Stardate 20021202.1502

(Captain's log): Anthony, in Canada, was inspired by the end of this post to write to me recently as follows:

Re: "For us as citizens, then, it becomes necessary to pick leaders and then trust them to lead, and accept that they will do things which they cannot explain. We must trust them, and understand that they cannot trust us. All we can do is to hope we've picked well. History will tell those of us who survive whether we did."

If the above statement is true, then you, and the rest of the U.S. citizens as well as us who also bear the brunt of your leader's decisions, are right and truly fucked. Such a venal, cowardly morally-bankrupt group of chiken-hawk mandarins beholden to the most vile special interests have never before succeeded in seizing power and wielding it so mindlessly.

You talk of Zhukov. Rumsfeld and Bush and Cheney will make him look like a piker.

I don't mind principled sacrifice in time of crisis. I do not, and I think most of the rest of the world that you seem to belittle on a regular basis also do not, believe that this administration in the U.S. is capable of grasping the nuance of the struggle ahead. Churchill would have. Eisenhower as well. Bush strikes me, using the WWII template, as more of a Stalin; interested more in raw power and then couching that cupidity in patriotic aphorisms.

What is truly sad is that the rest of us will continue to pay the price for his folly. Especially those of us who cannot influence democratically the choice of 'leader of the free world.'

I responded:

"If the above statement is true, then you, and the rest of the U.S. citizens as well as us who also bear the brunt of your leader's decisions, are right and truly fucked. Such a venal, cowardly morally-bankrupt group of chiken-hawk mandarins beholden to the most vile special interests have never before succeeded in seizing power and wielding it so mindlessly. You talk of Zhukov. Rumsfeld and Bush and Cheney will make him look like a piker."

I'm afraid I don't agree. I think that this country was unbelievably lucky in how the 2000 election came out, and I shudder to think of how Al Gore would have dealt with this.

I voted for Gore, and now I'm really glad he lost.

I'd just like to mention in passing that if you are writing to someone who holds a position radically different than your own, then to use this kind of invective and hyperbole is counter-productive if you hope to persuade him to your own point of view. It's a really good way to preach to the choir, or to prove your bona fide to others on your side, but not a good way to influence your opponents.

It's like those guys who sometimes set up a soap box in a busy street and preach about how we're all damned and how the end of the world is coming. If such a person ever actually converted anyone, I've never heard of it. But I'm not sure that deep down that's truly their motivation; what they're really doing is to prove to themselves, to their fellows, and to God, that they're truly committed to whatever-the-heck sect it is they're part of. I don't think that anti-war bloggers are all quite that nuts, but it does seem as if much of what they write is primarily posturing, more for purposes of proving their own ideological purity than to actually influencing anyone.

Anthony himself characterized this as a "rather histrionic attack" in a later letter, so I have hope. Whether you actually think this kind of thing is true, saying it this way discredits you; it's bad tactics. It's worth making the effort to come across as even-tempered and reasonable, instead of relying on slogans and volume and a rising blood pressure.

He has now written again:

"I'm afraid I don't agree. I think that this country was unbelievably lucky in how the 2000 election came out, and I shudder to think of how Al Gore would have dealt with this. I voted for Gore, and now I'm really glad he lost."

This really puzzles me. I have heard a number of Americans say the same thing, and I'm baffled. Exactly how would Gore have done anything worse than what Bush has done? What do you see in Bush that the rest of us miss? Is there something, besides arsenic, in the water down there?

To continue with the WWII analogy, to do anything other than what Bush did would have shown leadership. Truman when he came to office was presented with the decision on whether to drop the bomb. However, it was not really a decision; the forces within Washington were so aligned that not to drop the bomb would have required more fortitude and political capital than Truman had at the time. Similarly, to do anything else but to attack Afghanistan would have required more fortitude and political capital than Bush had. In such circumstances, who the man in office is is irrelevent. And therefore, Gore would have done the same as Bush. This, therefore, is the root of my puzzlement. If Gore would have done the same as Bush, then why the relief that Bush won?

I keep running into this attitude from those on the left: the only way you can demonstrate independence is by doing something other than what your enemy wants you to do.

It is, perhaps, a natural failing of the young. They prove their independence from their parents by doing things which scandalize them, which is why each generation seeks new and better ways to make themselves look really strange by earlier standards. (My generation's men grew their hair long. Kids now are into tattoos and body piercing.) But I'm afraid that it's a substitute for thought. It isn't independence, it's just contrarianism.

The Women's Liberation movement was driven by this in the early days. If men want women to be beautiful, and valued women because of their beauty, then the response is for all women to make themselves ugly. Being beautiful was giving in; so women had an obligation wear plain unflattering clothes (baggy, to not reveal any curves) and not style their hair in any way and not make any attempt to be attractive.

Eventually there was a backlash among women about this and other aspects of the women's movement as it became increasingly strange. The backlash said that the women's movement had reacted to the niche men had been putting women into by creating a different niche and trying to force all women into it instead. If men had been trying to keep women beautiful, barefoot and pregnant, then the women's movement had been (in its most extreme form) trying to make them ugly, lesbian, career-oriented and childless.

What the backlash said was that trading one set of chains for another wasn't liberation. Instead of creating new better niches, they should be working to get rid of niches entirely. The real goal of "Women's Liberation" was to let every woman make up her own mind, to be what she wanted to be. Some women wanted to be homemakers, and that was OK. A lot of them actually liked men and didn't want to feel guilty because of it. And most of them wanted kids.

If a woman made herself beautiful because she thought she had to because men told her to, that was bad. But if a woman made herself beautiful because she liked being beautiful and because being beautiful made her feel good about herself, then that was good. (Or because being beautiful made it easier for her to manipulate men.) It was the process and motivation which were important, not the end result. Doing what your purported opponent wanted wasn't automatically wrong.

On a few occasions I've had some of the more rabid leftist bloggers throw at me a claim that having the US go to war against the Arab nations was exactly what Osama bin Laden wanted us to do, and that by advocating war I was playing into his hands. Leaving aside for the moment whether that's actually what bin Laden and the members of his organization wanted (which is open to serious doubt) it doesn't really matter. If I think that going to war is the best thing my nation can do, then I will advocate it whether my enemy wants it or not. To make foreign policy goals simply by automatically gainsaying what my enemy says is idiocy.

And to decide that because someone goes with the flow that they are indecisive is also wrong. I ran into that in the OS wars way back when, with OS/2 users fairly routinely referring to Windows users as "sheep", with the dual implication of them being shorn by Microsoft regularly and them doing what the crowd does because they're stupid. To a great extent, I got involved in the OS wars (then, against OS/2, and now, with the Mac faithful) to try to counter that point of view. I use Windows because it is, in fact, the best solution for me. I've considered the choices carefully and I fully understand all the ramifications, and the mere fact that I'm doing the same thing as the majority doesn't mean I'm meekly following the crowd. It just happens to be the case that the decision I made, deliberately and consciously, was the same direction as the majority of desktop computer users.

If you let your opponent make your decisions for you, you paint yourself into a box. The right way to deal with a situation is to evaluate it on the merits and then decide what course of action is the best one available to you, without regard to your enemy's propaganda. When the President does that, it's leadership. It doesn't matter whether the decision goes against orthodoxy or agrees with it, whether it seems to align with what an enemy claims to want or not. You can't judge leadership from the results. Leadership and independence in decision making are aspects of the process, not of the conclusion.

But this idea that the only way you can prove that you're a free thinker is by reflexively opposing the existing power structure seems ingrained in the university culture. (Fortunately, most people outgrow it once they leave the womb and actually start earning a living.) But this isn't necessarily independence; it's just being contrary.

It lost the Democrats the last election. Since the Republicans were favoring war, the Democrats decided they had to oppose it, though I think it bothered a lot of them because deep down many of them knew war was necessary. But given the policy bankruptcy of the Democratic party, they were increasingly casting themselves pretty much solely as the anti-Republicans.

With respect to the war, they could have chosen a different position. "They, the Republicans, favor war because they want to stomp on our enemies. We also favor war in Iraq, but primarily for the benefit of the Iraqi people, to liberate them from Saddam's cruelty and to give them a better life. We support this war, but only on condition that the administration commit to nation-building afterward to make sure that the biggest winners are the Iraqi people." I think that's a position a lot of Democrats in Congress would have supported. But being reflexively anti-Republican forced them at least publicly to oppose the war outright, instead of debating the goals and motives behind the decision to go to war. And since a very strong majority of Americans favor war in Iraq, it cost the Democrats votes. (Fortunately, when it really came down to it and when it really required making a decision about the fate of the nation instead of the results of the next election, a lot of the Democrats in the Senate voted their conscience and passed the authorization for war in Iraq without attaching unreasonable limits to it. I give the Democratic Senators who did that full marks.)

You can end up trying to justify preposterous positions when you let your opponent choose your position for you. That's probably the biggest reason you should not do so. You can't for instance, ignore the possibility that your political opponent (e.g. the other party) might actually be right about a given issue, and you can't ignore the possibility that your military opponent (e.g. bin Laden) is an idiot and that when he is trying to make you attack that he's digging his own grave.

Anthony's description of Truman's decision to use nuclear weapons on Japan is, I'm afraid, revisionist fantasy. I've studied that era very heavily and there can be no doubt that Truman truly made that decision and wasn't manipulated into it. It was not inevitable. (I also think that it was the correct decision, but I don't care to go into that any further at this time; that's for another day.)

I do not believe that it's the case that a passive and easily manipulated President would have been ended up doing what we did in response to last year's attack, either. The idea that Bush simply went with the flow and let war happen (because, of course, <insert your own comment about low level of Bush intellect here>) also doesn't survive the light of day.

If Gore would have done the same as Bush, then why the relief that Bush won? Because I don't believe Gore would have done the same thing. That's based in part on the history of the Clinton administration (over which, admittedly, a Vice President has little influence) and also on the kinds of speeches he's been making ever since the attack, most notably in the last six months.

Anthony doesn't agree with what Bush actually decided, but that doesn't mean that what Bush did wasn't "leadership". It just means that Anthony doesn't like the direction Bush is leading us.

I do not believe that the decision to take out the Taliban was something forced on Bush by the existing structure in Washington, and that pretty much anyone occupying the office would have found it nearly impossible to do anything else. On the contrary, there's every reason to believe that the primary motivation for the attack, and also for the way it was carried out, came from the White House, out of the inner circle of advisors that Bush brought with him to Washington after he was elected. (There were reports last year, after the fact, of the real process which was involved. Bush let Rumsfeld and Powell and Rice and a couple of other people debate the issues and present alternatives while he listened. Then he went away and spent a few hours thinking, and returned and said, "This is what we're going to do" and started giving orders.)

It is, of course, nearly futile to try to speculate about exactly what would have happened if Gore had been President; opinions will vary enormously and it's impossible for anyone to prove that they're right.

But I think we would have seen something more like Clinton's reaction to the attacks on our embassies in Africa: launch a few hundred Tomahawks, make a really fierce speech, say "Let that be a lesson to you", and then engage in major diplomacy. I think we would have seen yet another "measured response". Ties with Europe would have been strengthened and American foreign policy would have come more into tune with European attitudes. Gore would have listened to and done what the State Department suggested.

America would have become far more multilateralist and a lot more of us would have died in the next al Qaeda attack against us, because none of this would have significantly reduced their capabilities or reduced their willingness to attack us.

What we needed, and what we ended up getting, was a Jacksonian response. Gore is not Jacksonian; his speeches in the last few months have been very Wilsonian (if not outright approaching Transnational Progressivism, which is well beyond anything Wilson would have advocated) and in my opinion a Wilsonian response to this situation would have been suicidal.

Based on what he's written to me, I suspect that Anthony indeed favored a Wilsonian approach to the situation. I do not; I think Jacksonianism was the only path that can save us. It happens that Bush is following the path I agree with, and one Anthony apparently despises.

But none of that proves lack of leadership or inability to demonstrate independence. Even if there were the kind of pressure on the President to follow the path he did (and that's open to very significant doubt; if anything, the pressure was the other way) then the fact that he did what he did doesn't prove that he was weak-willed or weak-minded. Leadership manifests in the process, not the conclusion, and sometimes a strong-willed leader will indeed decide to do what his underlings recommend, because he has decided that they're right.

Gad; the spell-checker pointed out that I had written "Demoncratic Party". No, I do not think that. Begone, Freud! Out! Out!

Update 20021204: Colby Cosh comments. (Blush)


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