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The un-leader

I'm almost afraid to respond to Michael Kinsley's recent piece in Time (via my friend Dave), in which he calls George Bush a "Great" leader — I don't want to get caught taking it seriously. The piece reads like artful, pretty fluff, something Kinsley whipped together for the magazine because he knew a colleague over there would throw some money his way in return. I mean, could Kinsley sincerely believe history will look back on what Bush has done so far and deem it leadership?

Bush, after all, was the man who won the presidency precisely because he wasn't a leader. His strongest claim was that he was a manager — though most Americans who voted for him supposedly did so because they thought he was a sports car. His mandate, what little he had, was simple: Stay out of the way, and don't mess up. The election of 2000 saw America shopping around for a new kind of president: one they wouldn't be embarrassed by, could keep safely in the garage, and wouldn't mind the neighbors seeing once in a while so long as they didn't come too close.

History, of course, changed all that. But even with all credibility and gravitas the tragic events of that Sept. 11 magically imbued him with, Bush has failed as a leader. There are two things that make one a leader: A vision, either original or that one makes one's own; and the ability to bring others to follow it. But Bush has no vision, and certainly none of his own; and neither the world nor the United States follows him freely.

If you read the news with the slightest bit of skepticism, you couldn't possibly believe Bush has any vision at all. The facts speak too plainly. The Bush administration is torn by internal disputes that are never resolved, with each decision arbitered only at the last moment, and not consistently. The empty promises pile up in heaps; already our grand vision for Iraq — we're going to do it right, they said — is getting scraped, bit by bit, under the carpet, alongside Afghanistan. (It's a big carpet, it would appear.) One could argue that Bush has a vision for his tax cut, except that he'll say anything to try and justify it — if he has a vision, why can't he just articulate it? Why scurry from one rationale to the next, like a rat hopping from sinking ship to sinking ship?

What's more, if the Bush administration is guilty of having any vision, it's far from clear that it's his, all those carefully leaked White House anecdotes about the supposedly considered authority with which he makes his most momentous decisions notwithstanding. Before he was elected, Bush knew nothing of world affairs; and everything he knows now, it's safe to say, he's learned from his advisors. And his advisors clearly have visions of their own. How could Bush possibly choose between them? He has no separate vantage point from which to consider them; no perspective. Nor does he have any experience or skill that would allow him to intelligently pull those views apart and piece them back together again to create his own view. His policy views are inevitably his advisors' creations, not his own. (And sometimes they apparently don't even let him know what he wants to know.)

This is why, no doubt, Bush's advisors face a constant battle to bring the president around to their view. (One sensible analysis of Colin Powell's historically infrequent (for a secretary of State) rate of travel, for instance, is that he's afraid to leave the hen house for fear Rumsfeld (and his pal Wolfowitz, of course) will snatch up all the chicks.) Not only does Bush never actually decide between the two views; on any given individual decision, his cabinet never knows which way he'll go; it's not possible to predict, no doubt, because the decisions aren't predicated on anything coherent. Apparently the president himself doesn't ever really know what he should think; he plays it by feel. No wonder Powell's best gambit in getting him to go to the U.N. for Resolution 1441 was to have dinner with him.

And I'm not making this up; it's almost all been reported elsewhere. But as transparent as it is that Bush — he of the fist-pumping gung-hoisms and undisturbed baby-sleep — doesn't seem to understand just what's going on, he gets better than a free pass from the media — he actually gets praise. Such praise is willfully oblivious in other ways, too: Kinsley, for instance, happily asserts Bush's tremendous leadership without so much as a nod or a glance over our borders or across the sea, where our great leader has so skillfully dispersed a seemingly unending trove of good will that now even Canada publicly stands against us. Surely even a mediocre leader could have maintained our friendship with Canada?

Kinsley's contention that Bush is a great leader is (he says) based on Bush's freely choosing to lead us into Iraq. But what kind of leader doesn't even understand the policies he supposedly chooses and, gifted a tremendous international following, manages to destroy its support without its ever achieving anything? Bush has no apparent vision, nor has he convinced anyone to follow him who wasn't following him already. A leader, he isn't — not by a long shot.

So what's Kinsley on about? Well, there is one group that has fallen in perfectly behind the president: the mainstream American news media. They, it seems, are writing a story they think they can sell; maybe that's what Kinsley was thinking, too. Willfully or witlessly, though, he and the rest of the news media are showing just how worthless their artful fluff truly is.

April 22, 2003 1:51 PM

Comments (and TrackBacks)

Is it the maoist foundations of the ultra-left Democractic wing, or is it the pan-American wistful longing of our rural history that forces some of our best thinkers today to see American government in such simple, flat terms ?

The USG Aint One Man
Really, it is not.

Pluralism, even Organisational, is Good
I love it that we have an organisation (not a man, let me re-enforce) running ConceptAmerica in which there is equal room for the likes of Rumsfeld, Rice, and Powell (going Right to Left). I think it's swell that they have disagreements. And, i love it that our FP gradually evolves over time, conditioning itself to foreign mood, foreign states' antagonistic strategies, and ever changing circumstances.

Someone show me the Franco economic empire?
Should i look to Burkina Faso's hi-tech free trade zone? Clearly we got a method that's working, and clearly others' do not.


Thank G-d we don't have policy wonks in power who believe in paper, and not rubber-and-earth reasoning. Thank G-d, i say.

I say that so strongly because if, like the flat-thinking ultra-left would have us believe, a single authoritarian individual truly did run the show we'd find ourselves just as effective as Saddam's last stand, or Kim's economic management, or the French's ability to maneuver in international diplomatic realms. Fruits.

The ball's way, way too big for one man.
Your criticising a figure-head.
And, it's so, so much more than that.

It's about results (and that we got, today as i type).

.rob adams

Posted by rob adams on April 22, 2003 2:35 PM

Rob, are you trying to say Bush is just a figurehead (which I don't agree with, by the way)? And that therefore it's somehow wrong for me to point out that he isn't a leader?

(And is it really necessary to argue against all those things I (or Kinsley) never said? Who said anything about the system of American government?)

Posted by M on April 22, 2003 3:09 PM

I guess we read the article differently, Matt. I read Kinsley as being sarcastic, but that may be colored by what I expect to hear from him.

Still, your points are well taken. As for Rob's response--as you pointed out, he didn't address your proposition (as I read it): I think it's a fair way to read the news (it's how I read it) that Bush is essentially flailing between the views of his cabinet members because he has no ability to understand the issues himself and make coherent long term plans or develop a framework in which to make important decisions.

Maybe the problem is just lack of communication. I've never heard Bush address foreign policy in any depth beyond "we're gonna git them terr'ists" type of language. These are complex issues, and he presents them as if they are black and white, good versus evil. It's an appealing ideal, but it's far removed from reality.

Posted by Dave Adams on April 22, 2003 8:26 PM

This "flailing" between seemingly disparate policies is about conditioning, conditioning the policy to the environment it's about to operate within. Often times an admin will have a "pie in the sky" policy, one they'd love to enact, but know it want float publicly. So, they mitigate it a bit, call it "policy 0.5". They describe the policy to the public to this half degree (.5), and say they get fab results, so they then modify the policy to .75, and so on, until they get as close to policy "1.0" as the public can withstand.

The same holds true with FP.

This isn't about inept policy wonks, or flailing, or even *so* much about internal policy debates within the admin... it's about fine-tuning your policies to the environment in which they will be, ultimately, received. Should the admin seriously stick to their guns, and enact policy 1.0, disregarding real-politik? I hope not. That's simple management at work. That's simple government ideals.

We left those days behind long, long ago. This is about operating a huge, expansive sphere of influence. Compromises will always be necessary, often mid-stream. It's the nature of empire.

Internal debates exist, in every admin, that these debates happen publicly is a good, democratic thing. All they're doing is making policy formulations' inner-workings a little more open to the public eye. It isn't about an inability to grasp details, or make decisions. It's the process itself.

That Mr.Bush hasn't articulated complex FP owes itself as much to the idealistic glasses the Am-public has towards their govt ("America's just one big Our Town, with Garrison Koehler adding a birkenstock 90's westchester flavour.") Uh-huh. Simple mindsets needs simple phrases.

Different talking heads talk to different audiences. For this reason people like Powell talk in more depth than, say, Bush. It's all about audience. Maybe people missed some of the editorials spouting elaborations into the reasoning behind US FP ?

And, if you think the presidency isn't 90% cheerleader/figurehead, then just ask the CEO of any Fortune 1000 company what he thinks (if he's not in a Fed pen, that is).


Posted by rob adams on April 23, 2003 2:12 PM

Frankly, Rob, your embrace of the neocon American empire ideal as a laudable goal, and your belief that deceiving the public into accepting such a plan by taking small steps that only suck us farther into the plan is a good thing is a far scarier picture of what's happening than I have personally been willing to accept.

I agree there are two ways of reading the administration's behavior: either a flailing unsure bumbling or a grand deceptive plan. I am more prepared to believe the former mainly because I'm skeptical that any bureaucracy, especially one the size of the US government, would be able to pull of the latter without an exceptional unity of purpose in its leaders and a strong "figurehead" if you must leading with a vision. Frankly, I don't believe those conditions are true.

But if I'm wrong and they are true, or if they aren't necessary and the Bush administration is following the grand plan of deception, then that's an even worse outcome, from my point of view.

Posted by Dave Adams on April 23, 2003 2:39 PM

Of course internal debates are a good thing. The question is if the president is capable of judging them, and intelligently making a decision based on them.

But -- and nevermind the fact that I have actually talked to CEOs of multibillion-dollar companies, Rob -- you're apparently saying that government policy isn't up to Bush. But do you seriously believe it wasn't his decision whether we would seek U.N. resolutions regarding Iraq, negotiate with Korea, or invade Iraq? Are you saying he's just a puppet president? That would be interesting, but I'd like to see an argument -- how does the White House then decide policy, do you think?

Posted by M on April 23, 2003 5:58 PM

I think FP, domestic, and economic policy are all up to a US president just as much as a marketing strategy is up to this or that F-1000/500 CEO. Do they have a final say? Sure. Always.

But, do they really sit down and formulate the microdetails? Even the macro-flavour of such? No. And, if so, rarely, and usually at the loss of quality and organisational cohesion (ie., individuals usually resign after this is done).

Indeed, i think Rove has a much, much larger hand at domestic policy than Bush, or Rumsfeld on military purchase-planning than does Bush.

Does Bush listen to the forumalations? Yup.

But, he sure doesn't sit down as say "I think we need to do X-12 and Y-13." The details and the delivery are all planned out elsewhere, extra-Bush's brain.


Posted by rob adams on April 25, 2003 12:56 PM

Let me make some things clear, as to where i'm coming from:

[] i think the US public is hopelessly (hopelessly) naive, consumeristic, and pleasure-driven; Only the soon-to-be instability of our "way of life" will correct this, with great human and economic loss -- but corrected it shall be.
[] I voted for Gore and have been a registered (and active) Democratic Party member since i was a voting adult living in the US. I was horrified by our last election, which merely validated by notions that Florida is and was a thirld-world culture, SouthBeach Miami included.
[] If there were a culturally viable Communist/Socialist party in the States, i'd belong, and probably would run on their ticket (seriously).
[] I believe a centralised economy is the best, soundest, and most moral of all markets; It just takes a better human heart (we're almost there, IMO).
[] I believe that, one day, all of human civilisation and culture will be geared toward learning/science and, eventually, towards studying the notion of "what makes something True, what is the nature of something that is true." This means pop-rocks, hello kitty, and DuranDuran will cease to exist.
[] I think Karl Rove should be politically assisinated at all costs to the Democratic Party (seriously).
[] Ditto for Cheney and his wife.
[] I believe truth, over rhetoric or political alliances, is important to see, regardless of how hard that truth might be to accept; the BushCollective has done an excellent job at managing this first, current wave of global instability wrought by Islamic fundamentalism's global-expansionistic cadres.
[] I am an ultra-hawk when it comes to FP.


Posted by rob adams clarified on April 25, 2003 1:11 PM

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