Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Jonathan Schell Craptacular!

I had not thought that Jonathan Schell, author of Fate of the Earth, would ever be fluffing George Bush, but these are strange times. William Kristol is writing for the Times, Jonah Golbderg is besmirching the Post, and now, in the latest Harper’s Schell pens a hideous “Notebook” essay. Starting with its cliché title, “The Moral Equivalent of Empire,” it is the single worst thing I have ever read in that usually excellent magazine. Schell starts by putting the Iraq war into historical context with concerns about nuclear proliferation – about which he is so expert. He does an excellent job reminding us of recent history, reminding us of the lost opportunity and dire example to the world when we did nothing really towards nuclear disarmament, even after the need for mutual assured destruction disappeared with the U.S.S.R. But then he goes off the trails, seeming very oddly amnesiac about more recent events. Indeed he seems to have been in a bomb shelter since about 1999, and there to have gotten his only news from Fox.

Whatever Schell’s sources of inspiration, they have inflamed some, very vivid fantasies. He tells us that just after 9/11 George W. Bush, turned away from the pressing matter of the Snowflake Babies (frozen embryos) to ask hard questions about nookyular weapons. Sounding like Peggy Noonan with the Eroscillator running, Schell paints the scene in the exact language Bush would like to see used by his official biographer:

What were nuclear weapons for? Who, if anyone, should possess them, who should
not, and who should decide which was to be which, and make the decision
stick? Bush’s answers were simple, bold, clear, and pursued with

Schell doesn't cite any evidence that Bush actually performed this perfervid daydream, and it sounds about as likely as W landing that plane on the carrier. His scenario is precisely the sort of thing pundits were saying about Bush in the punch-drunk winter of 20011/2002, back when he was still being called “Churchillian.” But even many right-wingers have a less sanguine and more nuanced view of The Decider these days. Perhaps this is because, painful as it may have been, they have reluctantly noticed what George Bush has done, what he is actually like – which Schell clearly has not. True, Schell does recognize that the policies of the Bush administration have not made things better anywhere. But he still writes this:

Comprehensive errors of the kind displayed by Bush’s nuclear policies are,
however, rarely gratuitous. Almost always, they are at least in part
misbegotten solutions to a problem that is real. Let us give the Bush
Administration its due. It framed an audacious, comprehensive doctrine to
address the problem of nuclear proliferation and acted resolutely on the basis
if its beliefs….

Actually of course, it didn’t, and only a delusional twit, at this point would think so. Despite the cowardice of America’s press and of the Democrats, it has become so obvious as to finally be unignorable and undeniable that the Bushites didn’t really believe that Saddam was about to menace us with nuclear weapons. They weren’t trying to preempt proliferation when they drummed up the war in Iraq. (If they really cared ‘comprehensively’ about proliferation they might have done something about the tendency of say, the Taliban-supporting Pakistanis to proliferate, but that might have entailed difficulties.) Bush entered the White House intent on going to war with Iraq. Why he and Cheney, draft dodgers both, were so eager to go to war, is probably better explained by psychiatrists than by historians and strategists. Certainly there were many causal factors involved, but I would bet that the strongest of them was Karl Rove’s awareness that he needed to hide the administration’s pervasive corruption and incompetence in the fog of war; he sold it to Bush as his one ticket to a second term. And so they “fixed the intelligence,” as the Downing Street Memo explains. The real problem addressed was a domestic political one, not a nuclear one. And, given that its real impetus was the preservation of the Administration’s visionless power, for its own sake, its atrocious “error” is most certainly “gratuitous” – however rare Schell believes this to be.

In his assertion that the Bush administration “acted resolutely on the basis if its beliefs” Schell falls into another error common until very recently among the media middlebrows: the willingness to attribute to Bush sincere “beliefs,” or principles with which his actions are stubbornly consistent. More observant folk, like the people who wrote “Bush vs. Bush” for The Daily Show, have long understood that Bush vacillates and flip-flops about everything, often quite ridiculously, like the drunken, heartsick fratboy he in essence remains. If there is any real principle or belief (other than preservation of himself and his prerogatives) that Bush hasn’t violated, pimped out, run roughshod over in his switchbacking course from blunder to debacle to fiasco, it has escaped me. Instead, it seems there is no principle, person, action, or oath-on-a-stack-of-Bibles that Bush won’t disown (usually by blaming someone else) whenever it becomes expedient.

Of course there is nothing truly audacious about this administration. If Bush really believed what Schell believes he believes, and if he were ‘audacious and resolute’ in acting on those beliefs, he might have ginned up the draft and gone into Iraq with the 500,000 men the generals said were needed to do the job, even if doing so risked being penalized at the ballot box. Instead he decided to do it on the cheap, the less to inconvenience the Dittoheads. If, on the other hand, someone had been allowed to tell Bush that the Iraq war was very likely going to be the excruciating, multi-trillion dollar quagmire it has proven to be, and Bush then said, “But damn it, the fate of the Earth is in the balance here; it’s a sacrifice we’ll have to make,” then we might see him in the “resolute” light Schell wants to. But Schell clearly forgets that people got fired for saying such things to the Bushites, so the administration thought the war would be quick, painless, glorious, cost-free (paid for by the Iraqis), just the kind of war they thought they’d won on Mission Accomplished Day. That is what they believed going in. It seemed, in prospect, like fun to them.

Schell is just as delusional when he attributes boldness and audacity to Bush. (Clearly he hasn’t seen the video of the Pet Goat Moment on 9/11.) But audacity implies braving of consequences. Bush has never in his cosseted life faced any consequences (nor is he about to) so he can hardly brave them; they are no more real to him than the likelihood of starving. Bush is only capable, as the French say, ‘…of any crime that does not require courage.” The only thing that even remotely resembles audacity (or consistency) in this administration is the desperate extremity in Bush’s efforts to cover his ass, to keep his crimes secret, cloaked in lies and claims of executive privilege. But the desperate measure, when imagined the only option, is not audacious.

Schell recognizes that Bush has been bad for America and the world. But certain that W had good intentions that somehow came to ruin on hard facts and flawed assumptions. He says:

Bush has been taken to task for the stubborn willfulness of his
leadership as well as for the ambition of his doctrine, but those qualities are
to his credit.

In fact there are no evident qualities to Bush’s credit, probably because is a man without qualities. To George Bush “leadership” is literally a mantra, that is, a sound without meaning, useful for thought-stopping. He knows he has no other talents, and so he desperately believes in an altogether empty, but somehow still-redeeming “leadership” which God has granted him gratis. But real leadership brings out the better angels in those led; by its example leadership inspires phenomena like sacrifice, bravery, unity. George Bush has never sacrificed anything, or asked anybody to; indeed he doesn’t grasp the concept of sacrifice. Moreover, his rule has been accomplished through divisiveness and fear-mongering. So, what claim has he to leadership?

Schell says at one point:

The magnitude of this administration’s mistakes, you might say, gives us the
measure of the problem.

But it seems much more probable that the magnitude of Bush’s mistakes (not to say crimes) gives us instead a measure of his absolute unfitness for office.

I wondered, toward the end of this awful piece, what can Schell be fluffing the President for? Can he be angling for a job at National Review? No, I found out finally; he’s trying to save us from thermonuclear selves. The answer to the problem – simple, bold, clear, and to be pursued with tenacity – is “nuclear abolition.” As to how we are to accomplish the global goal, Schell himself has nothing to offer, except that we must definitely borrow some of Bush’s flight-suited stubbornness, audacity and ambition. Also we are to heed the advice of Iran-Contra conspirator George Schultz and war-criminal Henry Kissinger, as recorded “in an article in the Wall Street Journal” – no cite given. Presumably they have a plan for outlawing the Bomb, one that the Israelis, the Pakistanis, the Indians and the North Koreans will gladly enact. As soon as that is done we have only to outlaw Global Warming, aging, cancer and tooth decay, and everything will be peachy. Having finished this craptacular essay, I wonder now: what on Earth has Jonathan Schell been smoking?


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