The Myth of Incompetence

When the history of our times are written a hundred years from now, it is probable that historians will be scratching their heads in puzzlement over contemporary reports regarding the challenges faced by the Bush Administration and how the President's people managed them. They will take note of the super—charged partisan atmosphere that permeated Washington at the time and the extraordinary hostility of major opinion makers in the media to the President and his policies.

And when all is said and done, they may very well conclude that the President's contemporaries were suffering from some kind of mass delusion, a sickness of thought and reason that not only clouded their judgement but contributed to the deliberate formulation of a powerful myth.

The myth that the Bush Administration was incompetent in its stewardship of the republic.

Historians being historians, there will be many who will posit the notion that this judgement of history is in fact, no myth at all. They will take the arguments of the President's contemporaries at face value and point to the problems associated with winning the War in Iraq, hurricane preparedness, intelligence failures, and a host of domestic missteps in areas as diverse as Medicare reform and ports management.

But if historians took the reports of a great man's contemporaries at face value, we would not be celebrating Washington, Jefferson, Adams, nor especially Lincoln, who engendered as much hate and loathing as any past President in history. Lincoln's contemporaries indulged in an orgy of name—calling and criticism of his war policies to the point that his own party sought to throw him off the ticket in 1864.

As for Washington, a cursory examination of his military efforts during the revolution would elicit little more than contempt. The General lost more battles than any other general in American history. His amateurish New York campaign in 1776 almost lost the war before it started and only the luckiest of circumstances kept the Continental Army from being destroyed en masse.

Washington's stewardship of the young republic is replete with contemporary accounts of mismanagement, cronyism, and dark hints of the General's monarchical tendencies. His second term was one long nightmare of criticism of his foreign policy, his close relationship with the bane of Jeffersonians Alexander Hamilton, and his handling of the 'Whiskey Rebellion' where the President himself rode at the head of an army of 9,000 men into western Pennsylvania to put down a challenge to the primacy of the federal government.

And yet, Washington is beloved to us today not because of what his contemporaries thought of him but because his record taken in its totality reveals a man of vision and steady leadership through some of the most turbulent times in American history.

The point isn't that George Bush is like Washington or Lincoln. The point is that historians will be able to look back at this two term President and find a record on the economy, on foreign policy, and even on several domestic issues that will give the lie to charges of incompetence and instead, reveal a President who initiated strikingly bold initiatives that changed the course of both American and world history.

There is nothing new in Democrats and the media charging that a Republican President is incompetent. They've been doing it since the Eisenhower Administration. The ex—general was accused of sleeping through the 1950's.

Nixon's supposed incompetence was even highlighted in his administration's scandals, as his detractors were always fond of pointing out that Watergate was the result of 'a second rate burglary' and that the White House plumbers resembled the Keystone Cops. His prosecution of the Viet Nam war and handling of the peace negotiations as well as his relationship with the Democratic Congress were also skewered by his critics as evidence of Nixon's unworthiness for high office.

But these critics saved their most venomous invective for Ronald Reagan who was constantly called a 'dunce,' a 'stupid actor,' and much worse. It says something about Reagan that even when the White House press corp treated him with contempt, he never lost his sense of self—deprecating humor, making fun of his age, his work habits, even his own intelligence.

The way critics tried to draw the President's father also degenerated into caricature as Bush #41 was belittled constantly for his optimism and enthusiasm. Trying to portray the President of the United States as a glorified cheerleader, his detractors succeeded in tarring George H. Bush as a shallow, substanceless rich man who never thought deeply about anything.

Why should it surprise us that Democrats and their allies in the press are seeking to apply the same broad brush to this President?

A more objective observer would note that the standards of competency being applied to this administration by both the President's opponents, and now many erstwhile Republicans, are impossibly high. In this media—saturated age, where perception is reality and the present merges seamlessly into the future, hindsight has been flipped on its head to become foresight.

The President's tormentors have twisted, mangled, and mutilated the truth and the facts so often that the legends they have created are now accepted as reality. In a truly Orwellian way, history is being written before events actually occur. And when something happens that in any other reality would be considered insignificant, it is pointed to as 'proof' that the Administration's actions, or policies, or plans are an abject failure.

A recent Wall Street Journal Op—Ed  by Daniel Henninger noticed this very same phenomenon:

Rational problem—solving generally requires adhering to the rules of the game, and in politics those rules are often informal. One such rule in Washington is that a politician is as good as his word. Perhaps nothing has been more destructive to Washington's current ability to function than the belief that 'Bush lied' about WMD, most notably Joe Wilson's foundational charge in the New York Times that Mr. Bush lied about Iraq's attempts to buy uranium from Niger.

This persistent belief that George Bush committed a major moral crime, which was refuted by the Robb—Silberman Commission, had consequences. It has led many people in Washington's standing institutions—Congress, the press, the intelligence and foreign—policy bureaucracies—to think they've been released from operating inside the normal boundaries that allow political Washington to function, that allow partisans to do business, whether on foreign policy, Social Security or homeland security.

Henninger specifically points to the Valerie Plame case as proof that the President's detractors leap upon the most insignificant matters to prove administration perfidy. The fact is, as Special Prosecutor Fitzgerald admitted in court last week, there was no 'outing' of a covert agent and that he didn't intend to offer 'any proof of actual damage caused by the disclosure of Wilson's identity.'

But it is the prosecution of the War in Iraq that the President's critics have used their powers of hindsight to the fullest. There may be no human endeavor more fraught with uncertainty nor more open to the vagaries of chance than war. And yet, every setback in Iraq whether by our military or in the political arena is held up as 'proof' of the incompetence of the Bush Administration.

If these critics had been around in 1943—44 and had access to the same kind of information they have about the situation in Iraq, I can imagine the howls of protest against Roosevelt's competency. The list of American missteps on both fronts — mistakes that cost many times more lives than those lost to date in Iraq — read like a military bad dream. The Italian campaign, the Tarawa landing, and a host of smaller catastrophes would have sapped the will of the American people and made prosecution of the war that much more difficult.

In Iraq, the President's critics have had a field day dissecting both military and political strategy from the comfortable perch of hindsight, always able to come up with some report or leaked intelligence estimate that puts the administration's efforts in the worst possible light. The question is never broached about what other information the administration had access to which would put any decisions made in context. I daresay that if such second guessing occurred during the slow progress made by American forces during World War II where there were numerous defeats and even political troubles with Charles DeGaulle of the Free French Forces, the American people may very well have thought Roosevelt an incompetent boob.

Critics of the President are using what engineers refer to as a 'Six Sigma' model of critical analysis regarding Administration actions. 'Sigma' is a Greek letter used as a statistical term that refers to a measurement of how far a given process deviates from perfection. The higher the Sigma number, the closer to perfection. The central idea behind 'Six Sigma' is that if you can measure how many defects you have in a process, you can systematically figure out how to get rid of them.

But for Bush detractors, this kind of analysis becomes a convenient weapon. It ignores the thousands of variables that go into everything from war planning to hurricane preparedness and relief. It also has the virtue of of immediacy in that defects — both real and imagined — can be offered as proof of policy failure before the policy has a chance to work. We saw this with the Katrina relief effort as the Federal government pre—positioned millions of tons of supplies prior to the hurricane making landfall and within 24 hours Administration critics were already declaring the relief effort a failure, the result of the President's disinterest in the plight of poor black people. With New Orleans 80% underwater, critics were wondering why supplies were not getting to people who needed them.

The fact is these critics weren't asking President Clinton the same thing following Hurricane Floyd where flooding prevented FEMA from acting in anything approaching a timely manner. The Reverend Jesse Jackson interviewed FEMA Director James Lee Witt almost 30 days after Floyd devastated the east coast:

'It seemed there was preparation for Hurricane Floyd, but then came Flood Floyd,' Jackson began. 'Bridges are overwhelmed, levees (my emphasis) are overwhelmed, whole town's under water (my emphasis). . . [it's] an awesome scene of tragedy. So there's a great misery index in North Carolina.'

When Jackson asked what was being done for the thousands of families left homeless by Floyd after nearly a month had passed since the storm first hit, Witt said Bill's FEMA was 'just beginning to address the problem.'

Sound familiar?

There is no better example of this Six Sigma mindset among the President's critics than the recent sectarian violence in Iraq which had many in the press especially salivating for a civil war. The violence was serious and continues to the present at a reduced level. But the exaggerated reports of attacks and casualties — the result of both the inability of the press to see the big picture as well as the probability that reporters were getting much of their information from al Qaeda propaganda cadres — did not include any reports of the counterweight being applied to the prospects of a civil war by the Iraqi Army whose performance was generally praised in the aftermath of the Shrine bombing and the tens of thousands of ordinary citizens who marched in 'Unity Demonstrations' across the country.

Despite all the provocations by the insurgents and al Qaeda terrorists, Iraqis from all walks of life, all sects, and all parts of the country are working together to keep civil war from happening. And while it is still an open question whether or not civil war can be avoided, this unity among so many Iraqis is a direct result of administration efforts to promote democracy. The people of Iraq have been given a stake in their own future by the government of the United States.

Whether they can take advantage of this is still open to question. But to call the policy a 'failure' at this point is wrong. The Iraqis may be taking two steps forward and one back in their march to the future. But the fact is the only way for our policy to fail is if we pick up and go home. In this, both administration critics and al Qaeda terrorists have something in common.

Criticizing the day to day ups and downs of progress in Iraq would be considered irrational in almost any other context except that which seeks to perpetrate the myth that the Administration is incompetent. The same holds true for Katrina relief efforts, the scope of which dwarfed any other similar effort in American history. But the Six Sigma group, having control of mass media and taking advantage of the Administration's curious inability to defend itself, has been able to pick and choose the decisions and circumstances that best contribute to their skewed incompetence narrative while ignoring other efforts that have proved to be successful.

How much have we heard about the economy recently? Low inflation, historically low interest rates, low unemployment, rising incomes, high productivity, and the prospect of further, sustained growth is a spectacular record of achievement.

Predictably, the Six Sigma group concentrates instead on the systemic unemployment of minorities and the rising cost of health care.

Similarly, the President's bold initiatives in education reform and prescription drug assistance receive scant attention except to highlight the problems with the programs. No one mentions that millions of at risk students will finally have schools that must demonstrate that they are trying to raise standards or that seniors will have coverage for prescription drugs that they didn't have before. Problems with both these programs can be fixed. But shepherding them through Congress in the first place along with tax cuts, faith based initiatives, and other issues that the President's critics confidently predicted would never fly in the legislature bespeaks a level of competence not vouchsafed by the President's critics who tend to forget their own incompetent powers of prognostication on these and other matters.

It is easy to pick out mistakes made by any President. And believe me when I say I wholeheartedly agree that this President has made his fair share of them. One could even point out the incompetence of the Administration to specific challenges like government spending, social security reform, and even some aspects of Iraq reconstruction and yes, hurricane relief. But generally speaking, President Bush has tackled some of the biggest challenges to face this country in more than a generation. He has done many things well. He has fallen down in other respects. But to have the President's critics slap the label of incompetence on his Administration doesn't stand up to any kind of objective scrutiny.

In the end, Bush will be judged by the totality of his Presidency not by the Six Sigma analyses that pass for serious critiques by the Presidents detractors. In fact, they are not serious at all. They represent a political tactic that seeks to undermine rather than improve. And for that, they should be ashamed of themselves.

Rick Moran is a frequent contributor and is the proprietor of the blog Right Wing Nuthouse