Conventional wisdom and the Loop

The ten year anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq has now come and gone, with the usual hand-wringing and revisionism that defines such anniversaries.  Rachel Maddow did a piece on MSNBC, Hubris, based on reporting from David Corn and others.  Basically, President Bush, and Vice-President Cheney, and Condoleeza Rice and Doug Feith and the CIA and basically the entire intelligence community all were able to sell us on the idea of Saddam’s WMD.  And I’m not sure they lied. In fact, I’m pretty sure they didn’t lie. I think they probably thought Saddam did have them.  He didn’t.  So how did they get it so wrong?

Locally, former Senator Bob Bennett also defended the war. Bennett points out that “Britain’s intelligence agencies said that Saddam had WMD — hence Prime Minister Tony Blair’s full support for Bush — as did the Israelis and the Germans.”  And Maddow’s show made it clear how complicit the media were.  The Washington Post, the New York Times, CBS News–basically they all stopped practicing journalism, and became cheerleaders for the war.

In fact, as Maddow also points out, evidence for Iraqi WMD was pathetically weak, had anyone bothered to look at it critically.  Secretary of State Colin Powell started to.  He wasn’t really in the intelligence loop, and when he received the intel he was supposed to sell to the UN, he was troubled at how paltry it was.  But they couldn’t all be wrong, could they?  Of course they couldn’t.  All the Really Serious people were certain.  And so Powell embarrassed himself and tarnished his legacy by making a case for war.

What we had was a massive negative feedback loop where all the people making and conducting and reporting on policy were busy talking to each other, and nobody else.  A consensus of Very Important People, here and abroad, formed, based not on evidence, but on the very fact of that consensus.

The thing is, though, I remember that time very well indeed. Heck, ten years; not that long ago.  I knew perfectly well that Saddam Hussein did not have WMD.  And I’m not particularly smart. I was just a college professor, teaching Theatre, in Provo, UT.  And I knew how bad the evidence was, and I knew that when we invaded, we wouldn’t find any WMD.  I’m kind of a news junkie, but I got my news the way everyone does–TV, newspapers, news magazines, the internet.  And I knew. Most folks knew, if they were paying attention. I remember going home teaching one night shortly before we invaded, and it was all we talked about, every family that night.  And my ward is very conservative, very very Republican.  And every visit, we talked about how wrong this war was, and how we all knew there weren’t any WMD.  We all knew.

I knew because of a guy who is never once mentioned in Rachel Maddow’s special, and who Senator Bennett never mentions either.  In fact, in all the many ‘ten year after’ stories about the war that I’ve seen in the last month, I’ve only seen this guy mentioned once.  His name: Hans Blix.  His job: he was head of the UN inspection team, in Iraq, looking for weapons of mass destruction.  And he wasn’t finding any.

Blix was appointed in 2002 to go to Iraq and look for WMD.  Specifically, he was named head of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission. He was an expert in the field.  And although Saddam initially hindered the Commission’s work (in fact, that was one of the stated reasons for our invasion), by the fall of 2002, Blix and his teamwas allowed free access throughout Iraq.  They found bupkus.  And it’s not like Blix kept quiet about it.  He went to Washington, tried desperately to meet with anyone in the Bush administration who would talk to him.  He met with Congresspeople.  He talked to every newspaper who would give him an interview. I remember it well.  He was very visible, and very vocal, and his message was clear–WMD labs are big, and lots of people work in them.  We’ve gone everywhere they might be.  We haven’t found a thing. And I can’t get a meeting with the people in charge.(Oh, and also the CIA was bugging his phone.  Which was also true.)

So there we were, February, March 2003. The United States is preparing to invade Iraq.  The cassus belli: Iraq is a threat to American interest, because of weapons of mass destruction. Secretary Powell makes his case; it’s clear that he has some evidence, but no proof, of WMD.  Condoleeza Rice says ‘we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.’  Scary stuff.  So why not send somebody to Iraq? Say, like an expert in inspections and in WMD.  An unbiased outsider.  Give him a team of experts, have them look around, see what they can find.  They do.  They find nothing.  No WMD: no case for war.  The expert tells everyone about it.  We invade anyway. (And of course, in retrospect, it turns out that Blix was totally and completely right.)

So why did nobody, and I do mean nobody in Washington, nobody in power, nor the journalists covering the people in power, why did nobody listen to Hans Blix?  Because he wasn’t in the circle, not in the Loop.  The only people people in power listen to are people in power.  Not experts in the field, and especially not experts with specific information relevant to their decision-making process.  If outside experts contradict the official narrative, they’re not listened to.

Ibsen got it. Henrik Johan Ibsen (1828-1906), the Father of Modern Drama and the playwright I have spent most of my life studying.  His most political play, An Enemy of the People, usually gets performed in a version (it’s not really a translation) by Arthur Miller.  And that’s a shame.  Not because the Miller version is bad.  It’s worse than bad.  It’s really good.  A really good Arthur Miller play.  It just doesn’t have much to do with the play Ibsen wrote.

Dr. Stockmann, the hero of Ibsen’s play, says all sorts of undemocratic and anti-liberal things in the play.  Most infamous of all, he says, at one point “The majority has
might on its side–unfortunately; but right it doesn’t have. I’m in the right–I and a few other individuals. The minority is always in the right.” 
(I’m spot-translating on the fly here; I’m working on translating the whole play.)  And then Stockmann attacks liberals, and political parties, and especially the stupid docile average voters in an average democracy.  A stalwart liberal like Arthur Miller found it all too ridiculous–elitist, maybe even fascist, and made sure not a hint of such views would appear in his version of Ibsen.

But Ibsen’s target isn’t democracy, it’s insularity.  It’s the Loop.  It’s the way people in power only talk to people in power.  It’s the build-up to Iraq, basically, where all the important intelligence people and all the important political people and all the important journalists talked to each other and to nobody else, and especially not to the one guy who actually did know what he was talking about.

Take the US budget issues. The talks right now, between Congress and the White House.  The Really Important People all agree; we need to cut spending.  (Watch the Sunday talk shows–everyone agrees on this, except for the rare economist who maybe sometimes gets invited).  We need austerity, and if we practice enough austerity, and cut enough spending, business confidence will pull us out of our recessionary doldrums. The Confidence Fairy will wave her wand!  Yay!

Meanwhile, Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong and all the other major Nobel Prize winning macro-economists with specific expertise on precisely this issue are going on every talk show they can get booked on, saying no, dead wrong, absolutely not, austerity will lengthen the time we spend in a liquidity trap, we need to increase aggregate demand.  Get more money circulating.  They’re all Hans Blix, and maybe, possibly, President Obama is listening to them, some, a little.  I hope so.  But the Loop can’t believe his presumption, and the new line is ‘we need Presidential leadership!’  To do what We have all decided needs doing.

Two interesting documentary films come to mind.  First is The Fog of War, brilliant documentary about Robert McNamara, Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Defense.  The Cold War created the biggest negative feedback loop in our nation’s history, a false narrative so compelling it rendered policy makers quite helpless.  Of course Vietnam was a disaster.  Lyndon Johnson knew it, and so did McNamara.  But the Loop wouldn’t permit dissent.  And the one specifically qualified guy to speak up on the issue, war hero George McGovern, was the one guy you absolutely could not listen to.  The other doc I haven’t seen–have only seen clips from it.  The World According to Dick Cheney.  Who is still convinced, apparently, that Iraq went swimmingly, and that no mistakes were ever made, ever, especially by him.

Education’s another one.  American education’s all Loopy too.  The buzzwords are Accountability and Assessment and Learning Outcome Metrics, and though everyone admits standardized testing is way out of hand and warps educational processes and causes more problems than it’s worth, every proposal expands it.  And really, the only people anyone should be listening to are the people who run public education in Finland.

Meanwhile, Dr. Stockman, and Hans Blix, and Paul Krugman, and Henna Verkunnen (Finland’s Minister of Education, just looked her up), are treated as gadflies and irresponsible and irrelevant annoyances.  And the Loop expands, and excludes, and crappy decisions get made.  Ibsen saw it.  But he was describing human nature, the tribe and cult of leadership.  Overcoming it isn’t easy.

The name of this blog suggests how much I admire iconoclasts.  In any democracy, there are chiefs and there are Indians.  But when a Medicine Man shows up and tells us things we’d rather not hear, we should maybe probably listen anyway.  Doncha think?





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