think the worst of this young man, and so the ignorant version of events MUST be true, because that's what gives you a warm feeling inside. Sort of like wetting the bed.
When someone like me comes along, and takes a minute to examine the facts of the case, and determines that - wait a minute - the PR guy was RIGHT about that, and brings it to your attention, you can't refute it.
Obviously, you can't sit and continue to argue that the Big Bang theory is NOT a theory - a pointless and idiotic position to take, though you did your best when you tried to argue that the Big Bang was an observable phenomenon.
And of course, you can't do the honorable thing and concede "well, you're right, the Big Bang is a theory after all, and so this probably is a lousy example of the Administration behavior I'm trying to highlight."
So, having been forced to abandon your original assumptions because your grasp of factual matters was faulty, you try to avoid any factual discussion whatsoever by invoking "might makes right" - in a situation wholly inapproprate for that construction.
You also invoke King George III because... because...well, not because of anything I can figure out. It's a big red herring designed to distract the reader from your having been p3wned on the original facts.
Nevertheless, I'm sticking to my guns, and pointing out that the Big Bang theory is still a theory, and whether the person insisting that it is a theory is small or great has zero bearing on whether he's right.
It's a very minor skirmish. After all, who really cares what these two knuckleheads think?
But it neatly encapsulates the thought patterns here.
There's an old saying among lawyers: If the facts are on your side, bang on the facts. If the facts aren't on your side, bang on the law. If you have neither the facts nor the law, bang on the table.
I find I can usually tell who has the better of an argument by looking to see who is directing the discussion to the facts, and who trying to lead the discussion away from the facts, toward the abstract and ethereal.
Hell, even worse, Rosen's name dropping. "ooh, so and so thinks like I do."
Well, that's not evidence.
I'm the one here banging on facts.
Now, Senator Smith is approvingly quoted here, saying he was "devastated to learn that we were not going to find WMDs."
Here's another fact:
Smith is wrong.
We found a number of them.
Here's another fact: A forum, ostensibly made up of journo types, let that go by without examination. Instead, they're using a falsehood as evidence to bolster their Bush = bad position.
Now, it falls to me to point that out.
The predictable reaction, of course, will be to dismiss the facts, as represented by me, as so much "culture war theater."
But it's not. It's the truth.
That remains the truth, regardless of my motivations. Even if I were here to fight a "culture war" (your term, not mine), it still would not change the underlying fact that we found hundreds of chemical munitions, intact.
That fact has to be dealt with.
Unlike you, I don't have to fantasize about troops and their views. I know quite a few of them, personally. You might call it an occupational perk.
It may surprise you, for example, that we had a broad spectrum of opinion within my own unit in Ramadi in 2003 and 2004 - and my own copies of The New Yorker were greedily consumed by my colleagues there - especially the many Democrats, many of whom were critics of Rumsfeld, et. al back then.
You may be interested to know that, you know, having shared a veranda with some 30 soldiers myself, we might talk amongst ourselves once in a while and otherwise get to know one another.
Unlike you, I don't have to rely on polls to learn what's being said at the E-1 to O-4 level.
The survey, of course, demonstrates nothing beyond itself - and contradicts nothing I've ever said or written. It establishes that there is a continuum of opinion within the ranks of the military that looks somewhat like that within the U.S. population as a whole.
Imagine that. Those poor little "Halp Us Jon Carry" people actually hold opinions of their own.
The facts are the facts, and it doesn't matter what a survey says about how people percieve them - especially when we have a corps of newspeople so inept or corrupt.
Your red herring establishes nothing beyond your unwillingness, shared with Rosen, Lovelady, et. al., to seriously examine the faulty factual premises upon which you have constructed your argument.
I've just finished reading the last of your links, Jay, from this paragraph (my bolding):
Today it is extremely difficult to find language adequate to "reality gets dumped," which is still in most respects an unbelievable and unbelieved tale, even though we know a lot about it from columnists like Dan Froomkin, Frank Rich, Hendrick Hertzberg and Eric Boehlert, from sites like Tomdispatch.com and writers like Mark Danner.
Since I don't read any of these writers at all regularly (some not at all) I also took the time to read quite a bit of other material from all of them and check out their biographies.
Aye. Yi. Yi. Ditto Enoch.
That list is exactly why in junior high the teacher would say "Remember, guys, when you do research, you can use ONE encyclopedia only, the rest of yours sources have to be different." Those writers seem like clones of each other... ivy league, mostly Harvard, liberal arts degrees, maybe journalism with a little history thrown in. They've all made their entire livings describing and commenting on what everyone else is doing, and that from similar points of view.
This is not trust inducing. In fact, when Mark Danner starts quoting Suskind in speeches as a source and Dan Froomkin peddles Frank Rich's book you gotta wonder "Is the whole thing rigged?"
Here's one take on Hendrick Hertzberg:
BTW, I liked that Audacious link. Short to listen to, but to the point.
And Tim...thank you for those great links!
Thanks to all participants. Thread now closed.
Tim: I am working my way through your links and if I have something to say on them, I will let you know. (It's hard to read pdf's unless you can print them out and right now I am traveling and cannot do that.) Of course I was asking for your take, but obviously your feel constrained in that, which I suppose is understandable given how sensitive the subject of Phase IV planning is.
Kristen: "clones of each other" is a remarkably dismissive attitude. But as I said in the sentence you refer to, "reality gets dumped" is still in most respects an unbelievable and unbelieved tale. You have demonstrated that, and so has this thread.
I said earlier my post had failed, just as Suskind's original article had failed in its aim: to warn about the retreat from empiricism. The comments "improved" on that failure, adding Cindy Sheehan, Derrida, deconstruction, Noam Chomsky, John Kerry and all the acrid smoke of culture war to further befog the subject. The befogging was, I believe, intentional. It worked, too.
Not the worst-ever thread at PressThink but certainly one of the worst.
One of the more grimly amusing parts of it was that the retreat from empiricism was presented (by the same participants!) as both an impenetrably academic idea, out of which no sense could be made, and at the same time quite comprehensible so that it could be turned around and applied to me, as the one allegedly engaging in the retreat from empiricism, a charge repeated endlessly until by the end the word "empirical" had no meaning left at all, which was probably the point.
I'm sure I will return to the subject in another post, and the chances are that it will fail, too.