Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Chain of Command


One of the rules in the 32 pages of rules for tomorrow’s debate is that when one candidate is speaking, the camera will not show the other candidate--looking at his watch like Bush the Elder, sighing like Al Gore, sweating like Nixon. Of course there is no reason for the networks to abide by this agreement between the two candidates.

Seymour Hersh will be on the Daily Show tonight. I finished his book Chain of Command a couple of days ago, but have held off writing about it, because while it is a pretty good if uneven book, it didn’t add that much to what I already knew. Of course I’m a blogger and by definition know everything, and had already read the New Yorker articles that form the basis of much of the book, and that might be the same for many of my readers as well. I also wasn’t thrilled with all the good quotes being anonymous.

Hersh doesn’t go into much detail about the actual torture of prisoners. In fact, given the importance of the pictures in giving this story the traction it has had, it’s interesting that the book has no pictures. Hersh’s main purpose is to demonstrate the culpability of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld etc in the torture of prisoners from Guantanamo through Abu Ghraib. If you’re not convinced, definitely read the book. He also throws in material, some of it a little cursory, on many of the failures of intelligence and wrong-headed foreign policy of the Bush admin, adding up to a thesis that they tend to see what they want to see. In his last sentences, Hersh wonders whether Bush is actually a big ol’ liar:
“But lying would indicate an understanding of what is desired, what is possible, and how best to get there. A more plausible explanation is that words have no meaning for this President beyond the immediate moment, and so he believes that his mere utterance of the phrases makes them real. It is a terrifying possibility.”
It was funny to read that, since I’ve been speculating recently myself (in the lead paragraphs of this and this post)
about Bush’s relationship to the words he uses, if any.

Bush’s relationship to logic and evidence is another matter. During the 2000 campaign, those of us who had contempt for the man’s intellectual capacities assumed that he understood how ignorant and incompetent he was. It was really the only reassuring assumption to make, since it meant he would leave the decisions to smarter people. As Colin Powell has found out, this has not been the case, because Bush--this is what we failed to understand--thinks of himself as wise. Facts are secondary to him.

I didn’t really understand this until early in 2002. A month or so after the State of the Union address in which he referred to the “axis of evil,” he was in South Korea. I saw him on television talking about something he’d just heard, which was that in North Korea there was a peace museum in which was displayed an ax with which a NK soldier had killed two American soldiers. In a peace museum, was Bush’s point. “No wonder I think they’re evil,” he said. That sentence involved a reversal of deductive reasoning: he was pleased to be able to show evidence in support of what he already believed. In normal logic, the evidence comes first. But for Bush, facts are, as Ronald Reagan once said, stupid things. A real man derives his understanding of people and events from his “character” rather than his intellect. Bush can, he believes, look into Putin’s eyes and understand his soul.

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