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September 17, 2005

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I came to a very similar conclusion after reading this:

Over the last ten years I have worked very extensively in Uzbekistan, on occasion spending up to a month at a time there on business for banking clients. During this time I became closely acquainted with a number of leading figures at the Uzbek bar and heard many gripping stories of abuse and mistreatment of ordinary citizens at the hands of President Karimov's regime. Last year, a public commission which was looking into the situation there contacted me and I helped arrange a visit by commission members to Uzbekistan to look into freedom of conscience issues. I helped put them in touch with a Lutheran pastor who had been intimidated and mistreated, and several attorneys who represented Muslims who had been imprisoned and tortured. In Uzbekistan it is a grave offense to worship in any religious gathering which is not state-sponsored. As a result of US pressure, some room has opened up for Christians, but for Muslims, being caught worshipping other than at a state-sanctioned mosque is likely to be a life-altering experience. Severe beatings, lengthy "investigatory detention," incarceration in TB-laden workcamps is the norm. A prisoner's likelihood of survival at such camps is not much better than 50-50. And of course the famous cases of torture, such as boiling in water. All this reminds that the techniques of which Col Stoddart wrote so vividly in the 1840's continue, with technological enhancements, under Islam Karimov. One of the commissioners apparently challenged President Bush about this when the commission had a meeting with the president. Couldn't he issue an order prohibiting such renditions? Couldn't he issue an unequivocal order against torture? The president, the commissioner said, reacted with near rage. He angrily snapped "Who said that? We do not practice torture!" The commissioner repeated that the president needed to send a clear message to the government that torture was a taboo. The president scowled and walked away in disgust.

I think this is the most insightful sentence of this post:

"The only sense I can make of this is that Bush is not very good either at moving from sentences like "New Orleans might be almost completely flooded, and rendered uninhabitable" and the reality they describe, or at understanding the implications of such a sentence."

It's not just a lack of imagination though. He also seems to have a weird inability to perceive the dissonance between his rhetoric and the facts on the ground. "Compassionate conservatism" and the Texas death penalty mill. "America's values and interests are now one" and the detainee policies. I could give example after example.

Hilzoy,
I wonder if you are thinking about this TPM post. It is not about Social Security, but about the 9/11 commission. There was also this.

In this Hill column, Marshall lays out a number of 'out of touch' moments. Unfortunately, there are so many, that one could accuse Josh of playing Chicken Little.

Actually, I think that Bush (or at least his advisers) has shown more awareness on the bad reception of the Bush plan because at one point, when the plan was tanking, he siad that he didn't have a plan, and that all options were on the table.

Not meaning to equate the two in terms of scale, but I've read the reason 15-30 million people died during the Great Leap Forward was because Mao's underlings were afraid to tell him bad news.
Mao was another one of those poor managers.

It's not just a lack of imagination though. He also seems to have a weird inability to perceive the dissonance between his rhetoric and the facts on the ground.

That's because he doesn't write the rhetoric, and those who do write it don't address the facts on the ground when they write it...they keep their eyes on some future prize. They're forward looking, which one would normally assume was good, except, of course, when the present needs some attention.

I see the Bush (and to a large degree the Reagan) administration's central problem with being disconnected the fact that they believe their destiny to be unchangable. So long as they keep moving forward with the plan, all the little details will sort themselves out.

God reserves a special torment for fools like that, I'm convinced.

Great post, hilzoy; cogent and well-written as usual: but tell us: what exactly can we, or anyone actually DO about the situation?
So you are telling us (or, more accurately proving confirming information) that George W. Bush, as President, is a clueless empty suit? And a p*ss-poor manager, besides? I guess this revelation can be filed under "comment" rather than "news" because this is what at least half the country has been saying for the past five years.
As long as the modern Republican Machine is in charge of the government, though, Good Ol' Dubya will be held up as a shining exemplar of executive capability: when so many folks have a vested interest in supplying the Emperor's wardrobe, you can be sure that those pointing to his bare butt (with tacky tattoos) will be roundly ignored or shouted down.

You say Bush is an adult, but I'm not so sure. It's possible that growing up in an environment that completely insulated him from any possible negative effect of his failures has left him a perpetual adolescent. Unfortunately, things have gone beyond a wrecked car, or a pregnant girl, or a failed business -- he's reached a level where Poppy can't bail him out.

KCinDC: I meant 'he is an adult' in the literal sense, supplemented, I guess, by the thought: he is not severely retarded, insane, or one of the other things that would keep him from having the normal responsibilities of adulthood.

I write about this stuff for a living, as some of you know, and I tend not to accept the idea that if you can explain why someone thought something as a result of that person's upbringing, life experience, etc., you excuse it. I think that there are responsibilities of adulthood, and that it really takes some sort of major cognitive or psychological disability to prevent someone from having them.

One of them is: to notice such things as: that you're being bailed out of everything, and (preferably) reject the bailouts out of self-respect, or (failing that) at least to recognize them for what they are, and consider their effects, and try to overcome those that are bad. Another is: not to do things that will make other people's lives depend on your not being the sort of person you are.

I mean: it's not as though being insulated from failure actually prevents a person from noticing that he's been insulated from failure, and acting accordingly. Nor is it the case that growing up privileged prevents you from noticing that fact, and trying to take steps to undo its distortions. (Nb: I assume that most upbringings involve one or another thing to be overcome, some greater, some less. I am not singling out privileged upbringings here. Though in the case of privileged upbringings, I speak from personal experience: it is possible to think about what they involve, and to try to compensate for whatever they leave out. I am, however, a lot luckier than Bush, since 'insulating us from failure' is not something that it would ever have occurred to my parents to do.)

I think it is is true that in any organization in which supervisors oversaw his success or failure and promoted/demoted him accordingly, Bush would not have been allowed to succeed had he retained the characteristics I described. You just do not succeed as a manager if you allow the information you're working from to be systematically biassed, for instance. Or at least: not unless you're either very lucky or connected. That he has never been in such a situation is probably one reason why he still has these characteristics. But another is: because he has never gotten rid of them for some other reason (self-respect, a sense of responsibility, personal ethics.) That no one else challenges you to do something is not a reason for not challenging yourself.

The tendency for bad news to go unreported to the boss is a basic management principle. I have worked for a variety of managers, some poor, two very good. The best managers take deliberate action to encourage the reporting of bad news because they know that the natural human reaction is to suppress it.

Many of the Bush administration's failures are at root management failures. Bad choice of subordinates, inadequate planning, unrealistic goals, shoot the messenger, these are all textbook cases. Take the recipe for Abu Ghraib:

  • Disparage long-held, widely-accepted standards of conduct (the Geneva Conventions are "quaint" and do not apply),
  • redefine acceptable behavior in vague terms that can be interpreted to permit almost anything (torture only means pain on par with death or organ failure; prisoners should be treated "humanely"),
  • understaff the prison (already a very high-stress situation),
  • put extreme pressure on subordinates to get immediate results.

It is a classic example.

Why do bad managers so often rise to positions of authority? It is commonplace in business. Now we see what happens when it occurs in politics. In 2000, people at least had the excuse that they didn't know. In 2004, that excuse really didn't fly. I can only surmise that someone who gave thought to this and voted for George W. Bush anyway concluded that it didn't matter.

hilzoy: Ask yourself what else he might just not know.

This reminds me of a song Arlo Guthrie wrote about Watergate, Presidential Rag:

You said you didn't know,
that the that the cats with the bugs were there,
You'd never go along with that kind of stuff no where
But that just isn't the point man,
That's the wrong ,wrong way to go,
You didn't know about that one,
well then what else don't you know.

This is a little off topic, but I want to use it to point out a side effect of President Bush's management style: it gives him plausible deniability. It really is possible that in the event of some disaster, his poor response might be due to the fact that nobody told him some crucial point.

One last thing: in my experience, the worst managers often believe that they are the best.

hilzoy, you and your sources are relying on unnamed administration sources who have every reason to protect the president and the administration with leaks that confess to the lesser sins of ignorance and incompetence. You certainly have compelling evidence that these "unnamed sources" lie to the media on a regular basis.

You also have mountains of evidence that malice, graft, and political advantage are at least as plausible an explanation.

So the interesting question is why this is the interpretation you prefer.

Continued Disservice ...via Atrios

Atrios:"At some point it has to be deliberate. No one is this incompetent"

There is an interesting comment, by Kissinger, I think, about how, in his experience, it's not true that people don't like to be the bearer of bad news, but that people take a special delight in bearing bad news. Of course, a lot of us left leaning types have been accused during the this admin of emphasizing bad news to the exclusion of good news, so one would think this is a trait that all humans have, but the stories that have come out from this admin suggest a relentless purge of people who bring bad news (remember this, anyone?)

I think that Hilzoy prefers the interpretation of 'they are insulated/incompetent' because an interpretation that they are being mendacious would mean that this admin would say anything to anyone, so therefore, any kind of reasoned discourse becomes impossible. Also, if they were mendacious, it is difficult to imagine them figuring out that the hurricane was coming, planning for a poor response, and then using that poor response to hammer critics of the admin. I'd note that this is often a criticism raised against the 'it is all for the oil' folks.

As I've said, I'm becoming more and more sympathetic to Bob's viewpoint, but I do believe it is possible that this administration lurches from crisis to crisis always in a reactive mode rather than actually preparing for anything, and that this kind of behavior can create this kind of incompetence, especially when there are no real world correction mechanisms to kick in. A business will eventually go belly up if people of sufficient responsibility in the company engage in this kind of fantasy, but there is no correction mechanism here, I think.

If you always "trust your gut" then doesn't it follow that dissent is disloyalty? Dissent becomes not a facts-and-logic based disagreement, but a personal attack, because from your point of view external information is irrelevant to the problem at hand.

Gosh, I had no idea I was taking the charitable view. For the record: cluelessness and corruption are not mutually exclusive. In this instance (the delay in Bush seeming to be really engaged with Katrina), however, I have a hard time seeing a possible corruption angle.

I find corruption a less scary explanation, fwiw. It implies at least the possibility of future competence.

LJ: I'd note that this is often a criticism raised against the 'it is all for the oil' folks.

No way Bush et al would put oil above people!

Gosh, I had no idea I was taking the charitable view.

See, Hilzoy, even when you think you are being mean, you are being charitable. That's why we love you.

No way Bush et al would put oil above people!

Not meaning to tee off on you 243, but this notion of unitary reasons is really frustrating. I'm sure that there are multiple reasons behind anyone's reasons for doing something, and that's why it is necessary to separate those reasons from what is actually happening. I also assume that's why 'mindreading' is such a thought crime in discussions like these.

That's why the problem with Bob's suggestion is that logical discussion is impossible. It gets to one of those situations like the old joke about two psychologists meet each other in the hall. The first says 'Hello!', and the second, walking away, thinks 'I wonder what he meant by that?'

LJ: Not meaning to tee off on you 243, but this notion of unitary reasons is really frustrating. I'm sure that there are multiple reasons behind anyone's reasons for doing something, and that's why it is necessary to separate those reasons from what is actually happening.

Actually I pretty much agree with your multiple reasons position, but there is no doubt that some reasons are/were given higher priorities, and oil rightly or wrongly seems to be a higher priority with the admin than does, say, human rights (rendition anybody?)

That's why the problem with Bob's suggestion is that logical discussion is impossible. It gets to one of those situations like the old joke about two psychologists meet each other in the hall. The first says 'Hello!', and the second, walking away, thinks 'I wonder what he meant by that?'

Fair enough, but I'm already at the position of wondering what Bush (et al) means by pretty much anything he says, or if indeed he actually means it.

I don't think Bob's or Atrios' suggestion that the handling of Katriona was deliberate is valid; that much bad press is not something that anyone would deliberately seek. OTOH, I think it does indicate that the actual wellbeing of the general populace is not a high priority to the current administration.

Big Spender

Billmon analyzes the Katrina response, and ties himself in knots using his half-dozen "on the other hands". Or perhaps my Charybdian mind is no longer capable of seeing the plain and simple truth. But frankly, everyone else seems to start from the position that the rhetoric of "small government Republicanism" is a lie, and then begins the analysis and dialogue. If we don't understand even their initial premises, how are we to judge their subsequent rhetoric or actions?

To this day, the prevailing opinion is that Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Bremer staffed the CPA with Heritage interns because they honestly thought the interns would do an excellent to adequate job on the reconstruction. This is cited as proof of administration incompetence and idiocy. We are not here using Occam's Razor, folks.

I gave up. Over five years, in so many areas, the administration seems to achieve some stated and obvious goals. It wins reelection, keeps Congress, gets their judges, cuts taxes, passes difficult legislation. I find it simplest to look at results, assume competence, and work backwards to determine motives and goals.

PS:At a glance at Amer Her Dict, "Charybdian" appears a neologism, and hope for OED credit. Unless it sucks.

bob m, see Frank Rich today. I think they always go all out because in the back of their minds they know it can't last, so they have to get while the getting is good.

At least, I hope that it can't last.

243: that much bad press is not something that anyone would deliberately seek.

But since Bush & Co know that no matter how much bad press they might get temporarily, in short order (by December 5, say, well before it matters to them electorally) it will all have been wiped out as if it had never been, why should they care?

By December 5, I would lay money, the official story will be that the whole blame can be laid on local officials, conveniently all Democrats: that the federal government responded as effectively as anyone could possibly hope for, especially given the incompetence of local and state government: that no one could possibly have predicted such a disaster and that Bush's response to it was perfectly appropriate: and anyone who says otherwise will be accused of bringing up old news or engaging in partisan warfare over a national disaster. Bush & Co are bulletproof: why should they care about bad publicity? They know it won't last.

During Nixon's administration I dismissed some of the paranoid theories that circulated then, citing Hanlon's razor. I was soon proved wrong.

Nixon was pretty bright, though, while Bush and his crew clearly are not. It's commonly observed that mediocre managers prefer less capable, less threatening subordinates, and this does seem to be the case here.

That's not to say that the administration's motives aren't also corrupt, but it's hard to see its lack of response to Katrina as anything but incompetence at the topmost levels of government.

Bob, Google shows 604 hits. Lexicographic fame eludes you.

A much simpler answer is that Bushco is achieving their goals with great competence.

It's just that their goals are so unbearably horrible as to be impossible for decent people to conceive of.

It's just that their goals are so unbearably horrible as to be impossible for decent people to conceive of.

That does seem the most likely of all possibilities to me most of the time.

People do process information in different ways. Bush has obvious "output" problems with language. He may have trouble absorbing information from printed material, which could explain his preference for being briefed by assistants.

But I find alarming the fact that Bush didn't process the severity of the problem until Thursday evening even though he SAW it. He flew over New Orleans and saw miles and miles of flooded buildings, of destruction and devastation, with his own eyes. Why did he not want to be involved in taking care of this? It's an incredible failure of empathy and imagination.

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