Friday, March 28, 2008

Duplicity, Delusion, and Cognitive Dissonance

Checking out the news this evening from Amsterdam, I couldn't help but chuckle at Bill Clinton's latest explanation of Hillary's path to victory:
Right now, among all the primary states, believe it or not, Hillary's only 16 votes behind in pledged delegates, and she's gonna wind up with the lead in the popular vote in the primary states. She's gonna wind up with the lead in the delegates [from the primary states. It's the caucuses that have been killing us.

I thought, well, sure, if the caucus states aren't working out for you, by all means, let's just ignore them! Why should you have to account for inconvenient contrary facts when you're trying to paint a sunny picture of success?

Turning to CNN, I learned "Baghdad on Lockdown as Rockets, Bombs Fly."
Baghdad was on virtual lockdown Friday as a tough new curfew ordered everyone off the streets of the Iraqi capital and five other cities until 5 p.m. Sunday.

That restriction didn't stop someone from firing rockets and mortar rounds into the capital's heavily fortified International Zone, commonly known as the Green Zone. One slammed into the office of one of Iraq's vice presidents, Tareq al-Hashemi, killing two guards.

And then I read President Bush's speech from Dayton, Ohio, in which he did an avoidance and distortion dance that would have made the Clintons proud, explaining why not just in spite, but because of renewed violence, "normalcy is returning back to Iraq."

Finally, I read Peggy Noonan's take on what at this point is going on in Hillary Clinton's mind:
What, really, is Mrs. Clinton doing? She is having the worst case of cognitive dissonance in the history of modern politics. She cannot come up with a credible, realistic path to the nomination. She can't trace the line from "this moment's difficulties" to "my triumphant end." But she cannot admit to herself that she can lose. Because Clintons don't lose. She can't figure out how to win, and she can't accept the idea of not winning. She cannot accept that this nobody from nowhere could have beaten her, quietly and silently, every day. (She cannot accept that she still doesn't know how he did it!)

Substitute "President Bush" for "Mrs. Clinton" in the paragraph above and "victory in Iraq" for "nomination" and you'll see that Noonan's only mistake was to call Hillary's cognitive dissonance the worst case in the history of modern politics. In fact, I would argue that despite her game attempts, she's been outdone on the cognitive dissonance front by the president.

The difference is that very soon, reality will end the Clintons' cognitive dissonance, and at little cost to the nation. President Bush, on the other hand, has successfully maneuvered Iraq into the lap of his successor, and will now be able to indulge his own cognitive dissonance permanently, at great cost to the nation indeed.

But because Bush's successor will inherit the president's disasters, the psychologies of Bush the president and Clinton the candidate must be considered together. After all, do you trust someone whose campaign narrative is as duplicitous and delusional as Hillary Clinton's to morph suddenly into a clear-eyed realist when it comes to ending the war in Iraq, a war which she herself voted to authorize? Maybe this is what Hillary means when she argues you'd be better off with McCain.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Increased Iraq Violence = Success

No, you didn't read the title wrong -- Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell really did say that the new fighting in Basra, in which US-backed government forces are battling Shiite militias, "looks as though it is a by-product of the success of the surge."

I suppose the description isn't surprising. After all, President Bush himself (or a speechwriter similarly unafflicted by a sense of irony) has the dubious distinction of having coined the term "catastrophic success" to describe the invasion of Iraq.

Presumably, were there no new fighting in Basra, the Pentagon would acknowledge the reduced violence was a sign of failure (insert facetious emoticon here). But of course, the Pentagon has previously claimed the opposite -- that reduced Shiite violence was a sign of success. In fact, "surge" supporters have so frequently trumpeted the success of the strategy precisely on reduced violence grounds that it's not even worth offering a link -- just Google "surge is working."

So here's the problem. If reduced violence = success and increased violence = success, then anything that happens in Iraq is success. If all this success meant we were going to leave Iraq, the doublespeak might have a silver lining. But of course it's intended to have the opposite effect. William Saletan pointed this out all the way back in 2004 in Slate.

What would happen to a CEO who told her board of directors that increased sales and decreased sales were both signs of success? To a doctor who assured a patient that both improving and worsening symptoms were signs of a return to health? To a stockbroker who counseled a client that he was getting richer whether his portfolio was up or down? And yet this is precisely the argument war proponents repeatedly make.

The irony is, a refusal to articulate actual and logical metrics by which success and failure can be measured is a certain prescription for... well, for failure. The double irony is that when the inevitable failure occurs, the people who caused and supported it will blame everyone but themselves.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Three Questions for Obama

Two days ago, Senator Clinton's campaign team of Mark Penn, Howard Wolfson and Lee Feinstein was flummoxed by a simple question from Slate's John Dickerson: "What foreign policy moment would you point to in Hillary's career where she's been tested by crisis?" It was a fair question, especially given Hillary's attempts to brand herself as the "I'm tested, I'm ready" candidate, and her claims in the now notorious "red phone ad" to be "tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world." (Here's Obama's response ad).

I just watched four new ads Senator Obama is airing in Texas in advance of Tuesday's primary. One of them in particular caught my attention. In it, Obama says "we need to... take on special interests that block reform." I know from Obama's speeches and points he's made in debates that taking on lobbyists and special interests is a theme of his. In the spirit of Dickerson's excellent question to the Clinton campaign, I'd like to see Obama asked:

1. Can you specifically identify which special interests you'll take on as president?
2. (If #1 doesn't get an explicit response) Can you specifically identify groups or interests that you would categorize as "special interests"?
3. (If #2 doesn't get an explicit response) Would you categorize teachers unions as special interests? Farmers? Senior citizens? Unions?

My guess is, Obama would name "corporations" as a special interest and go no further (I say this because the only species of lobbyist specifically named in the ethics section of Obama's website is lobbyist corporatus, and the reference to "special interest influence" on the page is vague). The answer would be unsatisfying. As a special interest boogeyman, corporations are convenient: vague enough to invoke without any specific company feeling unduly threatened; ominous-sounding enough to create the sense that taking them on would be bold; sufficiently disparate in fact to create the illusion that action against some segment of the class constitutes action against the whole. If Obama hopes to persuade voters that he's serious about fighting special interests -- and about telling voters what they need to hear, not just what they want to hear, a claim he also makes in the Texas ad and elsewhere -- he really ought to name some of the special interests he plans to take on.

Of course, it's entirely possible I'm missing something here, and if anyone knows of specific instances of Senator Clinton being tested by a foreign policy crisis, or of Senator Obama promising to take on, or at least naming, a specific special interest, I'd be grateful for the information.