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The Strangely Unhumbled: How Can People Who Got it So Wrong Remain So Cocksure?

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In the Bush regime, we have people who have made public pronouncements that have proved disastrously false. WMDs in Iraq? Nowhere to be found. The insurgency in its death throes? Still going strong. The list is depressingly long.

And of course it's not just that they were wrong. They also made momentous decisions that -at least so they claimed- were based on those false premises. And the consequences have been abysmal- for this country, for the Iraqi people, indeed for all of humankind.

I've made a few wrong calls in my life. My batting average is pretty decent, but it isn't 1000, and I don't like the feeling when I strike out. Even though my misjudgments have never had huge consequences, when I discover them I feel embarrassed and humbled. (For example, in 2003, I believed one could trust this administrations' assertions about Saddam's WMDs.)

I can scarcely imagine how I'd feel if I'd been so profoundly and repeatedly wrong as, say, the current president and vice president and secretary of defense. I imagine it would be hard for me to show my face in public, or at least to do so without apologizing for blowing it so badly.

In the American system, the president and the vice president do not resign out of shame for having so bungled their jobs. But were I in their position, I'd not have had the chutzpah to offer myself up for a second term. And if I were in Rumsfeld's position, I'd have resigned for the good of the country, believing that surely someone else would have better judgment to bring to the responsibilities of Secretary of Defense than I had shown.

Of course, these guys have done nothing of the sort. Not even remotely. I can hardly begin to fathom how they can continue to strut the world with so sign whatever of embarrassment, no glimmer of humility, after having blown it so totally. To me it is like if the Red Sox infielder, Bill Buckner, had strode off the field high-fiving his stricken teammates after committing that World-Series-losing error on the ground ball that went between his legs.

When I watch Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld, so unapologetic and undaunted by their momentous blunders, I feel like shouting out to them, in paraphrase of what Joseph Welch so memorably asked Senator Joe McCarthy at those famous hearings: "Have you no shame, sirs? At long last, have you no shame?"

I think we know the answer- the same as with the question asked of McCarthy a half century ago.
Sometimes I've wondered just how to interpret this apparent shamelessness.

Can it be that they do not recognize how profoundly they've botched things? Or do they nurse shame and regret in private, but feel compelled to maintain their bravado in public? Or do they simply lack those moral feelings -the sense of responsibility- from which any such feelings of shame would arise?

I've inclined toward the third option- that of utter shamelessness.

Since I believe they deliberately lied us into this war, I would not expect them to feel shame from the discovery that their lies were untrue. But I cannot see how they can fail to notice how extremely differently -how very much worse-almost everything has turned out than they themselves apparently expected. So the first hypothesis -that they just don't get it- has seemed impossible to credit.

And since so much of their conduct has been shameful -not just their misjudgments and blunders, but their lies and manipulations and power-grabbing- it has been easier for me to imagine them to be simply shameless than to be secretly tormented by their failings while maintaining the winner's smile in public.

But recent developments have made me less sure. I'm talking about the way some of their neo-con allies have been publicly beating the drums of war in recent days as the Arab-Israeli conflict has heated up.

These people do not bear the full and terrible weight of responsibility that Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld do for the debacle in Iraq, but they certainly own some share of that responsibility. With their very public wielding of the pen helped create support for the United States to pick up the sword and invade Iraq. And so they, too, one would think, would have strong cause for embarrassment for having been so publicly so wrong on such vital matters.

But they, too, show no shame. Not the least humbled by their errors, they are now recapitulating the very same council in the very same tone of certainty on the very same kind of issues.

The editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD, Bill Kristol, has now called for the Bush administration to use this Middle East flare-up as an opportunity for the United States to attack Syria and Iran. Says THE WEEKLY STANDARD:

"We might consider countering this act of Iranian aggression with a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Why wait? Does anyone think a nuclear Iran can be contained? That the current regime will negotiate in good faith? It would be easier to act sooner rather than later. Yes, there would be repercussions - and they would be healthy ones, showing a strong America that has rejected further appeasement."

To this there is this response from the conservative columnist, George Will:

"Why wait?" Perhaps because the U.S. military has enough on its plate in the deteriorating wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which both border Iran...As for the "healthy" repercussions that the Weekly Standard is so eager to experience from yet another war: One envies that publication's powers of prophecy but wishes it had exercised them on the nation's behalf before all of the surprises - all of them unpleasant - that Iraq has inflicted...Neo-conservatives have much to learn, even from Buddy Bell, manager of the Kansas City Royals. After his team lost its 10th consecutive game in April, Bell said, "I never say it can't get worse." In their next game, the Royals extended their losing streak to 11 and in May lost 13 in a row.

Watching the likes of Bill Kristol extolling the virtues of war as an instrument to remake the world according to our liking, I feel compelled once again to wonder if that first hypothesis might not be correct. Maybe these people are so unmoored from reality -so skilled at avoiding confrontation with inconvenient truths- that they really do not recognize their own failures, blazoned though they be in each day's headlines and across much of the planet.

On the same weekend that Kristol was showing undiminished enthusiasm for the kind of disastrous adventurism he helped to bring about three years go, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was on TV showing that she, too, is unchastened by any sense of failure. Regarding the administration's supposed designs to transform the Middle East into a bastion of democracy, Secretary Rice declared it to be "shortsighted" to use a mere "snapshot" taken just a "couple of years" into the process to judge the efficacy of the administration's project to remake the region.

So maybe these people have mastered the art of never having to confront failure. Maybe if one postpones judgment long enough, it seems, one need never confront failure. Maybe they've induced amnesia in themselves regarding how they expected things to go, so they can remain untroubled by the enormous discrepancy between those expectations and the real consequences of their actions.

Maybe these Bushite lie to themselves even more than they do to us.
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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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