Monday, February 26, 2007

Doesn't Being Right Matter at All?

From Andrew Sullivan, a reader posts about Hilary Clinton:

She reflects the most cynical aspect of politics, politics stripped of even the hint of vision. She is the sum total of her calculations, and a prickly and defensive sum total at that. I don't doubt that she is competent in the narrowest sense of the word. But she isn't a leader. We are desperate in our need for leaders right now.

This isn't about Hilary, she just happens to be the subject of the reader's email. And for the record, I think Clinton's position on Iraq has been exactly wrong.

But as I said, this isn't about Clinton, it's about Sullivan's reflexive impulse that how competent or right someone is, is irrelevant. All that matters is that they are "A Leader".

I call bullshit.

If the last seven years have taught us anything, it's that policies do matter. Actions have consequences, and it's not enough to have someone running your country who's fun to have a beer with.

I am coming to the conclusion that there are two types of voters in America, on both the right and the left. One group simply wants someone who's "A Leader". These people don't particularly care how competent the person is, whether they've been right or wrong on various issues, or even what they think about policies. They just want someone to "lead". You've seen it for seven years with the more rabid Bush supporters on the right, and we're getting a healthy dose of it from the left with the almost fan-boy adulation of Barak Obama before anyone has a clear idea just what the hell he wants to do as a politician.

The other group cares very much about policy, about positions, about whether the person in question has been right or wrong on substantive issues. These people care less about how affable or handsome or charismatic the politician is, and more about what they actually do with the power they have.

This is played out in the punditocracy as well, as Radar Online illustrates so effectively. Conservative commentators like William S. Lind, who were right about the consequences of invading Iraq, are marginalized for the likes of the liberal Tom Friedman, who has been as wrong as wrong can be and yet keeps getting pay raises and promotions.

What matters isn't being right, what matters is how good you look while you're being wrong. And that's bad for America, no matter what side of the aisle you sit on. Until we get over this obsession with who's telling us what to do, and start paying attention to what they're telling us to do, we're in for a lot more heartache and disaster.


Geopoet said...

You know I always like to throw a different twist, so I'd like to ask a simple hypothetical question, one that will likely stir some emotion but gets perhaps directly to the point you're making:

If it turns out sometime in the future it becomes obvious George Bush was right in invading Iraq, what % of the naysayers/bashers will come out and say "Sorry... I was wrong about that one!" and be willing to take it on the chin?

Point is that you're right Jeff about competency not being a major issue, regardless of how good or how bad the track record.

The system is certainly far from perfect.

Jeff Hebert said...

I think it's difficult to answer your question because two of the key terms are undefined, specifically "sometime in the future" and "right".

For the first, are we talking months? Years? Decades? Eternity? Without knowing the time frame to set our metrics to, there can't be any kind of coherent answer to the question. If fifty years from now a pro-Western government is ruling in Iraq, would that qualify as vindication of George W. Bush, even if it succeeds not because of, but in spite of, the US invasion? What if there's some other agent interfering in the interim, and THEY are responsible for the change, does he still get credit?

The second term, "right", is even more difficult to define, mostly because we don't really know what the goals were before we started. Since then we've been told we had many different aims -- which of them are the ones we should be using to decide success? That's been one of the biggest problems with this entire affair, we don't have a clear idea of just what we're trying to accomplish, so it's impossible to know if we're winning.

Without knowing what it is you're asking us to measure (i.e. what our goals were/are) and some kind of time frame for evaluating them, there can't really be a meaningful answer to your question. What are we being asked to judge him on, and how long does he have to take the test?

What we can do is look at what George W. Bush and his administration have told us themselves as to what they thought was going to happen, and see if they were accurate or not. And clearly, they were wrong about a great many things. Even if in some undefinable way at some indeterminate point in the future after an incalculable number of deaths Iraq somehow manages to pull itself out of this incredibly ugly quagmire they're in and achieve a pro-Western, liberal democracy, and it is somehow "obvious" that this is due to our having invaded them (although I can't even imagine how you'd be able to know that this far after the fact), George W. Bush has still been demonstrably, flat-out wrong about a great many things he said to us. The highlights are:

* We did not find Weapons of Mass Destruction, and Saddam had no nuclear program;
* Al Qaeda was not, at any point, in cahoots with the government of Saddam Hussein and Iraq was never a training ground for Osama bin Laden's group. In fact, Saddam hated bin Laden and Iraq was never going to be a supporter of the group, unlike today when al Qaeda is very active in the area;
* It was not a matter of weeks or months, but rather years, and we still aren't even close to any sort of end in sight;
* The violence is not the work of a few "dead enders", it is a widespread and deep insurgency by some of the very people who we helped get elected;
* The mission (whatever it was, I'm still not sure) has not, in fact, been accomplished;
* We have not established a more stable government or society, in fact we are in the middle of a very violent, very bloody, and likely to get worse civil war.

So to sum up, Iraq is more violent than when we started, is a breeding and training ground for terrorists where none existed before, and was never a threat to our existence as a nation, since they possessed no WMDs, nor had any programs that would have led to them. I'd say that's an impressive record of being wrong, no matter how it turns out in the end.

And to be clear, I sincerely hope that Iraq eventually, somehow, pulls out of this death spiral and can become a truly prosperous, liberal, pro-Western democracy to be an ally for us in the Mideast. But if they do it will be in spite of the policies of this deeply, profoundly incompetent man, not because of him.

Anonymous said...

Hey Geopoet. . . are you serious??? I mean, for real? REALLY?????????

Wow. I find your post shocking and very depressing. How many people must die in this wrongful war before we Americans figure out it is a bad deal? For us, for Iraq and for the world. Time won't make it any better for any of us, my friend.

I am sorry that you probably voted for the man and may now be searching for ways to make yourself feel better about it. Half the country did see that Bush was incompetent and we have never voted for him or his corrupt government. And now we do not have to justify ourselves and our actions.

Having said that, if I am still alive in 100 years and somehow the world views this situation differently (it won't), then YES I will stand on the mountain tops and yell that I was wrong. That is, assuming we have any mountain tops left to stand on . . . .

Anonymous said...

Iraq- It is immaterial on who voted which way at the onset of the war 4 years ago. That vote was based upon the information they were given at the time. The people supplying the information, however, must be held accountable and remembered in history for their roles. Specifically, it is immaterial to me how Hillary voted- she and so, so many others were ignorant of the truth, and ignorance (if you are not allowed knowledge) is no shame. Others who had FULL ACCESS were either stupid, incompetent, or arrogant and will eventually be judged in history accordingly. What is most important, and what we should judge people for TODAY, is "what now?" And further, what have we learned? Is anyone still so arrogant as to believe force is the only answer, especially when so many nations hold the ultimate ace card in a nuclear weapon? Is there any doubt in anyone's mind that the constant scaling up in violence will inevitably lead to the use of atomic weapons? Up to now, violence ends when the next step is destruction of not only your enemy but your own loved ones. The suicide bombings we are now experiencing seem to show that we may be moving into another era. I see bombings which are killing both sects of muslims, and others that kill both Jewish and Arabian children with the same bomb. Further, the report given by James Baker and Lee Hamilton were dismissed by the very people who agreed to their committee. It is only in the last few days that Iraq is agreeing to meet with Iran and Syria. Remember that Iran desires an Islamic state just as much as our administration wants a democratic state. Did I blink my eyes or are we not right back in a Cold War, but this time we fight with suicide bombers instead of nukes? Unfortunately, we in the USA, and this is indeed the crux of the matter, have no concept on how to deal with religous tyrants, as our entire culture revolves around the seperation of church and state (Which is what allows the ongoing debate in this blog of atheism vs monotheism. This is death sentance stuff in other nations.) So, my 2 cents, thanks for the chance to ramble. Sorry about the typos and poor grammer.

Jeff Hebert said...

These are all good points. I just want to clarify that my original post wasn't about Iraq , it was about the appalling concept that competence doesn't matter.

What I mean is, do you keep taking your car to the mechanic who misdiagnosed the problem ten times before, or the one who gets it right the first time? I would hope the latter, but what Andrew Sullivan seems to be saying is that when it comes to politics, how competent someone is doesn't even matter. It's irrelevant. All that matters is that they're "A Leader".

Good luck driving your car when you pick your mechanic based not on how good a mechanic he is, but on how good of "A Leader" he is. I'll send a tow truck after you around nine, how's that sound?

Look at the Democratic Party's Beltway pundits for an example. As Amy Sullivan laid out in this 2005 Washington Post story, Joe Hansen was the chief consultant on seven losing campaigns. Seven. In a row! And yet he is still paid millions of dollars by Democrats to run their campaigns. Why? He's been wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong time and time again, and yet he never gets fired.

The answer is, Beltway Democrats care more about his being a known, comfortable entity than about his competence, and so they keep hiring him. And they keep losing. It's more important to them to hire a friend than it is to hire someone competent, and that's a terrible way to run just about anything.

Also look at the pundits linked to in the original post at RadarOnline. These people made testable predictions about what was going to happen (not just "war is good" or "war is bad", but statements that predicted certain outcomes that could be tested later on to see if they came true). Why are the ones who were repeatedly wrong still highly-paid professionals at the nation's most prestigious magazines and newspapers, while those who made accurate predictions are ignored? Why is being famous more important than being right? Why are we still listening to the people, on both the left and the right, who are demonstrably wrong so very often, while ignoring those who are right so very often?

I'm not super interested (at least in this post) in arguing about whether or not the Iraq War was a good idea or a bad one. The more pressing issue, at least in my mind, is why we as a culture venerate form over function so often, even when the cost is tragically high.

America is at its best when it is, at heart, a meritocracy. I fear politics has become more of a popularity contest, and comments like Andrew Sullivan's that dismiss competence almost out of hand truly alarm me.