July 09, 2006

Trapped in the Wrong Paradigm: Three Handy Rules

[Update added at the end.]

In connection with several critical issues, I have recently been discussing one overall theme. I will put it in bold letters all by itself, so that I'm clear with regard to what I'm talking about here:
When you argue within the framework and using the terms selected by your opponent, you will always lose in the end. Even if you make a stronger case about one particular issue, your opponent still wins the larger battle -- because you have permitted the underlying assumptions and the general perspective to remain unchallenged.
Here are recent examples I've analyzed in detail:

One: The war in Iraq has been "bungled" and executed "incompetently." It remains a matter of considerable astonishment to me that even very strong opponents of the invasion and occupation of Iraq still make the argument in this form. This entirely avoids the fundamental and most critical point: Iraq was no threat to us, and our leaders knew it. Therefore, the war and invasion were and are immoral and absolutely unjustified.

I repeat: the entire war and occupation are immoral. If you criticize the Bush administration on the grounds that it "bungled" the war, this leaves one, and only one, inevitable implication: if they had prosecuted the war and occupation "competently," then you would have no complaints whatsoever. That is: you think the invasion and occupation of Iraq were justified and moral. If that's what you actually think, you belong in the Bush camp. You're arguing over managerial style, and about issues that are entirely trivial.

Be clear on the ultimate result: you've given the game away completely, because you leave the moral argument for the war entirely in the hands of Bush and his supporters. They could not ask for more because, in the end, the moral agument is the most important one. [I have made this point before: "The worst criticism to be offered about the catastrophe in Iraq by most members of the political establishment is that it was handled 'incompetently.' They are unable to say that our invasion of Iraq was immoral at the core, because they refuse to surrender the belief that we act for the 'right reasons' and on behalf of history's 'ultimate solution,' which only we have. We may execute the plan remarkably poorly, but it can never be doubted that we had 'good intentions.'"]

My position is the exact opposite: since the war and occupation are entirely immoral, the results would be infinitely worse if they had prosecuted this fatal error "competently." I suppose proponents of the "competence" argument mean that we would have put more troops in place immediately, that security would thereby have been significantly improved, and the like. That's a lovely fantasy for some perhaps, but that's all it is. It's a fairy tale because it ignores the history and culture of Iraq itself -- which, I remind you, was a fabricated country dreamed up in London after World War I, by British government personnel who for the most part knew nothing whatsoever about the region they so heedlessly rearranged.

Moreover, the British tried the "competence" route for years after World War I, and it failed completely. After a great deal of bloodshed and mayhem, they finally left -- and nothing remotely approaching a Western "democracy" had been established. But if they had succeeded, and if we were to "succeed" in that manner today, we would have an example of the British Empire at its most "efficient": a puppet government in thrall to the U.S., under our control in all the ways that matter, and doing our bidding entirely. Is this what people mean by "competence" and "success"? If so, stop talking about "freedom" and "democracy." Talk about the glories of Empire, and be done with it. (I ruefully note that just such a puppet government is likely to be what we end up with in any case, but probably after much more mayhem and death than occurred during the British episode.)

Better yet, reject that paradigm altogether, and use a much more accurate one. The war and occupation were and are completely wrong, and nothing will ever make them right. End of story.

Two: It's important to "get the intelligence right" the next time. I've discussed this at length -- here (about Seymour Hersh's latest Iran article), and here (about the irrelevance of intelligence), in particular. See this entry, too, for an especially valuable excerpt from Gabriel Kolko on this subject ("The function of intelligence anywhere is far less to encourage rational behavior--although sometimes that occurs--than to justify a nation's illusions, and it is the false expectations that conventional wisdom encourages that make wars more likely, a pattern that has only increased since the early twentieth century.").

Once again, I put the major point in bold letters all by itself:
Intelligence is completely irrelevant to major policy decisions. Such decisions are matters of judgment, and knowledgeable, ordinary citizens are just as capable of making these determinations as political leaders allegedly in possession of "secret information." Such "secret information" is almost always wrong -- and major decisions, including those pertaining to war and peace, are made entirely apart from such information in any case.
The second you start arguing about intelligence, you've given the game away once again. This is a game the government and the proponents of war will always win. By now, we all surely know that if they want the intelligence to show that Country X is a "grave" and "growing" threat, they will find it or manufacture it. So once you're debating what the intelligence shows or fails to show, the debate is over. The war will inevitably begin. This is the point I've made with regard to Iran repeatedly. The administration's plans are entirely clear: they intend to attack Iran. The only questions are when, and what the specific "excuse" will be.

That's why I again explained my vehement, unqualified opposition to an attack on Iran in the current circumstances -- and see this earlier essay for the longer argument. Just as I don't care whether Iraq had WMD or not, I don't care whether Iran has nuclear weapons or not -- not with regard to the decision to launch an attack. Even if Iran should have nuclear weapons -- and again, even if they are actually pursuing them, they will not have them for five to ten years or longer -- that is not a sufficient reason to go to war. Moreover, the consequences of an attack on Iran will certainly be devastating, and perhaps catastrophic -- and not least for our own security and safety.

To repeat: the decision to go to war is one of policy, and the intelligence -- whatever it is alleged to show -- is irrelevant. Don't argue in terms of intelligence at all. If you do, you'll lose. The administration knows that; many of its opponents still haven't figured it out, even now.

Three: The press will always transmit and amplify government propaganda, and this is especially true with regard to war propaganda. This is so axiomatic that I admit it is quite beyond me how anyone could even question it. The execrable performance of the New York Times and Judith Miller, as well as that of the rest of the mainstream media, in the runup to the invasion of Iraq is now very well-known, and it has been documented in painful detail. But as I had occasion to point out some months ago, the sins of the Times during that period included much more than the dutiful propagandistic stenography of Miller. And as that same post discusses, the Times has already fallen for the administration's propaganda about the supposed threat that Iran represents in toto. If the Times has since recanted its view that "Iran has a nuclear weapons program..." -- which the Times offered as an absolutely uncontested fact last October -- it has done so in a manner that escaped my notice entirely and, I suspect, everyone else's. In fact, I'm certain the Times' view on this question hasn't altered a bit.

The reason I'm reviewing these issues once again is the following. Frank Rich is very often an unusually perceptive and accurate commentator. But for two Sundays in a row, he has fallen into the first and third of the traps described just above. I'm sure he's fallen into the "intelligence" trap as well, but he hasn't discussed that issue recently. If anyone has an example of Rich getting that one wrong too, please let me know.

I suppose it's only to be expected that Rich feels a certain degree of loyalty to his employer, and to the press in general. But given the recent overall performance of the mainstream media and its subservience to those in power, the following passage is staggering in its credulousness. In discussing the ultimate goal of the administration's concerted attack on the NYT and the ludicrously dishonest charge that the Times is guilty of treason, Rich writes:
The administration has a more insidious game plan instead: it has manufactured and milked this controversy to reboot its intimidation of the press, hoping journalists will pull punches in an election year. There are momentous stories far more worrisome to the White House than the less-than-shocking Swift program, whether in the chaos of Anbar Province or the ruins of New Orleans. If the press muzzles itself, its under-the-radar self-censorship will be far more valuable than a Nixonesque frontal assault that ends up as a 24/7 hurricane veering toward the Supreme Court.

Will this plan work? It did after 9/11.
As my earlier post about how the Times has already swallowed the administration line about Iran indicates, Rich is some months late, and this ship sailed a long, long time ago. As Rich himself points out in more detail in his column, the Swift story was considerably less than news. It was hardly the Pentagon Papers Redux. In fact, it took very little courage to publish the story at all, unless you regard standing up to the administration's cheap bullying as notably courageous. The fact that the administration lobbied the Times as hard as it did to prevent publication had nothing to do with alleged damage to "national security," and everything to do with the Bush gang's preference for committing its numerous crimes in very dark corners, and in a manner completely unknown to the public. The overreaching and utterly unjustified attacks on the Times have been so successful only because of the huge megaphones held by numerous rightwing propagandists and their enablers in the press -- and because of the press's own long-standing cowardice, even and perhaps especially in its own defense.

Our press has muzzled itself for many years, and it already engages in massive self-censorship. "Will this plan work?" Rich wonders. It already has worked and it continues to work now, many times over.

Later in his column, Rich commits the first error noted above:
Now more than ever, after years of false reports of missions accomplished, the voters need to do what Congress has failed to do and hold those who mismanage America's ever-expanding war accountable for their performance in real time.
In last week's column, Rich made the same mistake even more obviously:
[Frist] and his party, eager to change the subject in an election year, just can't let go of their scapegoat strategy. It's illegal Hispanic immigrants, gay couples seeking marital rights, cut-and-run Democrats and rampaging flag burners who have betrayed America's values, not those who bungled a war.
Ah, if only they hadn't "bungled" that war! Then the glories of Empire would have been ours!

The prevailing framework is so insidious precisely because it is so pervasive. It is the cultural atmosphere we all swim in; these are the terms that everyone uses all the time. But if you oppose the administration's policies, you use them at your great peril.

To recap:

Don't ever talk about a war and occupation that were "bungled" or that were run "incompetently." The war and occupation were fundamentally immoral. They were and are entirely unjustified. If you argue on their terms, you grant their major premise: that the war was moral and right. Game to the Bush gang.

When major decisions of policy are being debated, don't get drawn into a discussion about intelligence, whether it's "good" or not, and what it supposedly shows. It's irrelevant with regard to the decision to go to war. The decision to invade Iraq was made long before the intelligence was "fixed" -- and the intelligence was fixed to rationalize a decision that had already been made, and it was used as the propaganda to justify the invasion to the American public and to the world.

The press is in thrall to the powerful, and to government in general. If you oppose the administration's policies, the press is not your friend. It is the government's friend, and it does the government's bidding. If you want to find out the truth as fully as you can, look outside the mainstream press. With extremely rare exceptions, mainstream media outlets largely transmit government propaganda. They may question it at the edges, but the main story the government wants told will be faithfully transmitted.

Above all, I think we must never forget that the government and its many allies always seek to seduce us into playing their game. They want us to, because it's their game. They know they'll win it in the end. So don't play their game at all.

Take the debate onto your own field. Play your game by your own rules, and use your own terms. And then we can beat the bastards.

UPDATE--OH FOR THREE: My grateful thanks to the alert reader who reminds me of Frank Rich's column from almost a year ago, dated August 14, 2005. (It's available here.) I remember that column very well for Rich's major contention: that "the war in Iraq is over." Rich meant that most domestic political support for the war had evaporated -- but he very significantly minimized the carnage that would still occur before we finally got the hell out (if we ever do completely, which appears unlikely in the extreme). It was after the point that perceptive observers knew the utter futility and destructiveness (including self-destructiveness) of our humiliation in Vietnam that the worst horrors of that war occurred -- and this is precisely the course we appear determined to repeat again in Iraq.

In that earlier piece, Rich also commits the intelligence error before all the world, and he does so in an especially obvious fashion. Rich discusses Bush's critical speech of October 7, 2002, and refers to Bush's justifications for the coming war as "a miasma of self-delusion, half-truths and hype." Rich mentions the supposed ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda, and the fears that Saddam "could have a nuclear weapon in less than a year." And then he writes:
It was on these false premises - that Iraq was both a collaborator on 9/11 and about to inflict mushroom clouds on America - that honorable and brave young Americans were sent off to fight.
Rich is impliedly contending that the decision to go to war was based on the intelligence. This is Bush's argument, and Bush's own defense. It turned out the intelligence was wrong; sorry, and all that. But the decision was still based on the intelligence, at least in significant part.

That's entirely false. It's all a lie, but Rich (as well as almost all other mainstream commentators) is unaccountably reluctant to make that charge explicitly. The Bush administration made the decision first -- and then invented, stovepiped, distorted and misrepresented the case for war to sell it to America, and to the world. As I recently wrote: ""The interested parties have wanted to invade Iraq and rearrange the Middle East since the calamitous presidency of George W. Bush was merely a glint in Karl Rove's malignant eye, and even before that." The decision to invade Iraq was made long before the phony "intelligence" case was offered to the public. And 9/11 was the tragic excuse used for a plan that had been around a very long time.

I was certain Rich had made this error as well, simply because almost everyone makes it. It's the way the debate is always conducted. And that's why the administration continues to get away with its criminal plans -- and why we remain on track for Our Date with Armageddon.