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Initial impressions regarding O'neill

There seems to be quite a stir in light of the new book by former Secretrary of the Treasury, Paul O'neill, The Price of Loyalty.

The headlines seem focused on three main claims; on O'neill's reckoning: (1) There was a drive by the administration of G.W. Bush to invade Iraq, almost from the start (2) There was no evidence that Iraq possessed WMD (3) Bush practices a haphazard, unfocused kind of leadership, and is "incurious" (I only put that in scare quotes because it seems to be one of the new media buzz words, alongside others which to my taste are annoying, such as "disingenuous" and the verb "blast"!).

Impressions and questions:

Is the fact that O'neill can apparently be described as a "disgruntled" former associate of Bush an asset or a liability to his credibility? Clearly, the administration will spin his disenchantment as a distorting bias; but that's not necessarily the case - he might now be negative because of his experiences while a member of the administration. Yet the possbility remains that one of those "experiences" was that his counsel wasn't heeded, along with the fact that he was fired. So, he might well have a few scores to settle now. Thus, as an outsider it's difficult to determine circumspectly the significance of his past position vis a vis his current motives and opinions.

What we can do is evaluate his emerging claims.

Consider (1) above. One headline I've read was to the effect that since its early days the administration had planned "an invasion." But that's not the same as planning to invade, in the sense of having the determinate aim of doing so whenever expediency obliged. I assume - I hope - that there are plans for possible invasions of e.g., North Korea and Pakistan (if the latter's nuclear arsenal fell into avowedly Islamist hands). Should such a terrible scenario occur, and were it subsequently revealed that it had unfolded in terms of a "plan" long in place, that wouldn't mean that there had been "plans" to do such all along, but rather that there was a "plan" in case such was ajudged necessary. In the case of Iraq, it would be strange indeed if there wasn't such a blueprint , in light of the fact that we had been in a de facto state of war with that nation since '91. I'd be most surprised if there wasn't an invasion plan for Iraq in place under the Clinton administration.

As for the claim that Bush administration had "set its sights" on Saddam Hussein from the beginning, that is an ambiguous locution. It could mean, sensibly, that - in contradistinction to the claims of those who suggest that the recent focus on Iraq somehow sprang full-born from the breast of those currently in power - key members of the present administration realized that they had inherited a volatile animosity whose day of reckoning would probably have to come sooner rather than later, and which in prudence ought to come on our terms rather than the enemy's. That some holding that view were veterans of Bush the elder's team is as consistent with desiring to right a past wrong as with wanting to avenge a past humiliation. Anyhow, it would have entailed dereliction of duty for any incoming administration not to have a strong desire to see Saddam Hussein deposed, as well as strategies and "plans" related thereto - imagine Howard Dean winning the upcoming election, and his administration not developing positions and contigencies in connection with North Korea!

As to (2) above: "In the 23 months I was there, I never saw anything that I would characterize as evidence of weapons of mass destruction," O'neill told Time. "There were allegations and assertions by people. But I've been around a hell of a long time, and I know the difference between evidence and assertions and illusions or allusions and conclusions that one could draw from a set of assumptions. To me there is a difference between real evidence and everything else. And I never saw anything in the intelligence that I would characterize as real evidence." Intuitively, I wouldn't expect the Secretary of the Treasury to have a "need to know" for the most sensitive Intelligence, but it's noted that he sat on the National Security Council. I wonder whether there is any hierarchy (de facto if not de jure) within the NSC which would have precluded O'neill from seeing whatever was considered to be most persuasive about Iraq's malfeasance(?).

In any case, O'neill's view points to an ongoing subext of the debate on the war: the question isn't simply "evidence or no evidence," but rather what counts as evidence? (this is particularly germane to the Carnegie Foundation's recent paper). Perhaps in a future post I'll endeavor to consider this fascinating, crucial question in some detail, but for now I'll note that "evidence" is simply whatever is adduced in support of a conclusion (as in, "I've heard the claim; what's the evidence?"), there are many different kinds of (legitimate) evidence, and (as we learned from Aristotle) different considerations, conclusions, and subject matters admit of differing standards for what counts as the evidentiary.

Futhermore, in the course of the debate, when new "evidence" was demanded for this or that claim about Saddam Hussein's regime, it often emerged that the basic facts had essentially been "on the table" for some time. What was really at issue was the significance of the available evidence. That is to say, what was really being debated was a question of prudence - in the older, better sense of the term: the terminus of principled deliberation, the matter of "what is to be done?" - rather than the hunt for ever more "evidence" which could somehow automatically lead to this or that decision. Political life - nay, life - is rarely like that.

As to (3) above, Bush's alleged incuriousity seems to be conceded by his supporters as well as condemned by his opponents. Hence there probably is truth in the claim of his "provincial" character. Ironically, though, that which is a flaw in a human being isn't necessarily a fault in a leader - an ability to focus on the mattter at hand, and decide effectively within a more narrow ambit, is compatible with a lack of wonder; I am not convinced that a philosopher-king is a desideratum(cp. Bush vs. Clinton). O'neill's claims about Bush's leadership leave me puzzled: it seems that we often have heard that Bush's strength is his ability to "manage" competing viewpoints, ask penetrating questions, and get to the heart of the matter, while "delegating" decisions and not over-controlling his subordinates (e.g., cf. The Mind of George W. Bush by Richard Brookhiser, or David Frum's "The Right Man" (from which I have only read relevant excerpts) - though detractors will note that both authors are conservatives, and claim that "therefore" they are cheerleaders).

I am interested to learn about the details of O'neill's book, as they inevitably emerge over the coming days. At this early stage, I think that an intellectually honest approach will avoid the proverbial knee-jerk reaction: neither uncritically accepting, nor condemning, O'neill's claims.

January 11, 2004 | Permalink


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