Saturday, May 23, 2015

Hindsight Is 20/20

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. It really is. I believe it is an extremely good quality for a person to possess, to be able to look back at a decision that turned out to be the wrong one and learn from it.

The decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was the wrong decision. I believed it was the wrong decision at the time, but that was not a popular position to take. It took a certain amount of courage, back in those post–September 11 days, to tell one's friends and co–workers, many of whom supported the decision to invade Iraq, that it was a bad decision, and I did not always have the strength of will to argue with people about it, especially as confident as supporters of the invasion were that weapons of mass destruction would be found.

After a certain amount of time had passed and it became clear that the pretext for the invasion — the alleged existence of those weapons of mass destruction — was based on faulty information, public opinion began to sour on the war. But I think it is important to remember that a lot of people supported the invasion initially — including Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president in 2016 — no matter how much they may pretend otherwise today.

Mrs. Clinton wasn't the only Democrat who voted to authorize George W. Bush to use force against Iraq. When the Senate voted on Oct. 11, 2002, 29 of 50 Democrats joined 48 Republicans in a 77–23 vote giving Bush the authority he sought. Her colleague from New York, Chuck Schumer, voted to authorize the use of force. So did Joe Biden and Dianne Feinstein and Harry Reid.

In my lifetime, I have had the opportunity to vote for national tickets with a Bush on them half a dozen times. I have never voted for one and, if Jeb is nominated next year, it will make seven times I have refused to lend my support to a Bush in a national campaign.

But I find myself sympathizing — to an extent — with his recent stumble on the question of invading Iraq.

Fox News' Megyn Kelly asked him, "Knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion?"

Bush tried to answer a different question. "I would've, and so would've Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody, and so would have almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got."

He kind of got back to what Kelly was getting at when he elaborated: "In retrospect, the intelligence that everybody saw, that the world saw, not just the United States, was faulty. And in retrospect, once we … invaded and took out Saddam Hussein, we didn't focus on security first. And the Iraqis, in this incredibly insecure environment, turned on the United States military because there was no security for themselves and their families."

Kelly was dealing in hypotheticals, and what Bush should have said — but, obviously, did not — was that he won't answer hypothetical questions. I'm an amateur historian, and what–if is the kind of game historians love to play. But it is a game that really cannot be won because the past is what it is. It's no trick to look back on a bad decision and know it was a mistake, but human beings are not blessed with the ability to see the future. If they were, I guess many would not marry the people they married or invest in companies that go belly up.

Or bet on the wrong horse at the racetrack.

There seems to be an impression among many Americans these days that a president must be infallible, that he must be capable of all things — including superhuman stuff like seeing the future. But anyone who looks for an infallible leader, someone around whom everyone can rally, is just asking to be disappointed. In the life of every presidency, there will be those who think the president does everything right and those who think the president does everything wrong — and everyone else who falls in between those two extremes. To misquote Abraham Lincoln, you can please some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you can't please all the people all the time.

A president can only act within the reality of his times — and hope, at the end of the day, that he made the right decision. Seems to me that the best presidents have been the ones who second–guessed themselves and tried to learn from each decision they made — and the worst presidents were the ones who would not admit to having made a mistake.

If one is going to answer Kelly's question, though, it would have to be something like this: "In hindsight, it was a mistake to invade Iraq." That's it. Bush's inclination to defend his brother is admirable, but it does not have to be part of his answer to that question.

It can be the answer to another question if it is asked. He is right when he observes that a president must act on the information he has. But that is not the question that was asked. So don't answer it.

Better still, though, not to answer hypothetical questions at all. Politicians can't win hypotheticals, and politicians always want to play games they can win. Hypotheticals require proving a negative, and that cannot be done.

One time, I saw illusionist Penn Jillette talking about Nostradamus' prophecies that supposedly predicted Napoleon and Hitler and many other events that occurred long after his death. Jillette complained that the prophecies, which were apparently written in a deliberately obscure way, never named names, places or dates. What good is that, he wanted to know, if we want to prevent or avoid a certain event?

It's a fair point.

Let me ask you something. If time travel was possible, and you could go back in time, would you kill an infant Adolf Hitler sleeping in his crib? It is safe to say, I believe, that nazism would not have seized control of Germany without a charismatic leader at the helm. Snuffing out an infant who, knowing what we know now, grew up to plunge the world into a war that claimed millions of lives could be seen as heroic.

But could you take the life of a baby? You might say now that you could, but, when the chips were down, you might find it incredibly difficult to kill a small child, even knowing that, by doing so, you could save millions of others.

In the two decades between his resignation and his death, Richard Nixon might have said that, in hindsight, having the taping system installed in the Oval Office was a mistake — but that would have been with the benefit of knowing how it eventually played out, producing the evidence that brought his presidency to an end. But when the system was installed, his motivation (ostensibly) was the preservation of the historical record.

As Dr. Phil would say, how did that work out for ya?

Monday, May 4, 2015

Of Flowers And Water And Bullets

There certainly were a lot of lingering images from Baltimore last week.

There were, of course, the images of the plundering of small businesses, the burning of public property, the clashes between protestors and police. Those images overwhelmed everything else.

There were also the images of a city government that was caught flat–footed in the aftermath of Freddie Gray's death while in police custody. One had to wonder if this was an isolated incident, or if this sort of thing, albeit on a much smaller scale, goes on all the time. Could the government of Baltimore really be that inept, that incompetent?

And there was the image of the Baltimore mom slapping her son around. I think there must have been a lot of people who applauded that assertion of parental authority. There seems to be far too little of it these days.

I felt some of the most powerful images from Baltimore were the less public moments, the ones that photojournalists always seem to find. Sometimes, unfortunately, those moments have been manufactured, but the spontaneous ones have the power to remain in your memory.

Like the one at the top of this post of the black child distributing bottles of water to city police in riot gear.

It reminded me of a mental image I've carried with me for many years — I say mental because it is entirely the product of my imagination based on accounts I have read and heard. As far as I know, there is no photograph of it. But it is said to have happened 45 years ago — yesterday, I believe, maybe the day before — in Ohio.

To put it in historical perspective, President Nixon had just told the world about the Americans' previously secret invasion of Cambodia. Angry protests had erupted on college campuses all across the country. In Ohio, the National Guard had been called out to bring order to the campus of Kent State University.

Lots of people think that the Guard only appeared in Kent on the day of the shootings — Monday, May 4, 1970 — but the Guard was there that weekend. Sometime that weekend, Allison Krause, who had just turned 19, approached one of the Guardsmen with a flower in her hand. She placed it in the barrel of his weapon and said, "Flowers are better than bullets."

On Monday, May 4, Krause was one of four Kent State students who died after being shot by Guardsmen. Her comment about flowers and bullets is chiseled into the stone that marks her grave.

It seems to me that those two moments, separated by nearly half a century, summarize the differences in the thinking of the two sides in our ongoing political debates.

Liberals are like the image in my mind of Allison Krause. They see an ideal world that doesn't exist — but, in their minds, it should, and it frustrates them that it does not.

Conservatives are like the young black boy distributing water bottles to combatants. They see the world — and deal with it — as it is. They wish the world was better, but it is not, and it frustrates them that it is not.

I wonder if the two sides will ever find common ground.