Soft bigotry, meet low expectations

After I read Ross Douthat’s column this morning, I tweeted that I was nominally on board with his attempt to massage George W. Bush’s reputation.

Three hours, two cups of coffee, and a nice helping of sense later, I think I can safely say that my original assessment was a little…off.  First, here’s Douthat in his own words:

America has had its share of disastrous chief executives. But few have gone as far as Bush did in trying to repair their worst mistakes. Those mistakes were the Iraq war — both the decision to invade and the conduct of the occupation — and the irrational exuberance that stoked the housing bubble. The repairs were the surge, undertaken at a time when the political class was ready to abandon Iraq to the furies, and last fall’s unprecedented economic bailout.

Both fixes remain controversial. But for the moment, both look like the sort of disaster-averting interventions for which presidents get canonized. It’s just that in Bush’s case, the disasters he averted were created on his watch. […]

And perhaps his best decisions, on the surge and the bailout, were made from the bunker of a seemingly-ruined presidency — when his approval ratings had bottomed out, his credibility was exhausted and his allies had abandoned him.

This is not a blueprint that future presidents will want to follow. But the next time an Oval Office occupant sees his popularity dissolve and his ambitions turn to dust, he can take comfort from Bush’s example. It suggests that it’s possible to become a good president even — or especially — when you can no longer hope to be a great one.

I’m not sure how much of this is the fault of the medium rather than the messenger, but I don’t think Douthat quite grasps the gravity of President Bush’s mistakes.  The Iraq War wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill piece of unfortunate, but easily corrected, policy.  It was – and is – a strategic and humanitarian disaster of the highest order.  Over the course of six years, the United States has squandered trillions of dollars, destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives and done almost irreparable damage to Iraq’s social fabric.  In retrospect, the surge was a welcome breath of pragmatism from the Bush administration, but even with that (limited) success in mind, it’s incredibly difficult to say that President Bush “fixed” anything.capt.capm10208301856.bush__capm102

The same goes for the financial crisis.  While there’s plenty of blame to go around for the collapse of the housing market and subsequent collapse of the financial system, it’s fair to say that the Bush administration deserves a fair amount of blame for stoking the “irrational exuberance” that in turn stoked the housing bubble.  What’s more, the twin collapses have yielded a tremendous amount of suffering, especially among the poor and working-class.  Since the recession officially began in December 2007, the country has had a net loss of about 5 percent of its non-farm payroll, the brunt of that borne by the most economically insecure members of our society.  The bailouts and TARP were certainly good moves by the administration, and should be recognized as such despite their flaws, but again, to say that those make up for the initial failures is a bit of a stretch.

And I guess that’s my main complaint with Douthat’s column.  To borrow a phrase from President Bush, what Douthat has written is a classic example of the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”  Saying that we should applaud President Bush for taking steps to salvage his disastrous presidency is like praising a roommate for cleaning up a bit after trashing the apartment.  Not only should the place never have been trashed to begin with, but cleaning up after oneself is a matter of course and not particularly praiseworthy.

Update: I left out a pretty critical part of the Douthat column.

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16 thoughts on “Soft bigotry, meet low expectations

  1. Hi Jamelle,

    Your points are solid, but I’m not sure they really discredit Douthat (though I only read the bit you quoted). Douthat implies that Bush was one of many disastrous Presidents, but commends him for trying to fix his problems. I don’t think he’s commending the roommate who cleaned up a bit after trashing the apartment, I think he’s taking some consolation in the fact that after so many roommates who just trashed the place and left, at least this guy did a couple of dishes first.

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  2. Over the course of six years, the United States has squandered trillions of dollars, destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives and done almost irreparable damage to Iraq’s social fabric.

    By the way, at the time, the invasion enjoyed wide bipartisan support, both in the Congress and in public.
    True, of course, except for the adjectives, “squandered” and “destroyed.” These imply an avoidable and unnecessary cost.

    Just to be fair, then, try and eliminate the loaded adjective and substitute, “spent.” Also eliminate “destroyed” and substitute “sacrificed.” Do these seem more neutral to you?

    Now try and explain what the cost would have been in lives sacrificed and in dollars if we hadn’t invaded. Explain how the Iraqi social fabric would have been damaged by not invading. opinion.

    This “would have cost” exercice is necessary to avoid the historical fallacy, or the problem of hindsight. If you only mention the cost of the war today, you’re comparing this cost with not spending anything or with not sacrificing any lives and with a healthy Iraqi “social fabric.” This is plainly false. No matter what, as things stood back in 2002-03, we were spending money and risking lives. The Iraqi “social fabric” was plainly very sick for being oppressed by decades of totalitarian Baathist party rule. Plus, the oil-for-food program was working full blast to provide Saddam with illegal funds, which he could use to rebuild his military, and to undermine the sanctions regime against him by corrupting important agents of that regime. Saddam’s propaganda motors were also working full blast to undermine the sanctions (remember the 500 million children murdered by the sanctions?) And so forth.

    Bush was therefore faced with a choice where not invading also carried its costs in dollars and in lives. This is the nature of any choice, as we all know. We choose one thing and along with it we lose the opportunity to choose the other.

    To argue about history–which is what you’re doing here–fairly–which you’re not doing here–one needs to use the above logic. Otherwise, one falls victim to a logical fallacy, or the fallacy of hindsight. We must put ourselves in the places of the decision-makers and analyze their decision based on the information they had available at the time.
    I wonder if you’re capable of doing such a thing? Or are you limited to repeating the conventional wisdom? If you do not addrress this question of the costs to the US treasury, US and Iraqi lives, and Iraqi “socal fabric,” if Bush had decided not to invade, then you’re simply mired in mud of ideology.

    I know it’s hard, if not impossible, to do such a thing, simply because it never happened this way. On the other hand, if you just ignore the question entirely, you come off as “ideologically blocked,” like Obma likes to say. The question is, considering the situation as it stood at the time, and considering the available information at the time, did Bush make the right decision? To answer this question, you must try and project the situation as it stood in 2002-03 into the future and compare this with today’s situation.

    Have a nice day.

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  3. Roque Nuevo arrives to explain to the crowd that no, 2+2 really does = 5 and that in Iraq hundreds of thousands weren’t killed, millions weren’t displaced, and trillions of dollars weren’t spent making the situation undeniably worse even six years later. And besides, even if some things went wrong with the invasion and occupation, it was worth it because Saddam had those WMDs!

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    • I assume that readers will recognize that Chriss WWW has provided us with a timely and appropriate example of the Obamoid phrase,”ideological blockage.” Of course, I never said, or implied, any of the nonsense that Chriss WWW imputes to me but this will be of no importance to people, like him, who are “ideologically blocked.” I never mentioned WMD, I never said that the Iraq war did not generate death and destruction, and I never said we hadn’t spent all that money. I did say that the situation is not undeniably worse because one has to compare today’s situation with that which would have occurred if we hadn’t invaded. It’s only undeniably worse if one compares today’s situation with some ideal world where nobody dies, nobody is displaced, the “social fabric” is intact and growing stronger by the day, and nobody has spent any money at all. The only people who will accept this proposition are those who are ideologically blocked.

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  4. J, before you tweeted you should have remembered your insight from June 2009. Douthat is a master of nonsense.

    “I try to avoid wasting space on this blog – I don’t want to lose the few readers I have – but it’s definitely worth wasting space to comment on this utterly nonsensical and characteristically disingenuous Ross Douthat column, where he basically argues that restricting second trimester abortion is a necessary precondition to having more sensible abortion laws….”

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    • Actually, he has a decent point in that post. A Gallup poll asking much more detailed questions than the usual ones has people favouring much stronger restrictions than currently exist.

      Large majorities favour laws requring: parental consent; spousal notification; 24-hour waiting periods; and informed consent. Majorities think abortion should be illegal in the second and third trimesters, except in cases where the mother’s life is endangered, in the case of rape or illness, or if the child has a life-threatening illness. Majorities do not think economic inability to raise the child is a sufficient reason for abortion to be legal.

      To say the least, this is very different from the current terms of the abortion debate and what people think public opinion is. Taking these into account, the logical conclusion to draw from polls on Roe v. Wade is that people don’t really understand the actual effect the decision has had on law.

      Sorry for the off-topic post, but I think it’s something worth noting.

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  5. Is it possible for something to be pretty damn bad, but not rank among the worst things in human history? For instance, this post says Iraq was “a strategic and humanitarian disaster of the highest order.”

    Really? The highest? Off the top of my head, WWI and the subsequent flue eopidemic come to mind. Or maybe the Black Plague or the Inquisition. As far as strategic blunders go, was Iraq as bad as Hitler’s decision to put off the invasion of Russia for a few months? As bad as the Confederacy’s foray into the north?

    I am not trying to be pedantic here, just trying to add a little perspective. Let’s just say more than a million people in Iraq have died, for instance. That would put it at a mere fraction of the 1914-1919 death toll.

    Yeah. We get it. Bush was a shitty president. Can we manage to say that without saying that he was one of the greatrest butchers in world history? What’s the value in that?

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    • World history covers a long period. I would say that Iraq was, with Vietnam and the Spanish-American War, one of the most pointless and unnecessary wars for a trumped-up cause in American history, and had the second-worst results after Vietnam. Like Vietnam, it caused great suffering overseas and threw away an incredible amount of money that could have been used to alleviate suffering within the US. In terms of the sustainability of the national debt, its impact was worse by far than Vietnam.

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  6. But….Jamelle…..the Surge didn’t work…unless it was just intended to be a short term bandage that held long enough to get Sick Grandpa and the Backup Dimbo into the WH.

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  7. “You’re the only saying ‘…greatrest [sic] butchers in world history.'”

    OK. But the original post said the iraq war was:

    “a strategic and humanitarian disaster of the highest order.”

    To be a disaster of the highest order requires a pretty high standard. The highest, in fact!

    Is Iraq even close to Vietnam yet? Not in terms of Amreican lives. And not in terms of “ther side” lives. In fact, it’s not even close. And Vietnam was but a blip on the radar compared to the World Wars. And many, many wars that came before.

    Seems pretty clear, from a historical perspective, that Iraq is a strategic and humanitarian disaster of pretty middling proportions. A disaster, sure. And that matters. But I don’t see what you gain by calling it a disaster of the highest order.

    This is a fairly common conceit, that the times we live in deliver epic moments. That might be the case when people look back and judge our time. But until Iraq turns into a 1918 flu epidemic, I think it’s more proper to speak in measured tones.

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