Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

12 October 2007

Smarter People, Better Results

Through all the catastrophes of George W. Bush’s dark reign, a few rays of light are beginning to shine. North Korea is in the process of being bought off and pressured out of its brief foray into nuclear brinksmanship. Key elements among Iraq’s Sunnis have made an alliance with our forces and against chaos. According to yesterday’s New York Times, the same thing may be happening among the Shiites. Our own casualties in Iraq are down, and so is the violence there generally, although both are still far too high.

There are even rays of hope in Iran. The moderate and pragmatic Rafsanjani has outmaneuvered Ahmadinejad to become Speaker of the Assembly of Experts, a sort of Islamic-style Soviet Central Committee that will pick the next Supreme Leader once Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei dies. That development got very little press, but it is a big, big deal and a sign of possible future improvement in our relationship with Iran.

At the same time, Ahmadinejad himself tried to open a dialogue with us. He didn’t have to do the talk-show circuit on his trip to speak at the United Nations, but he did. However awkward his effort seemed, and however embarrassing and counterproductive our response, his attempt to “reason” with us marked a small pause in the cycle of mutual insults and threats that have characterized our relationship with Iran since the Shah’s fall over thirty years ago.

It’s a small thing maybe. But I can’t imagine either Hitler or Stalin, in their times, doing what Ahmadinejad did last week. Talk is always preferable to war, as long as it’s not surrender. And no one is talking about surrender to Iran; the scary talk is about another unnecessary war.

Are all these rays of light a coincidence? Did we just get lucky after seven years of bad karma? Did someone break a mirror and the spell is now dissipating?

However popular superstition and its cousin ideology may be today, I don’t think so. The changes for the better are the result of high-level personnel changes in our government. That Idiot Rumsfeld is gone. So is Karl Rove, destroyer of our Republic. And the secret internal influence of Dick Cheney has reached its lowest ebb in seven years.

These three very different men all have one thing in common. What is going on inside their own heads matters far more to them than anything happening in the world outside. They are solipsistic, self-centered, and driven by ideology. The results of their so-called “leadership” lie in shambles around us, from Iraq to New Orleans.

Rumsfeld was so sure of the superiority of our troops, their equipment and our cause that he ignored the advice of experts and failed to plan for obvious contingencies. Rove’s ambition for a permanent Republican majority was so great that he failed to ponder whether you can build effective politics—let alone effective government—on fundamentalist religion and virulent opposition to homosexuality and abortion. And Cheney, in his dotage, personifies every pre-adolescent male’s fantasy of dominating the world. Despite his apparent loss of mental faculties and contact with reality, he exercised enormous influence over the president and our policy.

But Rumsfeld and Rove are gone, and Cheney is in remission. Who has taken their places?

One answer is Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Much suppressed and much reviled, she has always been one of the few members of the George W. Bush Administration endowed with some native intelligence, actual knowledge, and common sense. She has been virtually the only top figure who thinks about world affairs on a time horizon longer than two years.

Rice’s hallmark is perseverance. That trait can make her ridiculous. It certainly did in the Senate 9/11 hearings, when she tried to “spin” her neglect of terrorism and bin Laden during her early tenure as national security chief. But as applied to her core expertise—international relations—her perseverance has been a steady force for good. With the three solipsists out of the way, her star is rising, and intelligent diplomacy along with it.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is an even more important force for change. He runs our military, which is at the center of our current troubles. More to the point, he is the antithesis of Rumsfeld. Whereas Rumsfeld was brash, bombastic and arrogant, Gates is humble and low key. Whereas Rumsfeld listened to no one, Gates accepts input from everyone. Whereas Rumsfeld loved the spotlight, Gates works quietly behind the scenes. Whereas Rumsfeld hid his essential stupidity behind a pathologically aggressive façade, Gates hides his apparently enormous intelligence behind a modest and soft-spoken exterior.

About the only thing the two men have in common is success at bureaucratic infighting. But even in that, they differ: Gates achieves his success though “people skills” and analytical intelligence; Rumsfeld achieved his through manipulation, delay and intimidation.

The final reason why Gates is so central is that he makes common cause with Rice. For six years, Rice had been a lone voice crying in the wilderness. An academic who made her career studying international relations, she was the only Cabinet-level official who actually knew anything in depth about the outside world. For six years, she had the unenviable task, standing alone, of explaining to ignorant, bullheaded neocons why their solipsistic view of the world was inaccurate and dangerous. Now, in Gates, she has reinforcements.

Rice and Gates are kindred spirits. Both like to work better behind the scenes than in the spotlight. Both know something, are open to new ideas, and are outer directed. Neither is governed by ideology.

So for the first time in seven years, competence is creeping, willy nilly, into the administration of George W. Bush. Whereas once intelligent life seemed alien to our government, knowledgeable, capable people are now popping up all over. Christopher Hill, one of the brightest and most capable diplomats we have, is in charge of the North Korean beat, where he is making considerable headway. General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker are working on Iraq. And we have General Michael Hayden at the CIA. He’s not only a good master spook; he seems to understand and even care about civil liberties as well.

This administration had a handicap from its very beginning. George W. Bush is one of the stupidest men ever to sit in the Oval Office.

We all knew or should have known that from the start. What we couldn’t have known from the outset was just how bad his judgment of people would be. He took Vladimir Putin’s crucifix as a sign or love for freedom and democracy. He took Rumsfeld’s bombast and bluster as signs of intelligence and competence. Ditto for Cheney’s taciturnness and proper English when he speaks.

We are all suffering daily for those misjudgments. But now we have two competent people who know actually know something near the top of our executive.

We could do much worse than Gates and Rice, whose ascendancy is responsible for the few rays of light we now see. If only Bush has enough care for his legacy to step back, call off Rove’s remaining dogs and let these good folks do their jobs, we just might muddle through the next fifteen months unscathed.

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