We’re Off to War, But Who Will Lead Us?

Time for a quiz.

Q1: You’re charged with murder. Who would rather have defending you?

A: The best lawyer in town, the guy who graduated top of his class, nailed the bar exam first try, and can’t remember the last time he lost a case.
B: The guy who partied all the time, was just barely bright enough to get by, and who’s only practicing now because his father is a senior partner at the biggest firm in the state?

Q2: You’ve just been diagnosed with a life-threatening medical condition and you need surgery. Do you want your surgery to be performed by:

A: The best surgeon in town, a guy who finished tops in his medical school class and has since earned a sterling reputation among his peers.
B: A doctor whose daddy bought him into a prestigious medical school, where he made all C’s (after all, ask anybody whoever attended med school and they’ll tell you that C=MD).

You see where this little pop quiz is headed, I trust? Let me say in advance that I may ramble a bit, but please, please bear with me, especially if you’re one of the 47% or so of Americans who favor attacking Iraq. I’m not setting out here to attack you or insult you, but I am asking you to step away from whatever preconceptions you have about the issue for a few minutes to consider my point. In return, I’ll set aside for the moment my previous arguments against invading Iraq, and will accept the premises established by some pro-war advocates in recent days. Ultimately, this piece isn’t about the merits of the war, and I believe the point I’m advancing is equally salient for pro- and anti-war camps alike.

Regarding our pending campaign against Iraq, when all is said and done I think my biggest opposition to the war – the single issue that concerns me the most – has very little to do with the merits of the war itself and everything to do with the faith I have in our leaders to prosecute the campaign successfully. My faith – or rather, my lack of it – results directly from what we have seen of our president so far, and from the fact that we have precious little evidence before us suggesting that he and his advisers possess the level of intelligence you want of your leaders when talk turns to war.

It’s important to note that while I have made what I think are some good arguments against the war in previous blogs, there have also been some very intelligent arguments made for the war by people whose smarts, judgement, and integrity I greatly trust. Dr. Greg Stene, for instance, has made what I consider to be a compelling case that, forget the terrorism boondoggle, taking out Hussein moves us along the path toward a host of worthy foreign policy goals. He doesn’t argue that the path is clear and free of risk, but he does believe that it is doable, that the benefits justify the risks, and that it should be done.

Another highly credible (and related) position is advanced by Thomas P.M. Barnett of the US Naval War College in the March issue of Esquire. Barnett argues that there are significant regions of the world “where globalization is thinning or just plain absent…regions plagued by politically repressive regimes, widespread poverty and disease, routine mass murder, and – most important – the chronic conflicts that incubate the next generation of global terrorists.” He concludes that America must deal with these areas as a “strategic threat environment,” because failing to do so consigns us to (my words now, not his) a long and disastrous rear-guard campaign that will amount to a Cold War with terror. Barnett is making a globalization argument that essentially suggests a sort of economically driven Pax Americana, and while I’m not on board with all his reasoning, he does make an informed, reasoned case. And I’d rather have an intelligent opponent than an ignorant ally any day of the week.

In sum, I have encountered what I take as credible, defensible arguments in favor of Whaqing Iraq. But here’s the problem, and Bush-backers take note: the intelligent arguments have come from outside the Bush camp. The people prosecuting the war – Dubya, Cheney, Rummy, Condoleezza Rice, John McCain, even the sainted Colin Powell – have presented us with a series of arguments that simply don’t withstand a lot of scrutiny, in part because the administration’s case is a moving target. The ultimate truth of the issue aside for a second, the last few weeks and months of Bush’s pro-war PR campaign have amounted to an occasionally farcical search for a dog that’ll hunt, and it’s hard to invest heavily in somebody who’s story won’t sit still, even if they’re right.

Worse, Bush’s case invites an inordinate amount of scrutiny – and not just because the decision to go to war should always be one that is subjected to the most intense and vehement critique possible – but because they began by insulting our intelligence with claptrap like an alleged Iraq/al Qaeda link.

As soon as you try to pull one over on me, you’ve then pissed away whatever presumption of integrity I might previously have afforded you. From then on you won’t be able to say hello without me sniffing for the lie, and this is as it should be.

This is where we stand. I’ve heard intelligent arguments for war, but from the people pushing the war I’ve heard nothing credible. So, back to where this little missive started. I’ve been unjustly charged with murder, my life is on the line, and into the courtroom walks my court-appointed defense attorney, Lionel Hutz from The Simpsons. Uhhh, your honor?

The man calling the shots here is arguably the least intelligent man to hold the office of President of the United States in history. He is certainly the dimmest bulb to illuminate the Oval Office in my lifetime. And I need to make clear that I don’t want those who voted for Bush or those who support the war to take this as an insult to them. I frequently find people who like Bush acknowledging that he’s no scholar. All I’m saying is that our president is at best possessed of modest intelligence (I’d guess his IQ is in the 95-100 range if we were taking bets, which is statistically average). Some things he’s okay with – for instance, when dealing with issues that lend themselves to clear-cut judgments he can be crisp and decisive. In other words, he’s fairly reliable on most black and white issues. But when the issue before him is complex, requiring a deeper analytical capability and a modicum of subtlety, the wheels fall off. Shades of gray are automatically translated into black or white, and all numbers are processed by some arcane ciphering mechanism that rounds fractions to the nearest million. This doesn’t make Dubya an idiot or a bad human being, necessarily (hell, the man owns a Scottish Terrier, so he can’t be all bad), but there are a lot of nice folks of normal intelligence that we wouldn’t want in charge of running a war.

From all we can gather, George Walker Bush was at best an indifferent student, seemingly happy doing just enough to garner the “gentleman’s C.” And why not – he certainly knew that his academic performance would have pretty much zero impact on his future opportunities. Whether he pulled a 4.0 or flunked out, he was still going to be George Bush’s son, and that meant more rich, powerful connections than you could shake a stick at. When George Bush called asking you to find a place for his son, you weren’t going to ask for the boy’s transcript, now were you? If life had dealt me the same hand as it did Bush, I might not have tried as hard as I did, either.

Then Dubya got an MBA – from Harvard! – so that says something positive, right? Well, not necessarily. Just the other day I found myself discussing the subject of Bush’s intellect with some folks, and a man who was ostensibly setting out to defend Dubya acknowledged, upon encountering only the hint of a challenge, that no, of course the MBA wasn’t to be taken seriously, that it was a “gentleman’s MBA.” This is what we routinely get from his apologists.

And there’s that term again – “gentleman’s” – that euphemism so many of us have encountered in our lives, the phrase that connotes breeding, pedigree, the right family, and which tacitly admits that intelligence is more or less beside the point. Most of us know somebody like this, at least indirectly. Maybe we went to school with one of them, worked twice as hard, performed twice as well, but somehow never got half as many breaks. Maybe we work with one of them. Maybe we work for one of them.

(digression) As a side note, I have always marveled at how frequently people who hate the living hell out of privileged little rich boys getting everything because of daddy seem to love and passionately vote for the most rich and privileged sons of the Country Club Elite. Worse, it’s not that they rationalize the contradiction poorly, it’s that they seem not to notice the contradiction. (/digression)

People say these things, and acknowledge that Dubya was never what you’d call a committed student. But what’s a little odd is that I never hear people saying that while he didn’t try very hard, he was nonetheless brilliant. I know students like that. I taught college for ten years, and it was a rare class where I didn’t have one or two kids who were clearly bright as hell, but who simply put nothing into it, for whatever reason. You can spot these students a mile away, so there’s no mystery. Their teachers recognize it, other students recognize it, frequently even their families recognize it. Some of them are so smart they can putz off the whole semester and still earn an A, while some are just fine settling for a B or even the gentleman’s C.

But I don’t hear people saying this about our president. Even people who defend him frequently offer up something like “he’s a lot brighter than people give him credit for being.” That’s half a compliment at best – there’s a lot of daylight shining between “brighter than people give him credit for being” and high average.

Further, I’m somebody who tends to credit many different kinds of intelligence, and I know people who excel and fail on most every scale. IQ, for instance, is a decent tool for measuring a certain kind of brainpower, although it and all standardized tests fail horribly at measuring other breeds of genius. I have one friend whose IQ has been rated in the 170+ range, and another who’s above 200 – damned near off the scale. On the other hand, a couple of the most intensely insightful and intelligent people I know struggled to hit 900 on the SAT.

I have an open mind on what constitutes intelligence, and it is my studied opinion that George W. Bush isn’t overly gifted with any of its many varieties. Which is distressing. You might tolerate middling intelligence from any number of people you deal with, but when you’re talking Most Powerful Man in the Free World, you have a right to expect the brightest and best. On the subject of US President, the discussion should never be whether he’s relatively intelligent or not, it should be whether he’s exceedingly brilliant or merely moderately brilliant.

So here we go, off to war. There are scenarios – several of them, in fact – whereby it proves to be a success, resulting in anything from desired regime change to stabilization of the region to massive, overwhelming peace and prosperity in the Middle East and beyond. However, even those supporting the war acknowledge that it might not be easy, that any number of complications could arise (Hussein uses Weapons o’ Mass Destruction, Hussein kills his own people to create a hindering humanitarian crisis, Hussein destroys his oil fields, Hussein SCUDs Israel prompting them to retaliate, touching off fundamentalist uprisings all over the Middle East leading to a regional conflagration, the invasion sparks dramatic terrorist attacks against the US and its allies all over the world, even though we win it proves incredibly difficult and expensive to reconstruct Iraq after the war, etc. – this part could go on for pages).

On the one hand, we have a number of success scenarios, ranging from mild to spectacular, and on the other a number of failure scenarios, ranging from lingering quagmire to economic collapse to World War 3. Understand, which of these scenarios comes to pass hinges in large part on the intelligence and savvy of George Bush and the rampaging, bloodthirsty pack of chickenhawks who seem to have his ear these days. The smarter Bush is, the better your odds of getting one of the success scenarios. The less intelligent the man at the wheel is, the more likely you are to effect one of the failure scenarios. Simple stuff, really, and there is no argument to be made that dumber is better or that brains don’t matter. None.

Press START. The man at the wheel isn’t surpassingly bright – he has all the resources in the world and his reasons to attack aren’t half as good as those offered by any number of freelance commentators. Barrett has been, apparently, advising the Department of Defense on his “Core/Gap” theory, which is illustrated in the article linked above, but for some odd reason his analysis hasn’t been employed by the Bush camp (and if you want to argue that his article in Esquire is just that, I’d respond that I don’t want to hear the best reasons for going to war through indirect PR channels – I want to hear it, clear as a damned bell, from the President’s mouth). Bush has, in 18 short months, inconceivably squandered the most overwhelming outpouring of goodwill the US has received perhaps in its history. He has been unable, using every leverage point the world’s greatest power has at its disposal, to persuade long and loyal allies of the importance of a cause it presents as being nearly self-evident. You know, if we were ramping up for this war and our president were, say, Ulysses Grant, I’d be more optimistic. Washington. Lincoln. Jackson, Ike, Truman. Bush the Elder, you bet. Not Carter, though.

If there were evidence that Dubya were listening to his father, who handled US/Iraq I pretty adeptly up until the end, even then I’d be more comfortable, but as Douglas Harbrecht, BusinessWeek Online’s senior news editor, points out, Bush the Younger has failed repeatedly to learn from his father, who one would assume he actually trusts and respects. (Read Business Week article.)

Nope, we’re entering one of the most complicated operations we’ve ever initiated relying on the capability of a man who is patently ill-equipped for assessing, processing, and acting upon complexity, and worse, who has proven unable or unwilling to learn basic, critical lessons of diplomacy from one of our country’s recent masters of it, his father. This, more than anything else, is why I fear disaster.

It’s like my medical analogy above. I accept that I need open-heart surgery, that it is the only thing that can save my life. Problem is, the anaesthesiologist is getting ready to put me under, and into the operating suite oozes another of my favorite Simpsons characters.

“Hello everybody, who’s ready for a little open-heart surgery?!” It’s Dr. Nick Riviera, and as the gas begins to hit me, a voice says, “I want you to start counting backwards from March 17th.”

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