Saturday, June 25, 2016

What Were We Witnessing? Iraq's WMDs

What Were We Witnessing? Iraq’s WMDs
P. Schultz

            The following is based on a reading of Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA, where Weiner quotes George Tenet, once head of the CIA, as saying that the agency was wrong on its conclusions that Iraq had WMDs not because of “’political reasons or a craven desire to lead the country to war,’” but because of its incompetence. “’We didn’t get the job done.’”

            Let me propose an alternative to Tenet’s claim that it was “incompetence” that led the CIA astray, viz., that it was the very “competence” of the agency’s experts that led it astray.

            It is, in some senses, too easy an assessment to attribute this failure to incompetence, which leads to the conclusions that “mistakes were made” and, in the future with better agents, these could and would be corrected. These “mistakes” were not endemic but aberrations and, therefore, easily correctible. The harder assessment of this failure rejects incompetence as the cause or, put differently, looks further into this incompetence and finds a critique of experts and expertise. It asks: What do experts see? How do they see? Does an American who is an expert on, say, Iraq actually understand, know, or see Iraq by virtue of her expertise?

            Experts are focused; they only see parts of the phenomena that are in front of them. So consider: Some experts, intelligence experts in the CIA, are assigned to determine if Iraq possesses WMDs. That is their focus; that is what they are looking for, signs of WMDs, and so they focus their seeing on such signs. And if they find such signs, that constitutes success. They have successfully completed their assignment, proving that they are, in fact, experts.

            And ask yourself: What would happen to the bona fides of these experts were they to say, “We found no signs of WMDs,” and then there turned out to be such weapons, discovered when they were used? It is fair to say that their bona fides, their expertise, would vanish into the thin air. They would lose their authority as experts. And so experts are inclined, when asked to look for signs of WMDs, to find signs that such weapons exist. That result is safer, both for the enemies of those alleged to possess such weapons and for the experts themselves, as it protects their status, their authority, their professionalism.

            We have the idea that experts are concerned with, as Joe Friday would say, “Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.” That is, we think there are no incentives for experts to interpret “just the facts” in controversial ways. But that isn’t the case at all. Intelligence experts have incentives to find “the intelligence” they are looking for, to find signs of the phenomena thought to be hidden from view, at least from the view of non-experts. By finding such hidden phenomena, these experts prove their expertise, their professionalism, their competence. It is then their desire to succeed, to prove or demonstrate their competence that makes them, frequently, out of touch with the reality they claim to know, to see.

            So, if politicians or governments establish policies that are dependent on experts and expertise, the expectation should be that such policies will prove to be less than satisfactory because they will be, frequently, out of touch with reality. George Tenet was reputed to be a decent man and there seems to be no reason to doubt this reputation. But perhaps his decency was part of his shortcomings insofar as it led him to accept, as decent people do, what the experts told him. “My experts tell me it’s a slam dunk!” And if they tell him and us that, why doubt them?

So although it might seem and even might be indecent to say so, it should be said anyway: Decency and expertise are not enough, ever.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Post-Orlando: What Are We Witnessing?

Post-Orlando: What Are We Witnessing?
P. Schultz

            What are we witnessing transpiring in the United States these days? Could it be the culmination of our political order and could this culmination be indisguishable from a collapse, the inglorious end of what was to have been “national greatness?” At the end of WW II, such greatness seemed secured, as it did when the Soviet Union disappeared. Some even proclaimed “the end of history,” meaning the final and permanent triumph of “the American way.”

            It is difficult for many Americans to imagine that the end now in sight is an inglorious collapse rather than a glorious triumph. For the latter is how Americans have been taught to view themselves and their history, as participants in a story with a happy ending where all could revel in their virtue and the greatness that virtue created. So, to even suggest that our story doesn’t end that way, isn’t ending that way, seems unimaginable, even treasonous. To suggest such an ending seems, to borrow a word, “un-American.” You cannot be an American, a proper American, unless you embrace the national mythology according to which the American empire represents the culmination of those universal desires that when fulfilled raise humanity to its highest point.

            But it seems in light of certain recurring phenomena necessary to wonder whether the desires the American empire feeds off and draws strength from are those desires that raise up human beings, that make them and their souls the best they can be. For example, the violence that permeates our society, high and low, forces us to confront this possibility. When this violence is disguised as a “gun problem” or, more generally, as a problem requiring some policy or policies to be “solved,” it is easy to overlook the deeper implications of the mass killings that permeate our society. Or, a policy like our “war on drugs” only makes sense insofar as the use of drugs is treated superficially, i.e., without realizing that our “drug problem” is much more than that, that it is a reflection of a way of being in the world that is empty or without promise.

            How is it we have created a world that is permeated with violence, deadly violence, and with thrill-seeking but destructive drug use? These are phenomena that define us and, as such, they cannot be legislated away; in fact, they are not susceptible to control no matter who or which party wields the government’s power. As Sheriff Bell asserted [in No Country for Old Men]: “It takes very little to govern good people. Very little. And bad people can’t be governed at all.”

            So, we are currently reaping our crop and, of course, we are reaping as we have sown. The only important question is: How have we sown, so as to make people good or to make people bad? Perhaps, though, we are where we are because we have forgotten that this is the only important question.  

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Poor Trump: You've Been Played

Poor Trump: You’ve Been Played
P. Schultz

            Oh, poor Donald Trump. Apparently, he didn’t realize he was being played, being set up by the ruling class in order to fortify and even extend its power. And after 9/11, Bush’s fiasco in Iraq, the “great recession,” and the almost completely uninspiring and inconsequential presidency of Barack Obama, not to mention Bill Clinton and his impeachment, Trump is exactly what the established mainstream politicians needed to re-establish their “creds.”

            But now that Trump has secured the nomination, all of kinds of stuff will be dropped on “the Donald,” while he implodes, thereby ensuring his defeat in the upcoming presidential election. And having defeated Trump while elevating the utterly banal and mediocre Hillary Clinton to the presidency, the ruling elites will have gone a long way to re-legitimizing themselves by illustrating once again that there is only one kind of politics that “works,” viz., their kind of politics which, of course, serves their interests more than anyone else.

            We can all relax now because the ruling elites have “it” all in hand now and will, no doubt, prove as competent governing as they have in the past 25 years or so. And, lo and behold, by the time 2020 rolls around, we will be most grateful to those elites, even as they pick our pockets in order to pay for the wars that make them seem indispensable.