Significance for the Long Run: Developments Last Week

Commenting in the online edition of The American Prospect, Michael Tomasky makes an extremely important point:

"One of the big problems with most politicians at Edwards' level is that they don't read
seriously anymore. This means they don't develop serious ideas of their own, and it makes
them more susceptible to any shallow thing their pollsters and handlers tell them. It's surely
true of both parties, but it seems worse among Democrats for some reason. Maybe it's that
they almost never, ever, ever refer to anything historical (I'm sure their pollsters tell them
that history is a loser). Maybe it's just that I know the Democrats and don't really know the
Repubs, so I see it up close with them."

Tomasky is referring to George Will's slam of John Edwards for not having heard of James Q. Wilson. But the general issue is what counts. America is now governed by ignorant politicians because knowledge has been dismissed as unimportant in the political arena. One might call it the George Bush effect. The president has shown consistently that he knows very little and it doesn't seem to have hurt him. Rather, it is thought to make the average voter warm to him as an average guy with average values. Yet, it's questionable how far ignorance can be ridden. Knowledge of history does matter in making political decisions and even the average guy tends to know that.

The new report from Amnesty International about prisoners in Iraq makes one thing very clear. The supposedly sovereign government of Iraq is treating the people it holds very badly. Torture is common and false charges are rife. There is no resort to legal protection. Is this our fault? Well, we have to face the truth that this government is our baby. We created it. We set the conditions under which it exercises power. To say that it is a democratic expression of the Iraqi people is nonsense. The U.S. military in Iraq can't, of course, regulate and inspect everything the Iraqi authorities do. Even if we had the will to do it, we don't have the means. But that's the very point the American people ought to be taking into account. When you conquer and occupy a country, you set loose forces you can't control. That's why conquest and occupation ought to be done under only the most dire circumstances, only when you have no other options. In 2003, there were many options available to us and we allowed our government to pick the worst one possible. Is this all ancient history? Maybe. But it ought to teach us that ancient history is important.

As Mr. Bush's problems pile up, it's likely he and his advisors will soften their rhetoric and attempt to appear less arrogant than they were during his first term. They won't openly back off on anything, but they will change their tone. It's important that this change not cause critics to be less vocal. What will be established during the final years of the Bush administration is not only policy for the moment but a historical reputation. Scholars in the future will shape that reputation. Yet, exactly how they shape it will be strongly influenced by what happens to the Bushites in the next couple years. The nation needs to ensure that the Bush administration, in its entirety, comes to be seen as a pathological aberration. Politicians in the coming years need to have planted in their brains a fear of being perceived as comparable to Bush and his cronies. In the rush of current events, it's easy to forget that long-term forces determine much of what happens. And historical reputation is the most lasting of long term forces. The nation would do well to get something positive from the election of Bush in 2000 and 2004. And the best thing it could get is the lesson: never again!

"The Bush administration is intellectually corrupt." So says Richard Cohen in his column in today's Washington Post. He says further that intellectual corruption is harming the nation more deeply than the financial corruption that's getting so much press nowadays. He gives as examples the Bush policies on stem cell research, sexual abstinence programs, and global warming. It's easy to agree with Cohen - too easy perhaps. The danger is to attribute silly actions to intellectual corruption without stopping to ask what the latter is. Is it just simple, old-fashioned stupidity? Is it greed-driven self delusion? Is it bigotry masquerading as faith or religion? Is it mean spiritedness? Or is it some toxic combination of all these? An intellectually corrupt man is not a simple phenomenon. And it is probably not wise to assume that his character comes from a single force or motive. Cohen is undoubtedly right that something we can describe abstractly as intellectual corruption is befouling our national life. But just saying so, without digging into it and finding out what its parts are, will probably not do much to reduce its power. We need an analysis of the current American version of intellectual corruption and we are seriously tardy in getting to work on it.

The breakdown of the Dubai Ports deal shows it's hard to manage hysteria, even if you've created it yourself. For four years the Bush administration has sought to garner political advantage by ramping up irrational fears about the rest of the world and, in particular, fears about the Islamic world. Now, their success is biting back. The nation's reputation will be hurt by the cancellation of the contract. But the good that comes from revealing the nature of the Bush administration to greater numbers may outweigh the damage. From the beginning of this story its ironic nature was evident. Bush was going to be slammed by the force he had ruthlessly exploited. It's too bad that our international standing will be lowered by the recent mania. But its effect in reducing Bush's influence has to be welcomed. David Broder in his Washington Post column says Charles Schumer and other Democratic critics of the deal are playing with fire. He's right. But maybe fire is necessary to get rid of -- or at least negate -- the people who have been conducting our international affairs. Only when their power is gone can we begin to repair our relationship with the world.

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