Irrational Is as Irrational Does

By Richard Cohen (THE WASHINGTON POST, 09/01/07):

George W. Bush has executed 153 people, 152 of them in Texas and one so far in Iraq. The Iraqi, of course, is Saddam Hussein, who went to his burlesque of a death with more dignity than the Iraqi government, which so hurried him to the gallows that in much of the world the hanging looked a lot like a lynching. The president, we are told, did not bother to view the spectacle on tape. Maybe he feared he would learn something.

I bring up Bush’s appalling record of executions not because I have once again mounted my anti-capital-punishment hobbyhorse but because his record offers an insight into why the United States will stay in Iraq and with even more troops than before.

Let me explain. In Iowa, during the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush answered a question about why he so ardently supported capital punishment. He offered a number of reasons, but one — deterrence — prompted me to raise my hand and ask a follow-up: But, sir, there is absolutely no evidence that capital punishment is a deterrent. To my astonishment, Bush conceded my point: “You’re right. I can’t prove it. But neither can the other side prove it’s not.”

Ponder that answer for a while. What it means is not just that Bush embraced a famously irrational way of thinking — the logical fallacy often called “proving a negative” — but in this case he used it to overwhelm all evidence to the contrary. Once you know this, you can appreciate what Bush means when he calls himself The Decider. It means that evidence, arguments, proof and logic cannot be conclusive when, as is often the case, the president proceeds on what can be called a matter of faith. I am not referring here just to religion — although surely that is paramount to Bush — but to supremely secular matters of state: when to go to war, why go to war and when to remain at war. In Bush’s mind, the bad guys will lose and the good guys will win and Iraq will become a democracy. This will happen not because Bush can prove that it will but because nobody can prove it won’t.

This is why we are in Iraq today and why we are going to stay there. All this time, it did not matter that Iraq was going to hell, or that the terrorists were never there in the first place, or that weapons of mass destruction were never present, or that Saddam Hussein had no role in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, or that democracy for Iraq was never really in the cards — none of that mattered, because nobody could prove otherwise. All the things Bush believed were true because you, rational fool that you are, could not prove them false.

Up against this kind of mentality, the rational man seeks comfort in fantasy. It was our fantasy that a new Iraqi government, formulated months ago, would so turn things around that Bush would begin a phased withdrawal. It was our fantasy that the November congressional elections would make a difference — and that Bush would be forced, when he saw the clear sentiment of the American people, to reverse himself. It was our fantasy that the report of the Iraq Study Group would compel the president to rethink everything — so vast was the panel’s expertise, so sound its reasoning and so comforting its appropriately thinning hair. In fact, so wasted was its effort. The members were the mullers. Bush was the decider.

And so those who have decided otherwise — a couple of four-stars, maybe the chief spook and all those awfully smart people throughout government and academia — are ignored and/or are heading out the door. Bush listened to them when he agreed with them and refused to listen when he did not. A so-called surge is a-coming, an escalation all decked out with an Orwellian-sounding name. An edifice built on a wobbly foundation — a profound and enduring ignorance of Iraqi society — will be patched up, but really, the whole thing is a tear-down. It will collapse no matter what we do.

The execution of Saddam Hussein was Iraq in a nutshell. Aside from the dead man at the end of the rope, nothing went the way the Americans wanted. It was sloppy, putrid with the stench of sectarian hatred and, as always, totally unnecessary. George Bush saw it differently by not, as is his custom, seeing it at all.