Tuesday, July 08, 2003

Fiskings Where They are Due-I've been teaching an on-line Money and Banking class this month, and we've finished the first week of the class. Yesterday, I had the interesting experience of grading "take-home" quizzes submitted only as a Word file and sending back the grades, comments and corrections in red added text. On one student's paper, the addition of a red comment line "Nope, you're thinking of strong-form efficiency" on a question about market reaction to news and semi-strong form efficiency felt a bit like a fisking. So as to get that spirit out of my system before I finish the other half of the quizzes today, let me go after this Nick Kristof piece on Blair and Bush.
A poll by the Pew Research Center found that Mr. Blair was the world leader Americans trusted most (Mr. Bush ranked second), respected by 83 percent of Americans, and he was also highly esteemed in countries as diverse as Australia and Nigeria. More interesting, Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair took very similar positions over the last couple of years, and both exaggerated the Iraqi threat — and yet Mr. Blair is perhaps the leading statesman in the world today and Mr. Bush is regarded by much of the globe as a dimwitted cowboy. Or, as an Oxford don put it to me after perhaps too much sherry, "a buffoon." The main reason is that the White House overdosed on moral clarity.
That assumes that there both is a standard dose of moral clarity and that Bush ODed. This is a bit two-faced; exhibit too much realpolitik and Kristof and his buddies will call you on that as well. The striking thing about that statement is that it assumes moral relativism and that there is such a thing as too much morality.
Mr. Bush always exudes a sense that the issues are crystal clear and that anyone who disagrees with him is playing political games. This fervor worked fine in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and in proper doses, moral clarity is admirable. But too much hobbles policy-making and insults our intelligence.
Do I hear a Bright talking? I think so. Morality insults his intelligence secular world-view. It only hobbles decision-making if you want to make amoral decisions.
Mr. Blair stands with Mr. Bush on Iraq but acknowledges the complexity of the issues. "Yes, there are countries that disagree with what we are doing; I mean, there's no point in hiding it — there's been a division," Mr. Blair told reporters at Camp David early in the war, when the two leaders were asked about opposition to the war among allies. But Mr. Bush gave no ground, saying: "We've got a huge coalition. . . . I'm very pleased with the size of our coalition." Mr. Blair met Pope John Paul II and the archbishop of Canterbury to discuss their opposition to the war. But President Bush refused to discuss objections to the war with the head of the National Council of Churches or even the head of his own church, the United Methodists.
For Blair, talking to Rowan Williams made sense since they are political allies on a lot of issues while they took opposing views on the war; Blair needs to pay Williams some attention or else see him become a shill for the Liberal Democrats and the disaffected left-wing of Labour. As for the Pope, he is persuadable about this issue. John Paul has a addiction to diplomacy, but it can be set aside if the cause is right; he wasn't persuaded in this case, but it was worth a shot. Conversely, the NCC and the hierarchy of the United Methodists (not to be confused with his local pastor) are hard-core pacifist liberals. Both oppose Bush's stance on practically all issues of concern and are unlikely to be persuaded by a trip to the White House. Their diametrically opposite stands on the war left little room for discussion.
Political insults are a traditional British sport (Churchill famously described his rival Clement Atlee as a sheep in sheep's clothing, and as a modest man with much to be modest about). But Mr. Blair dignifies his opponents by grappling with their arguments in a way that helps preserve civility — and that we Americans can learn from.
British politics also has the tradition of Question Time, where there is a weekly back-and-forth in the House of Commons between the opposition and the PM. Even the nastiest foe is a "honorable gentleman." Blair has to do that on a weekly basis, where Bush doesn't.
Mr. Bush is not the dummy his critics perceive. My take is that he's very bright in a street-smarts way: he's witty and has a great memory for faces, and his old girlfriends speak more highly of him than many women do of their husbands. But he's also less interested in ideas than perhaps anybody I've ever interviewed, and his intelligence is all practical and not a bit intellectual. Nuance isn't his natural state, and yet he gives us glimmers to show he can achieve it.
He can't play the dummy card with a straight face, so he falls back to unsophisticated. "If he were sophisticated, he's at least see things our way from time to time."
The last time Mr. Bush seemed genuinely to wrestle with an issue was the summer of 2001, when he acknowledged the toughness of the stem cell debate. He showed an impressive willingness to puzzle through stem cell policy and seek a compromise. If Mr. Bush had pursued that same model of policy-making into Iraq, then we would not have alienated our allies or bungled postwar planning because of rosy assumptions.
If Bush did that, Saddam would still be in power.
In 1979, James Fallows wrote a legendary critique of President Jimmy Carter's "Passionless Presidency." He argued that Mr. Carter was a smart, decent man who excelled in details but catastrophically lacked a sweeping vision to inspire the country and animate his presidency. Well, now we've got a Passionate Presidency. But it's so focused on big-picture ideological campaigns that it doesn't bother with details (like what we will do with Iraq after we've conquered it). Mr. Blair offers a third way — passion tethered to practicality, idealism without ideologues.
Blair has political passion tethered to a secular neosocialist paradigm. Bush has pragmatic conservatism tethered to evangelical Christian thought. I'll take the latter, thank you.

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