Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Enemy is Us

Have you heard? The administration has been doing a little Iraq Study of their own, and--O! Bitter conclusion!--they've discovered who's responsible for our humiliating failure. Turns out, it's... us! The fickle, cowardly, inconstant American public.

The shame.

It not like we weren't warned. The Dear Leader and his Vice-Prince of Darkness have been telling us and telling us that anything less than full commitment to their program was tantamount to offering Osama Bin Laden an erotic massage. But we wouldn't listen. And look at us now.

The possibility that my own ambivalence about our actions in the middle east may be to blame for the deaths of so many soldiers and so many more innocent Iraqis has come as an embarrassing shock. I'm trying to get on board. I've written down the "Report suspicious persons" phone number from the highway sign, and I'm calling twice a day. To lighten the load for NSA operatives, I've been startin' all my phone calls with a brief, keyword-laden summary of what the ensuing conversation will be about. If necessary, I will grab the next dark-skinned mother with a middle-eastern accent and personally waterboard his sorry ass.

But yet I know that I am guilty of the very weakness that has so disappointed my President. For I cannot squelch a faint and blasphemous doubt--a tiny voice that tells me it's not my job to go along with their program.

In a democracy, says the Tokyo Rose in my head, the electorate is trusty horse to the executive cowboy. The cowboy relies absolutely upon the horse for comfort, productivity and even survival. The horse meanwhile relies upon the cowboy for his care. The horse is the cowboy's most important tool. If well-cared for, it will carry him through his seasons of work and make him a success. If it fails him, it is no more to blame than a hammer that misses a nail and strikes your finger.


But dumb brute the electorate may be, often the horse knows better what is good for the cowboy than the cowboy does himself. The horse knows its own limits and can sense dangers imperceptible to the cowboy. And in the end, it's pointless to argue whether the horse is right or wrong when it digs in its heels and will go no farther. If the horse won't go, it's the cowboy that's failed.

It's not like horses are that complicated. Politicians understand how public support is built and maintained. It's not a secret recipe.

First, make sure your goals are desirable and realistic. Horses don't mind work as long as it's manageable. Second, articulate your goals persuasively to the public. Give your horse a reassuring pat, feed it a sugar cube, let it know that you know what your doing. Third, KNOW WHAT THE HELL YOU'RE DOING! Nothing undermines a horse's loyalty like an ineffectual cowboy.

You can see how these strategies reinforce each other. It's easier to be competent when you've chosen a realistic goal, and it's easier to articulate your mission persuasively when the mission is worthwhile.

Sometimes politicians don't have the luxury of having all these strategies working for them in concert, but can be successful anyway. G. Bush Sr. wasn't the world's most persuasive speaker--it was a little like being led in to battle by an actuary--but he kept the trip short and direct, and easily held the public together through the end of Gulf War #1. Churchill on the other hand was driving a bus on fire, but could muster such words of power that he had the public convinced the flames were there for a marshmallow roast.

So it can be done. It has been done. Many times. In imperfect circumstances.

But this current crop of poseurs in the white house--they may look like real cowboys, what with their steely eyes and credentials from the Nixon administration. But can they rope? Can they ride? Jesus, they can't even light a campfire with self-starting charcoal briquettes!

Did they pick a realistic and desirable goal? Let's see, we want to remake geopolitical foundations of the middle east and permanently defang Islamic fundamentalist extremism. Nice ideas, but as they said in "Jaws," I think you're going to need a bigger boat.

And what of the noble clarion calls that will rouse our hearts to deeds of greatness? Where the eloquence of Lincoln or Roosevelt? "With malice toward none, with charity for all," and "we have nothing to fear but fear itself?" On those counts they got the letter but not the spirit. Sickeningly, they have appealed over and over to our basest instincts of hatred and fear.

And let's not forget the lyin'. The prolific, unharnessed, balls-out, in-your-face, what-are-you-gonna-do-about-it? LYING. Lying isn't persuasion. It's a bad check. And bad checks get harder and harder to cash as time goes on.

So that leaves competence as the only remaining pillar upon which the administration could possibly hope to carry public acquiescence through to the closure of the Iraq adventure. And when we look at the nuts and bolts of the effort, the planning, the thinking, we find...

Nothing. A vacuum. Tumbleweeds scatter by and a lone cricket chirps between the pages of the vaunted "Plan for Victory." And so events careen in all directions without rudder or tiller or a hand to steer.

Now the public is rioting, the Republicans are out, and Bush's political capital is gone. And that's supposed to be our fault? Because we don't have the stomach for a fight? Because we want to coddle terrarists? Please.

The bigger tragedy of all this is that the compact between horse and rider once broken cannot easily be remade. Our democracy functions best when the executive can call on the power of the masses to help it effect broad change, to overcome the squeals of special interests and to give our policies the unique force and respect that comes from the sense that they are the policies of a whole people, not a few powerful men. In return, the electorate is ballast against the rash, singular ideas that any one President will have. The electorate will resist an unexpected pull towards the cliff's edge.

One indication of how bad things have gotten is that people are ready to put the horse in charge. It is not desirable that foreign policy or a war be run by the whim of public opinion. If you were waiting for me to joyously affirm the ascendancy of the people's will, I'm going to disappoint. The tragedy of Iraq will likely be magnified in the years ahead by the American public's reaction to being so profoundly mishandled and the resulting inability of this President, and possibly the next president, to obtain the political backing to do what needs to be done.

Nice going G-dubya. You rode the horse into walls and over cliffs. You whipped it til it bled. You fed it on lies and fear. You drove it til it foamed at the mouth and collapsed beneath you.

And now it won't let you up on its back again, and you say it's the horse's fault? Maybe you, faux-Texan that you are, should go back to the ranch and get some advice from a real Texan. They'll tell you that behind every recalcitrant horse, there's an incompetent cowboy.