Friday, August 22, 2008

Simplicity Trumps Complexity (again)

The more we learn about what happened in Georgia, not just this month but in the events leading up to this month, the more we need to be reminded (once again) of the wisdom of H. L. Mencken:

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

Unfortunately, in this country it seems to be the business of the media to traffic in clarity, even when that clarity is simplistic to the point of being specious. However, this is a Presidential election year; and that happens to be a time when simplicity rules with a vengeance. Most of the electorate (probably even those who do not show up at the polls) value the ability to make a choice (whether or not they exercise it); but they really dislike making decisions that involve a multiplicity of interrelated factors, none of which they understand particularly well. This is why so many voters make a selection of the basis of a single issue, whether it is abortion, gun control, or war. In many ways the last two Presidential elections provided reductio ad absurdum instances of this principle through a candidate who put so much emphasis on faith that selection amounted to choosing good over evil.

Where Georgia is concerned, Europeans are probably more sensitive to the dangers of faulty simplistic reasoning. The consequences of an unwise decision are always too close for comfort. Thus, we see columnists like Gabor Steingart at SPIEGEL ONLINE who try to wean us away from the reflex dismissal of Vladimir Putin as an "agent of evil," best compared with Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler. On this side of the pond, Tom Hayden has now followed suit with an extensive well-reasoned account for The Nation of who is likely to benefit the most from recent events; and, from a rhetorical point of view, it is worth noting that Hayden uses the word "evil" only once. That instance is actually embraced in scare quotes as follows:

The Republicans and neoconservatives should be asked this puzzling question: whatever happened to your triumphal claim that Ronald Reagan won the cold war by destroying the "evil empire"?

In other words the word only comes up in an example of Republican rhetoric!

There is nothing complex about Hayden's thesis:

Barack Obama and the Democrats are heading towards trouble in November because of a new cold war with the Russians triggered largely by a top John McCain adviser and the same neoconservative clique who fabricated evidence to lobby for the Iraq war.

This thesis rests on the support of what Hayden calls "short-term essentials" of evidence:

  • After border skirmishes similar to the 1964 Tonkin Gulf affair, on August 8, Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili invaded the autonomous breakaway region of South Ossetia with his US-trained army. The Russians responded with massive force, quickly routing Saakashvili's forces.
  • McCain has traveled to Georgia, nominated his close friend Saakashlivi for a Nobel Prize in 2005, and was the first American leader to blast Russia last April, when Vladimir Putin issued a sharp warning against NATO membership for Georgia and the Ukraine, supported by the United States.
  • The Bush Administration was divided along familiar lines, with the foreign policy "realists" around Condoleezza Rice opposite the pro-Georgia hawks centered in Dick Cheney's office and allied with McCain--enthusiasts for spreading "democracy" from Iraq to the Russian border.
  • Randy Scheunemann, McCain's foreign policy adviser, was a registered foreign agent for Saakashlivi's government from at least 2004, when Saakashvili came to power, until May 15, 2008, when he technically severed his ties to Orion Strategies, his lobbying firm. At that point, Orion had earned at least $800,000 in lobbying fees from Georgia.
  • Saakashvili, with Scheuneman advising him, campaigned on a platform of taking back South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
  • Schuenemann was Georgia's lobbyist when Saakashvili sent troops to retake two separatist enclaves, Ajaria in 2004 and the upper Kodori Gorge in Abhkazia in 2006, over strong Russian objections.
  • Saakashvili tarnished his democratic credentials by sending club-wielding riot police against unarmed demonstrators protesting his abrupt purging of the police, civil servants and universities in 2007, a replay of Paul Bremer's decision to privatize Iraq in 2003.

This should lead us to start asking serious questions about just what agents have been involved in this whole affair, what actions did they take, and what were their motives behind those actions; but, without trying to sound too pejorative, any list with that many bullets is too long for the consumption of most voters. (Hell, I know from personal experience that it is too long for just about any CEO!) Hayden's argumentative technique does not blunt the impact of his thesis; but his rhetoric may leave many wringing their hands in despair, figuring that, once again they will be screwed no matter what selection they make on Election Day (if they bother to show up to make a selection at all). He is a bit like an overly-earnest lawyer, who has become so preoccupied with presenting "the truth" that he has totally forgotten to present it in a way that will sway the jury in his favor.

The good news is that, where rhetoric alone is concerned, Obama seems to have a good pool for resources for standing up to McCain. We are beginning to see the methods behind his use of those resources, and there is a good chance that they will serve him well. However, the idea of a Republican cadre intent in reviving the Cold War goes far beyond silly issues like the number of houses McCain owns. For better or worse, someone on the Obama team needs to start harvesting the talking points (and, dare I say it, sound bytes) that will turn heads and then let those heads know that the Republican party is, once again, trying to play them for suckers. (Recall, for example, when Obama took his last shot at winning Nevada primary voters with what amounted to a standup routine in Las Vegas.) Choosing one candidate because you have discovered that the other one is making a fool out of you is not necessarily the best strategy; but, if you have to cut the corners of complexity, it may be the most effective strategy!

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