Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The conservative bubble

One of the reasons the conservative movement has morphed into a pathological political religion is that it has managed to largely cut itself off from the real world by insulating itself from any kind of criticism whatsoever.

Criticism of right-wing programs and policies, you see, is never confronted on its own terms, but is dismissed with a wave of the ad hominem wand: it can't be right because the critics are Bad People with Bad Motives.

Recent discussions over blame-laying in the Iraq war fiasco has provided us with the latest example of the bubble (which in this case also includes a large number of liberal warhawks). It's not Bush's fault the war has gone so badly, it's his critics'.

So it has always been: Conservatives concoct a cockamamie vision of what the world ought to look like, try to force it on the rest of us -- and when it all predictably turns to shit, find a scapegoat (usually liberals).

A recent permutation of this surfaced after William F. Buckley, that conservative icon, declared the Iraq war a disaster. Responding to liberals' glee, Jeff Goldstein at Protein Wisdom turned the blame back in their direction (via Sifu Tweety at the Poor Man).
And this is (and has been) a crucial component of the war -- one that many on the anti-war side are loathe to admit: that their constant naysaying, though it is well within their right to voice, has objectively hurt the war effort, particularly when the criticism incorporates carefully-crafted falsehoods many of the war's critics know for a fact to be objectively untrue.

I don't know if Goldstein can establish the levels of actual harm inflicted by the domestic naysaying, but I can say that a number of other "carefully crafted falsehoods" perptrated by the White House -- from claims regarding weapons of mass destruction to the Al Qaeda-Saddam link to -- were substantively harmful in that they induced the nation to go to war under false pretenses, costing so far over 2,200 soldiers' lives and thousands more innocent Iraqi civilians.

A constant drumbeat of similar falsehoods, ranging from Swift Boat smears to the bizarre distortion of a Howard Dean campaign cheer, were contrived to help Bush stay in power, and have been ceaselessly deployed to destroy any and all critics. And that was also substantively harmful. Indeed, the decision to retaliate against one of these critics by outing a CIA operative engaged in WMD anti-proliferation work almost certainly damaged our ability to contain nuclear-arms work in places like Iran.

Still, no one who raised these objections, either then or now, was credible in the eyes of guys like Goldstein because, you see, they were just Bush haters:
Most of those on the right who I've read on the subject have criticized Buckley's analysis by noting that his initial stance on the war was hardly gung ho, and his most recent conclusions seem a bit premature. But they have respected him for making the argument, knowing that his goal, from the outset, has not been to undermine efforts to democratize Iraq either out of some immense hatred for the President or out of some newfound Democratic party / progressivist fealty to foreign policy realism; in fact, it can be argued Buckley has been there all along).

Unfortunately, I don't think the same can be said for the majority of those most vocal voices on the political left.

I'm wondering if Goldstein can point to any mainstream critics of the war who actually announced their intent to undermine efforts to democratize Iraq, for instance; expressing doubt that it was possible under these circumstances isn't the same thing. How many, exactly, raised these issues by saying they did so because they hated Bush? (As for foreign-policy realism, it seems to me that real realism -- that is, a policy based in real facts and not speculation -- is what Democrats were arguing for all along.)

No, we only know that those were the critics' motives because the right told us so. That is, whenever critics on the left or center (or even the right) came up with substantive reasons for opposing the war, they were dismissed as "Bush haters." No matter, as Glenn Greenwald described in detail at Crooks and Liars, that those reasons in fact proved wholly prescient.

We saw the same kind of circular logic at work in John Hinderaker of PowerLine's recent attack on John Murtha as "nuts." When his work was fact-checked by Judd Legum at ThinkProgress, Hinderaker responded with typical churlishness:
One of the dimmest of the dimwitted left-wing web sites has tried to respond to this post. Among other things, the proprietor of this slough of ignorance has resurrected the old chestnut that Dick Cheney said in an interview that Iraq had "reconstituted nuclear weapons;" ergo, Murtha was right! This is so stupid it makes your head hurt.

Hinderaker then goes on to ostensibly demonstrate that Cheney simply misspoke in the interview. But as Legum noted subsequently:
That's right, it was a just a "slip of the tongue" made on national television four days before the war. Cheney didn't bother to correct it for six months.

Indeed, Hinderaker's response, such as it was, only covered one of Legum's multiple findings, but even that was generous, apparently -- because Bush's left-wing critics are simply to be dismissed out of hand anyway:
Sadly, I think a great many liberals are this stupid. Worse, I think that many liberals--like the proprietor of the hate site that resurrected the Cheney quote earlier today--are so far gone in hatred of President Bush that everything they say and do is said and done in bad faith. Like Jack Murtha, they have lost any ability to distinguish truth from fiction, and any desire to do so.

Moreover, Hinderarker's rant obscures the reality of what the nation was being told during the runup to the war. As John MacArthur detailed in Columbia Journalism Review, the administration began trying to convince the public that Saddam was on the verge of obtaining a nuclear device, and steadily impled that he may well have already done so, as early as September 7, 2002:
It was then that the White House propaganda drive began in earnest, with the appearance before television cameras of George Bush and Tony Blair at Camp David. Between them, the two politicians cited a "new" report from the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency that allegedly stated that Iraq was "six months away" from building a nuclear weapon. "I don't know what more evidence we need," declared the president.

For public relations purposes, it hardly mattered that no such IAEA report existed, because almost no one in the media bothered to check out the story. (In the twenty-first paragraph of her story on the press conference, The Washington Post's Karen DeYoung did quote an IAEA spokesman saying, in DeYoung's words, "that the agency has issued no new report," but she didn't confront the White House with this terribly interesting fact.)

But the next day, more "evidence" suddenly appeared, on the front page of the Sunday New York Times. In a disgraceful piece of stenography, Michael Gordon and Judith Miller inflated an administration leak into something resembling imminent Armageddon: "More than a decade after Saddam Hussein agreed to give up weapons of mass destruction, Iraq has stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb, Bush administration officials said today."

The key to this A-bomb program was the attempted purchase of "specially designed aluminum tubes, which American officials believe were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium." Mysteriously, none of those tubes had reached Iraq, but "American officials" wouldn't say why, "citing the sensitivity of the intelligence."

The nuclear-weapons claims reached a feverish level in Bush's Oct. 7, 2002, speech pitching the preparations for war, in which he warned of the threat of a "mushroom cloud" over America:
If the Iraqi regime is able to produce, buy, or steal an amount of highly enriched uranium a little larger than a single softball, it could have a nuclear weapon in less than a year. And if we allow that to happen, a terrible line would be crossed.

Knowing these realities, America must not ignore the threat gathering against us. Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof -- the smoking gun -- that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.

To heighten the nuclear fearmongering, the White House even began promoting a forgery regarding a supposed deal Saddam had made with Niger to obtain the uranium:
Bush cited the uranium deal, along with the aluminum tubes, in his State of the Union Message, on January 28th, while crediting Britain as the source of the information: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." He commented, "Saddam Hussein has not credibly explained these activities. He clearly has much to hide."

The clear implication of the claim was that Iraq had in fact finally obtained the means to build a nuke, and probably had done so. Indeed, while the administration danced around the question, it consistently implied that Saddam obtaining a nuke was a fait accompli. Cheney's remark was made within this context, and went uncorrected until after the invasion. Pretending that this was anything other than a "carefully crafted falsehood" is simply disingenuous.

And when Joseph Wilson, with a long record as a nonpartisan diplomat who had served both Republican and Democratic administrations with honor and skill, stepped forward to point out that the claim of a Niger uranium deal was a hoax, the administration chose to maintain its bubble by attacking him personally. He wasn't someone with credibility making a substantive charge: he was a Bush hater who had been pushed into the role as a bit of nepotism by his CIA-operative wife. Oh, oops! Did we just blow her cover?

So much for national security. Yet to listen to Bush defenders like Goldstein and Hinderaker, it was people like Wilson who were really responsible for the administration's failures in Iraq.

So it has always been with this crowd.

Paul O'Neill? Oh, he's just trying to sell a book. Nevermind that his description of Bush as incurious and insular, not to mention incompetent, played out before the nation during the Katrina disaster.

Richard Clarke? Just an embittered loser with an agenda (and a book to sell too!). Nevermind that his concern that the Iraq invasion would be a disastrous diversion from the serious pursuit of a real "war on terrorism" is proving all the more accurate every day.

Brent Scowcroft? Please. He just lives in a pre-9/11 world still.

Bruce Bartlett? Just another disgruntled ex-employee.

Nevermind that all these "Bush haters" are people who have long histories of distinguished service under Republican adminstrations, people who have real credibility on the subjects they're addressing. And all people dismissed with yet another wave of the ad hominem wand.

Perhaps, when considering whether Bush's critics "objectively hurt the war effort," it's useful to run a simple test of logic. Namely, tell us which has hurt us more:
-- An administration that ignored serious and well-founded concerns about the legitimacy of the invasion and the planning for postwar reconstruction, as well as an exit strategy, and proceeded to commit our troops to what has proven an inextricable disaster, worsened by its own outrageous incompetence.

-- The critics who raised all those concerns in the first place.

Logic, however, is incapable of puncturing an ideological bubble like this, because its structure resists it: Even good logic can be ignored because anyone proferring it is by definition a Bush hater, a Bad Person with Bad Motives.

The reality, of course, is that the motives of the critic do not delegitimize his criticism. Moreover, it's clear that the motives of many of his critics originate not with "hatred" of Bush but at well-founded opposition to his policies.

Conservatives, in order to maintain the bubble, have even begun constructing an agenda predicated on the mythology that there is no legitimacy to liberal or centrist criticism of Bush because it is constituted solely of "unhinged" Bush hatred -- even if the actual evidence for this charge is scant. So, of course, they drum up outlier incidents like the Colorado high-school teacher who ranted a lot of anti-Bush nonsense before his classroom, as though it represented the mainstream of opposition to the Bush agenda.

Perhaps even more ominously, the "Bush hater" dismissals are coming with a lot of expressions of elimination talk, suggesting that the people who are now being blamed for the dismal failure in Iraq need to "dealt with." This isn't relegated just to the fringes and radio ranters, but is even coming from leading elected Republicans.

Consider, for instance, what Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham recently told Attorney General Alberto Gonzales during the latter's Senate testimony regarding the NSA surveillance program:
During the time of war, the administration has the inherent power, in my opinion, to surveil the enemy and to map the battlefield electronically - not just physical, but to electronically map what the enemy is up to by seizing information and putting that puzzle together. And the administration has not only the right, but the duty, in my opinion, to pursue fifth column movements. And let me tell folks who are watching what a fifth column movement is. It is a movement known to every war where American citizens will sympathize with the enemy and collaborate with the enemy. And it's happened in every war.

It would not be much of a step, judging from what we are now reading from the Bush defenders, to conclude that Bush's left-wing critics comprise just such a "Fifth Column." After all, the underlying logic of the meme is that criticism of Bush has been motivated purely by a desire to harm Bush which ignores the consequent harm to the nation. If they're harming us, well, what's the harm of a little surveillance? Or, for that matter, a few mass roundups?

The conservative bubble is a problem not just because it produces a pathological brand of politics. It also dehumanizes the people living inside it, because everyone outside of it becomes, if not the enemy, then at least expendable.

But like all such bubbles, it is also doomed to founder on the sharp rocks of reality. The question is whether the rest of us will be spared the shock of the explosion.

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