Stupid Smart Men

by Jonathan Wallace

I wrote a couple of years ago that George W. Bush is not intelligent enough to be the President. I think events have completely vindicated this viewpoint, which irritated and infuriated some readers at the time. Every time I look at an image of our President, with his small, extraordinarily empty eyes, I think of the triumph of spin over substance that is our civilization.

We are spectators to a fascinating phenomenon which has taken place behind the wallboards during the entire Bush presidency: the simultaneous strengthening and undermining of the presidency. Perhaps a better way to draw this distinction is to say that the office of the president has become more powerful even than it was at the height of the Nixon administration, while the concept of "presidentiality"--a combination of intelligence, firmness, common sense, political savvy and maybe even compassion--is at its nadir. Instead, we have the concept of the President as an easily managed figurehead, manipulated by strong, smart men who have accumulated power to themselves that they exercise through him.

This group of men, of whom the most prominent are Cheney and Rumsfeld, played significant roles in the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations, where they were opposed by other cliques who often defeated their dreams and policy goals (a prime example being the desire to push on and overthrow Saddam during the first Gulf War). The administration of Bush Jr. has represented a second act, a second chance, for these men to come back and do the stuff they didn't get to do, or anyway to finish, the first time around.

They are intelligent men, but the entirely predictable unfolding disaster in Iraq indicates that they have behaved very stupidly. The entire concept of intelligence, of course, invites book length disquisitions and lifetimes of thought and research to pin down what it is. For our purposes, lets just say that these men have a better command of information, and more pronounced abilities to detect relationships and propose linkages, than the President they manipulate.

The rest is the story of how smart people become stupid. I think a large part of it is when they start believing their own spin. If you are surrounded by enough sycophants, it is easy to believe that you are a genius. Who wouldn't rather associate with people who are complementary than critical? The role that Diogenes reputedly played with Alexander the Great, of keeping his ego moored to the earth, is one that all great men and women need, but that few seek. We are more likely to exile, kill or imprison the person who tells us what we lack.

The ability to take a sophisticated view of information becomes useless when we have unconsciously created an environment in which negative or distressing information cannot reach us. (Of course the information itself is neutral; I mean information which is most conducive to being assembled into relationships from which we are compelled to draw a negative inference.) The result of surrounding ourselves with sycophants is, of course, to ensure that they will not bring us information likely to distress us.

There is a related phenomenon, by which great vanity (fed over many years by the sycophants and our human inclination to believe our own spin) warps our perceptions. We lose the ability (if we ever had it) to distinguish between ourselves and the world ("L'etat, c'est moi"). At this point, even highly intelligent people easily believe that the world must by definition be the way they wish it to be. This creates a kind of tunnel vision where they are completely blind to information which would contradict deeply held beliefs.

Among the examples of stupid inferences drawn by intelligent men: the belief that Iraqis would by an overwhelming majority welcome us as liberators; that Iraq post-Saddam was a fertile field for liberal democracy; that Iraq could be pacified and held with relatively few troops armed with fancy weapons. These kinds of arrogant, wilful misconceptions, born of great vanity, have resulted in the loss of more Americans than died at the World Trade Center.

I would love to know if Dick or Don have the sick, dawning realization that they have wasted years of their lives, and the blood of others, on such chimaera. If they are smart enough, they will one day, even if they never admit it to anyone else. But the vanity of stupid smart men, which grows unchecked in today's environment of irresponsibility, allows smart men to be as weak as stupid ones, and to say: "They didn't tell me," or "Someone else screwed up". Of course, a leader should never point the finger of responsibility down the hierarchy. The buck stops at the top, as Harry Truman knew but George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld do not.

It would be highly amusing if people weren't dying.