The Wrong Answer

Modern war presidents don't let facts get in the way of military conquest.

Back in more innocent times, the autumn before the Iraq war, Daniel Ellsberg, who famously leaked to the press the "Pentagon Papers" about the events behind and strategies during the Vietnam War, came through Seattle and made a public appeal for the "next" Daniel Ellsberg to come forward and dish on the Bush war-making machine. Since then, a number of people have come forward, giving critical, detailed, insider accounts of the political and policy process inside the Bush administration and the Pentagon. They've included various public servants, military officers, and at least one tell-all Cabinet member.

The most recent whistle-blower is Richard A. Clarke, Bush's former terrorism czar. A registered Republican who served both presidents Bush and Clinton, Clarke's credentials on terrorism and how the so-called terror war have been handled seem impeccable. While Clarke isn't leaking classified information, as Ellsberg did, he has offered a senior official's view of what went on in the bunker and behind the scenes before and after 9/11. Even more remarkable, while testifying before the 9/11 commission last week, he took the unprecedented step of actually apologizing to the families of victims of the attacks, asking for their forgiveness. Just as Ellsberg was later haunted by his own culpability for being gung-ho about pressing the war in Vietnam, perhaps Clarke is coming forth because he regrets his role as part of a failed apparatus.

In his recent autobiography, Ellsberg describes in detail how the policy machine failed in Vietnam. Rather than being a horror story about terrible men doing terrible things for selfish purposes, it is a look at how leaders fail because, rather mundanely, they choose to believe what they already believe, despite the facts.

Ellsberg says that one of the myths about our failures in Vietnam was that presidents Kennedy and Johnson were denied critical information from the lower echelons. He says the Pentagon Papers, and the reams of information that have come out since, instead show that all the right data and analysis did in fact work its way to the top. Why, then, were there so many mistakes and misjudgments? Good information was consistently ignored because it didn't conform to the reality—and that includes political reality—of the president who saw it. Losing such a war was unthinkable, therefore not possible. Therefore, go back and bring me the right answers.

Bush, of course, is proudly incurious (he doesn't read newspapers or follow the media, he has people that do that for him; presumably they chew his pretzels now, too). But it seems that one thing consistent with the insider accounts, including Clarke's, is that Bush suffers from a very bad case of My Mind Is Made Up disease. The weapons of mass destruction debacle is a case in point. Another telling anecdote is Clarke's account of being ordered to look for an ultimately nonexistent link between Iraq and 9/11. The order from Bush was given in such a way as to leave no doubt that the president wanted his suspicions confirmed. Clarke says the real problem with Bush's early approach to Osama bin Laden and terrorism was his reluctance to take the threats seriously, because those urging him to do so, like Clarke, were tainted by having served under Clinton. Even more, the incoming Bush cadre was stuck in an old Cold War mentality.

Such behavior—exemplified by willful ignorance—is a hallmark of this regime. Whether it's spiking scientific research on global warming because it points to the "wrong" answer, or trying to intimidate government number crunchers into keeping mum about the true cost of Medicare reform, there is regular evidence that the management style from the top is of the tell-the-boss-only-what-he-wants-to-hear variety. And that's no way to run a company, or a country.

The Pentagon Papers documented how a mess was created while we were still in the middle of the mess. The Nixon administration's response was to go after the whistle-blower, Ellsberg, both in court and out. One of the crimes committed in order to discredit Ellsberg was the burglary of the office of his psychiatrist, a fact that surfaced later during the Watergate scandal.

The same kinds of shenanigans are going on today in the middle of our mess. Look at what happened in the vicious and likely illegal "outing" of CIA operative Valerie Plame, whose husband came back with the "wrong" answer about Nigerian uranium. This is how an ignorant, self-righteous regime protects itself, especially one "at war," not only against terrorists but against the truth.

Sadly, the American public isn't helping much. As the outrages pile up, still half of the country says they plan to vote for Bush again. Is the enemy us? Much as we might not want to think so, Bush strongly reflects some bedrock aspects of our American character. We hate to have our views challenged; we're ignorant about the world; we're often surprised that people think differently than we do (the French, the Spanish, the Arab street). In fact, it pisses us off. I believe part of Bush's power is in his embodiment of this supremely narcissistic aspect of our character.

In order to defeat Bush, we're going to have to overcome our inner Bushes, heal that wound within ourselves while at the same time removing that heel from the White House. How do we do that? Perhaps Clarke provides an example: Speak un­comfortable truths and admit to our own part in creating the problem.

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