Before I begin, I should note that I feel even dumber writing about politics than physics because I find politics to be much more confusing than physics. This is mostly due to how hard it is to get unbiased information (not to mention recognizing my own biases and trying to compensate for them). Also, there isn’t a clear “measure of success” analogous to experimental constraints placed on theoretical predictions that can be used to compare different policies. Finally, separating policy effects from other socio-economic factors is generally difficult if not impossible. As a result, one personality trait that I dislike in leaders is unquestioning certainty in the righteousness of their own actions and political positions. I want leaders to have the introspective critical thinking skills needed to see the flaws in their own ideas, the objectivity to recognize good points raised by their opponents and the humility to admit it.
This election will likely be viewed by the rest of the world as a referendum on the policies of George W. Bush, so a review of his presidency is necessary to understand today’s political climate. (Or skip the review to read about the current election.)
In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I probably would’ve voted for Bush in 2000- had I been interested enough to vote back then. I knew very little about the issues, but I was under the vague impression that Bush’s policies would be more compatible with my libertarian tendencies.
However, the last eight years have taught me to research candidates more thoroughly so I don’t repeat the same mistake I almost made in 2000. Over time, I’ve realized that I disagree with nearly all of Bush’s domestic policies:
- I’m gravely concerned by his attacks on the separation of church and state via faith-based initiatives[Source] and abstinence-only education programs[Source] as well as his attempts to enshrine religious bigotry in the Constitution as a gay marriage ban.[Source]
- The ideologues he has placed in many government positions[Source 1,2,3] have made our bureaucracy even less efficient than usual.
- The cronyism he fosters by valuing loyalty[Source 1,2] more than competence leads to people like Michael Brown holding positions far in excess of their ability.[Source]
- His attacks on stem cell research,[Source 1,2,3] climate change science,[Source 1,2,3,4,5] and science education[Source] offend me as a scientist.
- The warrantless eavesdropping programs[Source] he created and hid from the public for so long offend me as a citizen.
- I’m also not pleased with his reorientation of NASA towards a Mars mission– I think we’re getting much more “bang for the buck” out of the robotic exploration program. Instead of a comparatively cheap mission to Europa (a moon of Jupiter which almost certainly has a liquid water ocean under its icy crust), we’re going to spend an obscene amount of money to send people to a planet that’s been dry for a billion years…
- He’s expanded his own power by a degree unprecedented in the history of our country through the Patriot Act,[Source] his constant signing statements[Source 1,2,3,4] (which threaten the balance of power between the Executive and Legislative branches) and a directive[Source 1,2] granting himself nearly dictatorial powers in case of a “Catastrophic Emergency”.
- The Bush administration has been called “the most secretive administration ever”.[Source 1,2,3,4,5]
- He’s not solely responsible for the dismal quality of political debate in this country, but Bush’s unparalleled ability to create straw man arguments and reduce complex issues[Source] to simplistic, emotionally-charged “talking points”[Source] isn’t helping.
As you can tell, I’m certainly not objective, which worries me. I can only hope that this bias hasn’t led me to ignore evidence or draw illogical conclusions from the evidence I have at my disposal. If you find that this is the case, please let me know specifically what I’ve missed so that I can correct any mistakes in my reasoning.
Sadly, Bush’s domestic faults are dwarfed by his foreign policy failures. My reasons for saying so are based on conclusions drawn from this article, which I recommend you read before continuing.
As you can tell from reading the previous article, I think that public opinion is the most important resource available to terrorist groups. Thus we should view all possible courses of action in terms of their effects on the world’s opinion of the US, and choose the strategy that allows us to take the moral high ground. Unfortunately, I only came to this conclusion in the last couple of years. When Bush was leading the build-up to the Iraq war, I privately supported it because I believed that:
- Bush had honestly and objectively examined the evidence for WMDs in Iraq and determined that the evidence for their existence was overwhelming. In other words, I assumed that he wasn’t ‘cherry-picking’ WMD intelligence.
- Saddam was a very evil man, and was oppressing his own people in addition to being a threat to other nations.
- A U.S. invasion of Iraq would remove the threat of these WMDs and change the lives of the Iraqi people for the better.
Only much later did I realize that Bush lives in an ideological bubble, surrounded by advisors chosen for their ability to tell him what he wants to hear. I simply haven’t found any evidence that Saddam posed a credible threat to anyone except his own people. Despite the claims[Source 1,2] made by Cheney, Saddam never had any contacts with Al Qaeda,[Source 1,2] which isn’t surprising because Baathists are secular and Islamist terrorists aren’t. His military was in shambles,[Source 1,2,3] and his WMD programs were long dead.[Source 1,2] This spectacular intelligence failure wasn’t inevitable; it was a result of the fact that Bush’s advisors searched for evidence that supported their boss’s preconceptions,[Source 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8] casually dismissing any contradictory evidence.[Source] So in the short term Saddam was militarily impotent. I could imagine his regime (perhaps under his sons’ leadership) becoming a threat in the long term, but there were (and still are) bigger long term threats: China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, etc.
I also eventually realized that even though Saddam’s regime was brutal, the recent death toll under his rule wasn’t as high as it is now.[Source] Women in Saddam’s Iraq had more rights than in most other countries in the region, and with the exception of the last desperate months before the war, Saddam’s Iraq was perhaps the most secular country in the region besides Turkey. Contrast that with the current state of affairs: misogynistic theocrats aiming at the genocide of theocrats on the other side of the religious divide. The Iraqi people might not have been free, but freedom is only useful if you’re alive to enjoy it. Furthermore, I don’t think it’s realistic to expect freedom and democracy to flourish when it’s imposed on a country at the point of a gun by foreigners, especially foreigners such as Americans who have such a miserable reputation in the region.
I didn’t foresee the current bloodbath, but I should have. I guess I thought that the occupation of Iraq would be similar to the successful post-WW2 occupations of Japan and Germany. What I didn’t count on was the historical enmity that “Crusaders” stir up in the Muslim world, and the fact that Iraq is really three different countries: Shiite, Sunni and Kurd. In contrast, Japan and Germany were cakewalks because they were relatively homogeneous countries with strong national identities. Maybe I can be excused for my ignorance- after all I’m just a dumb kid with my head in the (physics) clouds. But Bush and his advisors should’ve known better. Or, more accurately, they should’ve listened to the advice[Source] of people who did know better.
Also, I should’ve done a little historical research first. I’d long known that Britain had a great empire in the past, but until recently I didn’t know exactly why they lost it. It turns out that Britain occupied Iraq in the 1920’s, with virtually the same results that we’ve experienced in this century. It’s uncanny, really: they tried to set up a democracy but it ended up being hijacked by personality[Source] cults (like al-Sadr’s current militia) and resulted in a long, bloody insurgency that finally drove the British out with nothing to show for it. Though the fall of the British Empire had many causes, the costly struggle in Iraq right after the first world war certainly contributed. I think the same thing will happen to America; future history books will recognize Bush’s invasion of Iraq as the beginning of the end of American supremacy.
Unfortunately, these pre-war intelligence mistakes pale in comparison to the inept execution of the occupation[Source 1,2,3,4,5] following the (obviously wildly successful) weeklong war. The war was a mistake from the start, but competent leadership might have softened the landing of the ensuing occupation, at least to an extent. All this has been rehashed ad nauseum, but two facets of the botched occupation irk me in particular. First, the cost was consistently underestimated by the administration. When Lawrence Lindsey- one of Bush’s advisors- advanced an estimate of $100-200 billion for the upper bound of the occupation’s cost, he was ridiculed and fired.[Source 1,2] As we now know, this supposedly “very, very high” estimate was actually too low by at least a factor of two.
Secondly, the Americans chosen for the task of rebuilding Iraq were chosen not for their experience, but for their loyalty to the Republican party. Their interviews included questions like “Did you vote for Bush in 2000?” and “Do you support Roe vs. Wade?”. Qualified applicants were passed over in favor of less-qualified Republicans, many of whom had to apply for their first passport in order to go to Iraq.[Source] This isn’t surprising to me; Bush has set up a culture of yes-men who don’t understand (or care about) the difference between competence and political loyalty. Maybe if competent people had been hired, things would’ve been different, but probably not. I say this because I agree with Cheney when he said[Source] that invading Iraq would lead to a “quagmire” and George H. W. Bush when he listed[Source] a number of reasons why invading Iraq would be disastrous.
And I would say that it certainly has been disastrous:
- The federal budget deficit is at an all time high[Source] after reaching a record surplus right before Bush took office.
- The military, which should be reserved for defense of legitimate national interests, is bogged down in an irrelevant, unwinnable occupation.
- Iraq wasn’t a terrorist state before the invasion, but it’s virtually a terrorist training camp now.
- The Iraqi civil war is undermining the cause of moderates and democracy advocates in the Middle East by associating democracy with genocidal mayhem and The Great Satan. The sectarian nature of the conflict is laying the foundations of a larger religious war between Shiite and Sunni.
- The fact that Bush passed over countries like North Korea and Iran, which already have (or might soon get) nuclear weapons, in favor of Iraq, sends a powerful message to other rogue states: “Get nuclear weapons now, because the U.S. will only attack you if you don’t already have them.”
- Also, from what I can tell Iraq has diverted significant resources[Source] away from Afghanistan, leaving the operation in that theater under-funded and under-staffed. This lack of focus has produced an Afghan government which- while better than the Taliban- is still theocratic and misogynistic, but now it has our stamp of approval on it.
- Saving the worst for last: much of the world hates us now.[Source 1,2,3,4,5] As I’ve pointed out, this shift in public opinion is the most disastrous outcome of Bush’s presidency; public opinion is the lifeblood of terrorist organizations. He played right into bin Laden’s hands…
All of the incidents I’ve listed so far are just symptoms of the real problems with the Bush administration, though. The biggest flaw in Bush’s character is his ideological rigidity, which he reinforces by firing (or attacking) anyone[Source 1,2,3,4,5,6] who doesn’t agree with him. The most egregious example of this behavior is that of Colin Powell; Powell was the only member of the administration that I respected, both for his competence and his unusual candor. Bush fired him right after the 2004 election and replaced him with Rice, who doesn’t disagree with him in any visible sense- if she ever does at all. Any lingering hope I had for the Bush administration vanished with Colin Powell’s forced resignation.
Bush’s next biggest flaw is his inability to admit mistakes.[Source 1,2,3] For instance, after getting re-elected, Bush and Gonzales fired eight US Attorneys, presumably because they were over-zealous about prosecuting Republicans. This matter eventually came to light, and Gonzales was called to testify[Source 1,2] before Congress, where he made himself look like an incompetent amnesiac by saying “I don’t remember” more than 50 times. Bush responded to this debacle by saying[Source] that Gonzales’s testimony increased his confidence in Gonzales’s ability to do his job. Bush supported Rumsfeld in the face of overwhelming criticism,[Source 1,2] eventually replacing him with praise and double-talk about the need for a “fresh set of eyes”. Cheney even called Rumsfeld “the finest secretary of defense this country has ever had.” After George Tenet called the case for WMDs in Iraq a “slam dunk”, Bush rewarded his monumental failure with a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Another glaring example comes from the constantly shifting justification for the invasion of Iraq.[Source 1,2,3,4,5] Finally, at a time when seemingly everyone agrees that the lack of WMDs makes the Iraq invasion a bad decision in retrospect, Bush stubbornly insists that he would’ve invaded even if he knew then what he knows now.[Source]
On a more concrete level, Bush doesn’t seem to realize that condoning torture[Source] isn’t just morally wrong, it’s also a major strategic mistake. He and Gonzales have dismissed the Geneva Conventions as “quaint”,[Source] set up secret prisons in Europe,[Source 1,2] sent prisoners to Egypt to be tortured,[Source] and set up Guantanamo Bay as a legal “no man’s land” that lies outside of U.S. law.[Source 1,2,3,4] Here’s why I think this is a mistake:
- This strategy prevents the U.S. from being able to claim the moral high ground, and contributes to the hatred directed at us by the rest of the world.
- It puts American civilians and troops in even more danger because it encourages reprisal torturing.
- By establishing a precedent of circumventing the Geneva Conventions, Bush has increased the probability that countries in future conflicts will attempt to do the same.
- I don’t see how it could actually produce reliable results. If I were being tortured, I’d certainly say something- anything- to stop the torture. But why would I have to tell the truth, as long as I could say something that would take a while- or forever- to be proven wrong? [Source]
- Any government that grants itself the power to torture foreigners is only one step away from torturing its citizens. And I fear that step is smaller and easier to take than I once thought.[Source]
Incidentally, Bush managed to use the last few months of the 109th Congress to sneak in a law[Source] protecting himself and others in his administration from future prosecution for war crimes.
Even putting aside all his specific mistakes, I simply can’t shake the feeling that Bush has capitalized (consciously or unconsciously) on the fear generated by the 9/11 attacks to take substantial steps towards a fascist government.[Source 1,2,3,4] That’s why I voted for John Kerry in 2004- not because I thought he was a good leader, but because he couldn’t possibly have been worse than Bush. I thought Kerry was a boring, ineffectual public speaker and I mildly disliked some of his policy proposals, but that’s about the worst I can say about him. I’ve certainly heard some interesting charges levied against him, but I was unable to substantiate any claims that would’ve changed my opinion of his fitness to be president. I was especially amused by Bush’s constant accusations that Kerry was a “flip-flopper”, when I believe that one of Bush’s biggest problems is that he’s too stubborn.
Clearly I believe that Bush’s actions were wrong, but what do I think we should have done in response to 9/11? Personally, I’d have recognized that the 2001 attacks were symptoms of a more fundamental problem: the U.S. is too reliant on Middle Eastern oil, which has prompted previous administrations to meddle with their governments (e.g. google Shah of Iran, U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia). This meddling has caused the U.S. to be very unpopular in the Middle East, and as I’ve stated I believe that negative popular opinion is the only real prerequisite for terrorist groups to flourish.
My preferred response to 9/11 would’ve been to start a serious “Manhattan Project” for energy independence. This project wouldn’t have to produce outlandish technological breakthroughs, it would just have to choose a new infrastructure and template for nuclear fission power plants (perhaps based on France’s model) and a reasonably efficient method of storing that energy in cars (such as hydrogen, improved chemical battery technology, supercapacitors, etc.). If we weren’t so reliant on oil, the stability of the Middle East wouldn’t really be important (to us) in the long run. Once this is underway, we could begin to pull troops out of countries that don’t want us there, alleviating much of the public hatred against us. As I’ve previously stated, this troop withdrawal would have to be effected in such a way that it doesn’t constitute “giving in to terrorists”. I believe that a new source of energy would be ample justification for abandoning posts which no longer have any strategic value, but this distinction would be driven home by an immediate invasion of Afghanistan.
I believe that the invasion of Afghanistan was necessary, mainly because I don’t think that it would’ve been possible to kill or capture bin Laden without ground reconnaissance. Not that it’s helping us in our current nightmarish timeline, but I can only hope that the Afghanistan occupation would work better without diverting troops and equipment to Iraq (which, of course, I would never have invaded).
But that’s about as far as I would use the military to solve the problem of terrorism. An army is very useful when one’s country is being attacked by another army, but waging war on an entire country just to kill a couple of terrorists seems akin to killing a mosquito with an atom bomb. Perhaps if the government obtains unambiguous intelligence showing the location of a wanted terrorist leader, then the military might play a supporting role by, say, firing a guided missile at him. It’s important to note, though, that even a “successful” strike only breeds more terrorists if innocent civilians are killed.[Source 1,2]
I certainly wouldn’t have started any warrantless surveillance programs.[Source 1,2] If there’s anything the 9/11 Commission Report[Source] taught me, it’s that the attacks succeeded not because of a lack of information, but because of the government’s inability to use the information it already had. Adding to the deluge of poorly linked data by spying on people simply wouldn’t have helped prevent the first attacks, and I doubt they would do anything to stop the next ones. Incidentally, I’m ignoring the most important issue- that freedom and privacy are fundamental individual rights- because in my experience most proponents of government surveillance don’t seem to share these beliefs.
But now that we’re already in Iraq, what should we do? To put it bluntly, I think we should leave in a staged withdrawal similar to the proposal[Source 1,2] made by Senator Richard Lugar (R – Indiana). There’s nothing in Iraq worth fighting for (let alone dying for), and our continued presence is simply making the situation worse by giving the insurgency a “foreign devil” to rage against.[Source] The violence in Iraq may grow worse when we leave, which is tragic, but I see no indication[Source 1,2,3,4] that leaving later rather than sooner would improve this situation. Furthermore, I think it’s hypocritical to justify the invasion by claiming that we just wanted to “bring the Iraqis democracy”, then refuse to leave even when 71% of Iraqis want us gone within a year (based on a poll[Source] taken in September 2006), and 45% approve[Source] of attacks on U.S. and British troops.
In short, Bush’s presidency has convinced me that I want a leader who’s so intelligent and scholarly that in comparison I feel even dumber than usual. I’m simply baffled by the constant charges of elitism aimed at presidential candidates who appear too intellectual. In contrast, my ideal president would have an off-the-charts IQ, several PhDs, be a voracious speed reader, and be able to spot logical fallacies from a mile away. But that caricature isn’t running, so which 2008 candidate should I settle for?
Well, I’ll start by saying that I liked McCain a couple of years ago. He’s repeatedly supported stem cell research. He stood up to Bush regarding torture,[Source] recognized that it’s wrong to hold prisoners without trial indefinitely in Guantanamo Bay,[Source] and called Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell “agents of intolerance”.[Source] His frequent appearances on The Daily Show were amiable, and he came across as an intelligent and thoughtful moderate.
What happened to that man, I wonder? In a disappointing reversal this February, McCain voted against a torture ban.[Source] After the Supreme Court recognized that prisoners at Guantanamo Bay have rights to fair and transparent trials, McCain strenuously opposed this decision.[Source] He endorsed one of the “agents of intolerance” by giving a commencement address at Falwell’s Liberty University.[Source] I won’t say that he’s contradicted himself on the subject of abortion, but I do think his previously nuanced positions[Source] have become more one-sided and his choice of running mate shows that he’s comfortable with more extreme positions.[Source]
Furthermore, I’m astonished that McCain admitted to being computer illiterate.[Source] It seems like the president needs to be familiar with how to gather and vet information so that he can reliably distinguish well-researched advice from sloppily-reasoned, biased advice. Without the ability to verify information by himself, does he intend to trust advisors based on gut instincts? I think we’ve all seen what that sort of “thinking” leads to…
On the other hand, I like McCain’s position on nuclear power- namely, that we should build at least 45 new reactors by 2030.[Source] Obama is considerably less enthusiastic,[Source] though he at least seems to acknowledge that nuclear power should play some role. I can only hope that Obama’s position is a temporary ploy aimed at placating the anti-nuclear wings of the Democratic Party.
Most polls taken in the U.S. suggest that Obama is seen as strong on the economy but weak on defense, while the opposite is true for McCain. I disagree. Obama’s eloquent and prescient recognition[Source] that invading Iraq would be a strategic mistake implies that his understanding of global counterterrorism strategy is superior to mine (after all, he got there years before I did). McCain seems to believe that the fundamental notion of invading Iraq was sound[Source] even if the execution was flawed. As far as I’m concerned, this means Obama is considerably stronger than McCain on defense; he seems to have adapted to the new strategic situation more quickly and with better foresight.
Frankly, I’m not sure I understand the economy well enough yet to compare either candidate’s position. Modern economies are so complex that it seems like government intervention in the free market often leads to unintended, undesirable consequences. And as far as I can tell, Obama advocates more government intervention while McCain advocates less. So I can’t agree that Obama is clearly superior to McCain when it comes to the economy, mainly because I’m too ignorant to make an informed decision.
Obama’s got his own flaws, of course. He wants to expand Bush’s faith-based programs,[Source] blatantly reversed his position on public campaign finances,[Source] and voted to give immunity to companies who conspired with Bush to wiretap without warrants.[Source]
What about their running mates? I think Biden comes across as somewhat brash but very sharp when it comes to foreign affairs. On the other hand, he’s supported laws[Source] that increase the power of media giants like the RIAA at the expense of intellectual freedoms. I’m concerned that these corporate giants will extend their influence- removing more of those freedoms along the way- once Biden ascends to a more powerful position.
But it’s Palin who really worries me. She’s a religious fundamentalist with pretty extreme pro-life positions[Source] who wants creationism taught in schools,[Source] tried to have books banned from Wasilla’s public library during her stint as Mayor,[Source] and seems distressingly ignorant about domestic and international politics.[Source 1,2,3] The thought of McCain’s heartbeat being the only thing standing between Palin and the presidency genuinely scares me.
Some say that a McCain victory would usher in “Bush’s third term”, but I think this is unfair. For instance, McCain is considerably more enlightened than Bush when it comes to climate change science, stem cell research and (to an extent) torture. However, a McCain victory would almost certainly be interpreted overseas as widespread American approval of Bush’s presidency. It would likely also shift the Supreme Court further to the right, and may even result in the right to abortion being curtailed. Though I may have some minor problems with Obama, nothing I’ve seen in his history and demeanor suggests that his presidency would be anywhere near as dangerous. I guess I’ll find out tomorrow night if my fellow citizens agree with me…
(Ed. note: the review of Bush’s presidency was written on 2007-06-07, while the Obama/McCain comparison was written on 2008-11-03.)Last modified February 6th, 2012