Truth and American politics: approaching the mid-terms

2006-10-06

in Bombs and rockets, Politics, Security

Written by Tariq Ramadan, a fellow at St. Antony’s, this statement about his lengthy troubles with trying to get a US visa is well worth reading. In part, he says:

I fear that the United States has grown fearful of ideas. I have learned firsthand that the Bush administration reacts to its critics not by engaging them, but by stigmatizing and excluding them. Will foreign scholars be permitted to enter the United States only if they promise to mute their criticisms of U.S. policy? It saddens me to think of the effect this will have on the free exchange of ideas, on political debate within America, and on our ability to bridge differences across cultures.

This hits straight at what I see as the biggest foreign policy problem in the United States. It is not the holding of convictions; nor is it the willingness to act upon them. It is willful ignorance and self-delusion applied to information that contradicts the existing stance of the administration. While this trend extends into domestic politics, the most stark examples exist in the area of foreign affairs.

It is fair enough to argue that, at the time of the invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein was widely considered a threat. This is a judgement that was not confined to the British and American intelligence services. The British and American administrations could say: “We may have been wrong, but we were honest in our beliefs.” To say, instead, that they have been right all along, or deny making claims that have been undeniably recorded makes you them either insane or cynically disinterested in the truth. The indictment here is not based on the truth or falsehood of the original claims, but on the unwillingness of a group of people to revise their positions, or even admit fault, when facts have proved them wrong.

When an intelligence report confirmed the absence of WMD at the same time as the administration was claiming that the report said the opposite, Jon Stewart cleverly remarked:

The official CIA report, the Duelfer Report, has come out. The one that they’ve been working on for the past two years that will be the definitive answer on the weapons of mass destruction programs in Iraq, and it turns out, uh, not so much. Apparently, there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and their capabilities had been degraded, and they pretty much stopped trying anything in ’98. Both the President and the Vice President have come out today in response to the findings and said that they clearly justify the invasion of Iraq. So, uh, some people look at a glass and see it as half full, and other people look at a glass and say that it’s a dragon.

A notorious example of the trend of denying past statements is Donald Rumsfeld on WMD: “We know where they are. They’re in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat.” on ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos, 30 March 2003. When challenged, Rumsfeld has repeatedly denied having ever claimed certainty about the existence of Iraqi WMD. Dick Cheney has likewise lied about previous statements (example) in which he claimed that such weapons certainly existed. Numerous other examples are obvious: the administration has misjudged the seriousness of the Iraqi insurgency, entirely miscategorized the relationship between the former Iraqi leadership and Al Qaeda, and continually misrepresented the human rights records of friendly but abusive regimes, including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

While politics has never been a discipline where practitioners adhere closely to the truth (look at Taylor Owen’s article in this month’s Walrus about the scale of US bombing in Cambodia during the Johnson administration), there are times when the disjoint between official statements and observable reality becomes so broad as to indict all of those who cling to the former. The fact that the run-up to the mid-term elections is being dominated by a scandal that, while disturbing, is quite peripheral to the governmental record of the dominant party demonstrates how narrow and polarized political debate has become.

Let us hope that, whatever the results are, the November 7 midterm elections will lead to a more candid discussion of the most pressing issues regarding America’s place and actions in the world.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan October 6, 2006 at 4:59 pm

The Economist wrote about allegations of deceit leveled at members of the present US administration in November of 2005.

B October 6, 2006 at 5:18 pm

whatever the results are, the November mid-term elections will lead to a more candid discussion of the most pressing issues regarding America’s place and actions in the world.

Blasting out some bipartisan soundbite at the end of a tirade against one party is more deceitful than appropriate.

Milan October 6, 2006 at 5:40 pm

The aim of these posts is to be informative, fair, and as correct as possible. The quoted passage is an accurate reflection of how I feel about the election. I would rather see a climate of truthfulness return to Washington than see the Democrats win for the wrong reasons.

Sheena October 6, 2006 at 6:39 pm

Ramadan’s comments are hardly the whole story. More foreign students are studying in the US than were there before September 11th, and despite severe criticisms of US policy both Khatami and Ahmedinejad were granted visas and given extensive attention by media and political leaders – Khatami at multiple high-profile meetings and events, and Ahmedinejad with a good number of high-level leaders in his CFR visit. Be careful not to take one anecdote as representative without checking a bit more. In this case, reality is considerably nicer than the rhetoric.

I agree that this post sounds more party-political than perhaps you intended…. People who characterize the administration as willfully ignorant of reality may have a point, but they also often have little experience in government themselves, and a complete lack of understanding of how the information flow in a bureaucracy as big as the US government works, especially to people at the top. It’s as much an organizational as an ideological fault of the US government that it’s often hard to get good information even to a person aggressively seeking it, and something that a lot of people are trying to fix.

There are a lot of valid criticisms of the administration’s justifications for Iraq, but they get mixed in with a lot of unfounded rumor and ill-conceived argumentation. (The recent coverage of the new detainee treatment bill is a case in point.) No question that the quality of political debate is lower than it should be, but if you criticize it, then you have to be doubly careful that your own statements adhere to the same standard…..

Milan October 6, 2006 at 7:10 pm

Sheena,

I am not arguing that Tariq Ramadan is correct or incorrect, with regard to visa processing. His comments merely sparked the line of thinking that led to the rest of the post, and seem worthy of consideration. The idea that America is being closed to real debate involves much more than the matter of who can get a visa.

It’s often hard to get good information even to a person aggressively seeking it, and something that a lot of people are trying to fix.

The point here isn’t about absent information, per se. It is quite simply about having made statements that are demonstrably long, then just sticking beside them rather than undergoing any clear process of learning. Now, it might be argued that this is the only course that can be adopted in a political climate where any admission of fault is a huge liability. If so, my lament for the state of the discourse is doubly valid.

there are a lot of valid criticisms of the administration’s justifications for Iraq

There are two general types of highly valid criticisms of the war. The first is that the purpose has been made to fit the politics, at any particular time. We have heard that it was about WMD, then that it was about Al Qaeda, sometimes that it was about establishing democracy. The variability of the answer suggests that the war began for reasons that are not being spelled out plainly. The second criticism is that when justifications have been completely undermined by events, they keep getting trotted out.

While there is clearly value in maintaining balance in your thinking and statements, there does come a time when the arguments have become convincing enough to take a stance. On issues from torture to Iraq to the environment, it really seems as though that point has been reached with this administration.

you have to be doubly careful that your own statements adhere to the same standard…..

I agree absolutely. That is much of the reason why I put them out here where they can be freely criticized. To spell out your positions in detail, with reasons, in a public forum is already doing more than many people do.

Anonymous October 6, 2006 at 7:17 pm

For the last six years or so, it has seemed as though the only thing really going for the American Democratic Party has been that they are not the Republicans…

They are rarely genuinely right about something, except by default as members of the opposition. They lack in exciting leaders, good ideas, and a vision of alternative governance greater than a few pieces cut away from the Republican cloth.

R.K. October 7, 2006 at 2:58 pm

Senate Report: No link between Saddam and al-Qaeda. Report of the Select Committee on Intelligence (6,8 meg pdf) says that debriefings conducted since the invasion of Iraq “indicate that Saddam issued a general order that Iraq should not deal with al-Qaeda. No post-war information suggests that the Iraqi regime attempted to facilitate a relationship with [Osama] Bin Laden. Saddam Hussein was distrustful of al-Qaeda and viewed Islamic extremists as a threat to his regime, refusing all requests from al-Qaeda to provide material or operational support.

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