Eminentoes

Wise Guy Webb

All is vanity -- and personal authenticity.

By 1.28.07

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Some light, I think, may be cast upon the criticisms of President Bush's State of the Union address last week by something said in Senator Jim Webb's reply to it for Democrats. It was no news, of course, that the Senator thought the war in Iraq "mismanaged," though his only instance of mismanagement (if that was what it was) was the fact that it has lasted for four years. Instead of either explaining what he meant or offering any suggestions for properly managing the war, he said instead that "many, including myself, warned even before the war began that it was unnecessary, that it would take our energy and attention away from the larger war against terrorism, and that invading and occupying Iraq would leave us strategically vulnerable in the most violent and turbulent corner of the world."

How's that? Strategically vulnerable? How do Iraqis blowing each other up make us strategically vulnerable? Never mind. What we were meant to take away from the Senator's pronouncement on the President's foreign policy was only that he, Senator Webb, had been right and President Bush had been wrong. I think the matter is a fair bit more complex than this, but let us allow the oversimplification. The President has been wrong; the Senator has been right. Of how much importance should this fact be to anyone but the Senator himself? What does it tell us about anything that his audience -- presumably those who are interested in public policy and its outcomes -- might care about except that the Senator has a good deal of vanity about his own intellect and perspicacity? It's as if he thought that the country's concerns about Iraq were mainly to get on record who was right about it and who was wrong.

It's a typical bit of baby-boomer narcissism, of the same sort that you see in the "Not in my name" peace marchers. The most effective line of opposition they can think of to take to something they don't agree with is that, well, they don't agree with it. So, too, Senator Webb thinks that he has said all he needs to say about the difficult situation his country finds itself in once he has said who was wrong and who was right -- the latter including not only himself but those whose "warnings" the President has "disregarded," among them "the national security adviser during the first Gulf War, the chief of staff of the army, two former commanding generals of the Central Command, whose jurisdiction includes Iraq, the director of operations on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and many, many others with great integrity and long experience in national security affairs."

So, then, there were no "warnings" on the other side? Or perhaps, those whose advice the President did listen to were not men (or possibly women) of "great integrity and long experience in national security affairs"? He doesn't say that, of course. Only that the supposed "disarray" in Iraq was "predictable -- and predicted." Well, anything is predictable once it is predicted, but a wise man -- which few would accuse Senator Webb of being -- might pause before staking his entire claim to credibility on his having been right, once, in a prediction. He who is right today may easily be wrong tomorrow. These are complex matters and the decisions they call on us to make are seldom obvious ones. Events will always prove some decision-makers wrong and some right, with no very great shame to the former or glory to the latter. I'd have thought that there was a lot more glory in having made a wrong decision and then done all that you could to recover from it.

Anyway, it seems to me but a poor satisfaction for those would have made different decisions -- or, in the case of the Democratic senators who voted for the war in Iraq, even many who actually made the same decision -- to spend much time congratulating themselves. It is an even poorer one if the self-congratulation takes the place of any serious proposal as to what can be done to get one's country out of the "disarray" -- if that is what it is -- that it finds itself in. Mr Webb may think, as many Democrats and those in the media do, that he was right because he is brighter than President Bush, but anyone without that kind of vanity at stake would be more careful about claiming intellectual superiority in an area so fraught with difficulties, where even the cleverest -- "the best and brightest" as it used to be said about the Kennedy-Johnson administration that got us into Vietnam -- can go wrong.

I wonder, too, if the politics of personal validation and authenticity that Senator Webb is so keen on could have anything to do with the fact that, as Charles Krauthammer says, "our debates about oil consumption, energy dependence and global warming are not meant to be serious. They are meant for show." It certainly has to do with the resolution of disapproval of the "surge" in Iraq that Congress is busy preparing. As we might almost have expected, when Senator Biden said of the resolution he was pushing that "This is not designed to say, 'Mr. President, ah-ha, you're wrong', " it meant that that was precisely what it was designed to say. There was no other point to it.

Compare, too, the criticism the President has come under for not mentioning Katrina, or New Orleans, in his address. Such a mention would not do anything for those who are still hurricane-ravaged, but it would make a claim to "compassion" and, hence, the same kind of personal authenticity that seems to be the only current political coin. That's the crazy world we live in, I'm afraid, but it may be time for us to take a lesson from Rick of Casablanca who said, as you may remember, "I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems" -- or, indeed, the petty glories -- "of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that." I wish I could believe that some day Jim Webb would understand it.

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.