06 August 2006

Smart enough?

Cenk Uygur at the Huffington Post has yet another rant about how stupid the President is. Matthew Yglasias at The American Prospect writes on the theme specifically in the President's handling of the Israel situation.

I was hesitant to link these pieces because I don't much like the whole “Bush is stupid” rap. Lefties have a partly-deserved reputation for asserting that folks who disagree with us are either heartless or stupid, so I try to avoid it that rap. Aside from being poor form, it serves us badly because Red America, with some justification, resents it.

More importantly, I'm skeptical that it's really true. Certainly, he doesn't have the raw intelligence of a President like Nixon or Clinton, but I don't think that's really a requirement for the job—fortunately, since folks who are that smart and also possessed of the other talents necessary to the Presidency are rare. And turning that around, I cannot imagine anyone concluding, looking at both Nixon and Clinton, that intelligence is a sure road to a good Presidential administration.

If Bush isn't brilliant, I think the indications are that he's still fundamentally bright enough. For instance, we have seen plenty of evidence that he can think on his feet—at least, when he's on familiar ground. He has a knack for remembering names that I envy. And so on.

So Bush is bright enough, perhaps ... but he hasn't trained or exercised his mind. He is notoriously incurious, unaware of the places where he is ignorant and equally unaware that this is a problem. He isn't an analytical thinker, so he doesn't see the internal contradictions of his own thinking and misses problems in what he hears from his courtiers. That's not the same thing as stupidity, but it does still lead to bad decisions.

That's Yglasias' cricitism.

I happen to think the White House made the right call on the question of Palestinian elections — even in retrospect, even knowing that Hamas won — though many observers think his policy has merely backfired. Rather than defend the policy, however, Bush seems to have forgotten all about it. He returned to the theme later in the press conference: “One reason why the Palestinians still suffer is because there are militants who refuse to accept a Palestinian state based upon democratic principles.”

That's absurd. The president appears to be totally unfamiliar with what is perhaps the single most-discussed topic in international politics. Nothing gets people disagreeing quite like the subject of how to apportion blame for the Palestinian peoples' considerable suffering. But absolutely nobody blames Arab militants opposed to democratic principles. Terrorists opposed to Israel's very existence? Sure. Israeli intransigence? Why not. But only someone paying no attention whatsoever would subscribe to Bush's theory.

And knowing stuff matters. Yeah, the President has access to a swarm of well-informed advisors. Sure, the President cannot possibly know nearly as much about everything that matters as we would want in a perfect world, though Bill Clinton sure did astonishingly well at trying. But you have to be fundamentally knowledgeable to be trustworthy at the job.

Consider these questions from Uygur for Bush's supporters.

Would you let him do the books for your business? Would you trust your company in his hands for eight years? (No matter how Republican you are, you know you just said no to that question.) Would you trust him to be your kids' guidance counselor and take his advice seriously? If your kids were in the Army and he was their field commander, would you feel good about putting their lives in his hands?

And if your answers to those questions are what I expect, why would you trust the Presidency to a man whom you wouldn't trust with these other responsibilities? Do you think that it's an easier or less-important job?


Dee said...

Bush is bright enough, perhaps ... but he hasn't trained or exercised his mind.


Thank you for articulating what I've had trouble with since the beginning - trying to explain that I don't necessarily think he's stupid, but that he has no clue anyway.

Jon Ruiz said...

The problem I run into when trying to rate the president's or the administration's intelligence is separating the public "stay on message" statements (which are over-simplified and often contradictory from other messages) from what's being discussed behind closed doors. Because the administration has done a great job at keeping lips sealed, it's hard to know what really goes on. One of the more reasonable things I've heard Bush say was when he got unknowingly caught on the mic when talking to Blair last July: "See the irony is what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit and it's over". However, I'm no defender and if statements from previous insiders like RIchard Clarke are any clue, then he performs the same behind closed doors (minus the prfanity) as he does in public. That leaves me feeling uneasy at best.

Lev said...

I remember back in 2003 I was having the same argument with a Swiss couple in East Timor. I found myself in the very unusual position of arguing for George Bush, although his intelligence does make him morally responsible for his actions - and moral reasoning was something he certainly wasn't good at (c.f., Peter Singer's book on the subject).

I mention that he was extremely calculating ("I care what 51 percent of the people think about me"), and his folksy gaffs actually endeared some people to him, especially when they reached Spoonerism level ("If the terriers and barriffs are torn down, this economy will grow").