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The Retreat from Empiricism and Ron Suskind's Intellectual Scoop

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Even realism has an obligation to be realistic. --George Packer.

The only piece of political journalism ever to make me cry was Ron Suskind's article, Without a Doubt, published in the New York Times Magazine shortly before the 2004 election. It was in that article that the famous passage appeared quoting a senior administration official on the myopia of the "reality-based community" when it came to understanding the government of George W. Bush.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about that article because the "realist" school in foreign policy is thought to be back in charge. The release of the Iraq Study Group's report on December 6th and the re-emergence of James Baker, famous for being pragmatist, a realist, and a fixer, were the triggers for this observation. The Guardian's report was typical: "This is a return to the realist policy of Mr. Bush's father."

Dan Froomkin said the report and reactions to it "marked a restoration of reality in Washington."

Realist, a classic term in foreign policy debates, and reality-based, which is not a classic term but more of an instant classic, are quite different ideas. We shouldn't fuzz them up. The press is capable of doing that--fuzzing things up--because it never came to terms with what Suskind reported in 2004. Of course, neither did the political system. Or the Republican party, or its sensible wing-- the elders, the responsible people.

I think they all regret it now. But they're happy with this month's theme, "realists are back." It sounds almost... normal.

An intellectual scoop

In Without a Doubt (subtitled "Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush") Suskind was not talking about an age old conflict between realists and idealists, the sort of story line that can be re-cycled for every administration. It wasn't the ideologues against the pragmatists, either. He was telling us that reality-based policy-making--and the mechanisms for it--had gotten dumped. A different pattern had appeared under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. The normal checks and balances had been overcome, so that executive power could flow more freely. Reduced deliberation, oversight, fact-finding, and field reporting were different elements of an emerging political style. Suskind, I felt, got to the essence of it with his phrase, the "retreat from empiricism."

Which is a perfect example of what Bill Keller and others at the New York Times call an intellectual scoop. ("When you can look at all the dots everyone can look at, and be the first to connect them in a meaningful and convincing way...") Over the last three years, and ever since the adventure in Iraq began, Americans have seen spectacular failures of intelligence, spectacular collapses in the press, spectacular breakdowns in the reality-checks built into government, including the evaporation of oversight in Congress, and the by-passing of the National Security Council, which was created to prevent exactly these events.

This is itself a puzzling development which as far as I know has not been apprehended by our professional students of politics, whether they write columns, run campaigns, work in think tanks, or teach about government in universities. None, so far as I know, has tried to explain why we saw a retreat from empiricism under Bush and how we could actually go to war that way. A review in the American Conservative, Pat Buchanan's magazine, asks:

How did realism become a submerged, almost dissident philosophy amongst American elites, and how did its opposite triumph so completely? Unless one chalks it up simply to the historical caprice of the Bush presidency combined with 9/11, one must consider the motivations of major donors and the myriad factors that determine the acceptable limits of what people in think tanks think. If powerful Americans think differently about the world than they did in the late 1940s and 1950s, an explanation should be sought.

Action vs. behavior

Mine would begin this way: The alternative to facts on the ground is to act, regardless of the facts on the ground. When you act you make new facts. You clear new ground. And when you roll over or roll back the people who have a duty to report the situation as it is--people in the press, the military, the bureaucracy, your own cabinet, or right down the hall--then right there you have demonstrated your might. (See my essay called Rollback.)

The contrast I would draw is between the actions of Bush, a political innovator, and the behavior of previous presidents, Republican and Democrat. (The distinction between action and behavior is originally Hannah Arendt's.) In everything bearing on national security, the Bush Government has been committed to action first, to making the world (including the map of the Middle East) anew, to a kind of audacity in the use of American power. It simply does not behave as previous governments have behaved when presented with the tools of the presidency, which includes the media, and the greatest public address system in the world: the White House podium and backdrop.

This is what the press--which is generally full of behaviorists--has been reluctant to apprehend about the Bush government. But Suskind was onto it.

"In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush," Suskind wrote, introducing his characters. "He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency."

The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

That passage caused a sensation when it was published, and the sensation introduced a new term, the reality-based community, into political talk. Two things happened right away. Many on the left adopted the term. "Proud Member of the Reality-Based Community," their blogs said. The right then jeered at the left's self-description. (They're reality-based? Yeah, right.)

Spooked Republicans

Neither of those responses highlights the fact that in Suskind's reporting it was Republicans spooked by Bush and his anti-empiricism who were beginning to speak out. After his portrait of Karen Hughes, after his book with bounced Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, after he wrote about Karl Rove's operation, Suskind's phone began to ring. His sources, he has said, were people who had been left out of decision-making or put off by the Bush team's projections of certainty. Republicans, insiders. They had a disturbing pattern to report.

"By midyear 2001, a stand-and-deliver rhythm was established. Meetings, large and small, started to take on a scripted quality."

"The circle around Bush was tightening."

"The president would listen without betraying any reaction."

"The president would rarely prod anyone with direct, informed questions."

"By summer's end that first year, Vice President Dick Cheney had stopped talking in meetings he attended with Bush. They would talk privately, or at their weekly lunch."

Suskind had figured a lot of it out:

A cluster of particularly vivid qualities was shaping George W. Bush's White House through the summer of 2001: a disdain for contemplation or deliberation, an embrace of decisiveness, a retreat from empiricism, a sometimes bullying impatience with doubters and even friendly questioners.

That "cluster" is not idealism. In the current New York Review of Books, Mark Danner talks of a "war of imagination" that Bush and his advisers preferred to fight. The thing is, it takes a leap of imagination to realize they did it that way. As Danner puts it, anyone trying to understand how the current mess in Iraq started "has to confront the monumental fact that the United States, the most powerful country in the world, invaded Iraq with no particular and specific idea of what it was going to do there, and then must try to explain how this could have happened."

Empiricism isn't policy

And remember the British diplomat who in July 2002 took notes on the way it happened, so as to inform his colleagues: "The facts were being fixed around the policy."

Or consider Lawrence D. Freedman's observation in Foreign Affairs (Jan./Feb. 2006): "It suited the White House to take at face value assertions from Iraqi exiles that solving postwar problems would be relatively straightforward." There was no attempt to ascertain. Empiricism wasn't the policy.

Now here's what Glenn Kessler and Thomas E. Ricks reported in the Dec. 7 Washington Post: "The Iraq Study Group report released yesterday might well be titled 'The Realist Manifesto.'" And I suppose it might. But what if our problems in Iraq are due not to a lack of realism, but to the total breakdown of reality-based policy making, a deliberate withdrawal from an empirical mindset in order to conduct abroad a war of choice and expand at home executive power?

Ricks and Kessler drew me up short when they wrote: "The report's description of the violence in Iraq, which amounts to an attack on the administration's understanding of the facts on the ground, will likely set the new baseline for how the Iraq conflict is portrayed."

How are these baselines for day-to-day description normally set? Who has the authority to do so and where do they get it? We're deep into the reality-making machinery with that phrase. According to the Post reporters, there would be new baselines from now on. The power to set them had apparently shifted, away from Bush, toward Baker and the so-called realist wing. According to the study group, "Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes discrepancy with policy goals."

Go, realists! Note, however, that Baker's group still assumes that "good policy" is by definition reality-based, exactly the assumption Bush the younger tried to overturn. Good policy was to Bush, Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld action-based. It worked in creative friction with facts on the ground. Fogs of confusion inside the government were fine because deeper within the government a few had the clarity of action.

Erasing people

There's another story almost as iconic as Suskind's senior adviser: "we make our own reality." When Jay Garner returns to the White House from running the American effort in Iraq, Bush, Cheney, Condi Rice and Rumsfeld are there to greet him. Not only does he know to give a falsely upbeat assessment in his written report and stick to cheerful banter during the meeting, but he finds that no one asks him a single question about the situation on the ground in Iraq. Here you have the best possible reporter, but there is no report. The scene (as described by George Packer) is highly ritualized. A message is being sent about who gets to define what's happening on the ground, and it isn't the people on the ground. Garner told Packer that "Bush knew only what Cheney let into his office."

The erasure of reality could get quite personal. You had to be willing to erase people. As part of a profile that Suskind wrote for Esquire about Karl Rove, John DiIulio, who served briefly as director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, sent the reporter a seven-page memo about his resignation, explaining that the White House suffered from "a complete lack of a policy apparatus." The normal checks had been overridden. Later a strange thing happened. DiIulio apologized like an official of the Khmer Rouge following arrest. He said his own story had been false. He erased himself in public.

Before the election I heard Suskind give a rousing talk to students at NYU. He talked a lot about Dilulio. When Suskind recounts the story, the detail you focus on is not what DiIulio said about White House decision-making but the extreme tactic of making him disown his own experience, the reality of his own (typed) words to Suskind. "That's when my phone began to ring," he said. Others saw it happening to them.

Confronted with "...when we act, we create our own reality," what could the press have done differently?

* It could have tried to cover Dick Cheney. Instead, Cheney is by common agreement in the press the most powerful and least scrutinized Vice President in modern American history. Much of the time the press does not know where he is or who he's meeting with. His is almost a stealth office. Yet he helped engineer the overawing of all reality checks as part of his effort to reclaim "lost" powers for the executive branch. It would have taken a monumental effort to scrutinize Cheney because he was determined to operate without scrutiny. In any event it never happened.

* It could have covered the entire retreat from empiricism, which took place across the government, and not just in war-making. There have been thousands of conflicts between the Bush political machine and every variety of reality check known to modern government. Reporters could have connected those dots.

* The press could have gone to the old-fashioned empiricists in the Republican Party and asked them if they were worried. (As with this famous piece.) To this day it remains a mystery why supporters of the Bush Agenda saw no threat to its success in the President's concave habits. (Bush in 2003: "The best way to get the news is from objective sources. And the most objective sources I have are people on my staff who tell me what's happening in the world.")

* It could have followed up on Suskind's intellectual scoop by, for example, asking how the military dealt with the shift away from a reality-based command. The alarms must have gone off somewhere.

* It could have defined Bush not as a conservative or a traditional Republican but as an innovator. For example, Suskind told Salon: "When I was at the White House in 2002, I had a variety of discussions with them about their newfangled message control machine, and their prized discipline. They made a clear decision: We will ignore as best we can the mainstream press and let's see if there's any penalty for doing that." He said the view of Karen Hughes, Bush's former chief communications advisor, was, "'We're not concerned; we don't see there being any penalty from the voters for ignoring the mainstream press." That's innovation.

Why didn't the press do these things? Part of it is the reluctance to appear partisan. Of course if Suskind's reporting was correct, the people to whom this news would matter most were reality-based Republicans, members of the military who cannot afford to have any other "base" but reality, and intellectually honest conservatives who believed in Bush and wanted to see him succeed. There's a lot of truth in what Atrios says about Washington pundits, "They'd rather be wrong than agree with the dirty fucking hippies."

Small shelf of books

I once tried to ask John Harris, then the political editor of the Washington Post, about the Bush government's various conficts with the reality-making machinery. (See my recent interview with him upon leaving the Post.) I said to Harris that "aside from the coverage of weapons of mass destruction, which is seen to have failed, my sense is that you and your colleagues think you have handled the challenge of covering this government pretty darn well."

The game hasn't changed, you contend. We're still in a recognizable, fourth-estate, meet-the-press, rather than beat-the-press universe. Those -- like me -- who accuse Bush of taking extraordinary measures to marginalize, discredit, refute (and pollute) the press are said to be exaggerating the cravenness of this Adminstration and ignoring the parallels and precedents in other White Houses, including the Democratic ones.

Actually, I may have understated the magnitude of the change Bush and company have brought to your world, because I didn't connect the pattern we can find in journalism to the Bush Administration's treatment of science, its mistreatment of career professionals and other experts in government, and of course its use and misuse of intelligence. All have to be downgraded, distorted, deterred because they're a drag -- also called a check -- on executive power and the Bush team's freedom from fact.

Well, I tried. (Read about the misbegotten answer here.) Today it is extremely difficult to find language adequate to "reality gets dumped," which is still in most respects an unbelievable and unbelieved tale, even though we know a lot about it from columnists like Dan Froomkin, Frank Rich, Hendrick Hertzberg and Huff Post's Eric Boehlert, from sites like Tomdispatch.com and writers like Mark Danner. We can also point to a small shelf of books that are largely about the collapse of empiricism-- including two by Suskind (The Price of Loyalty and The One Percent Doctrine) George Packer's The Assassins' Gate, Thomas Ricks's Fiasco, Michael Gordon and Gen. Bernard Trainor's Cobra II, and most recently Bob Woodward's State of Denial, the title of which gestures toward the story Suskind tried to tell but shrinks a bit from it. (See my post, Grokking Woodward)

Denial is a psychological state we are all somewhat familiar with and is therefore a more comforting description of the Bush government than the bizarre flight from empiricism that Suskind tried to alert us to. Similarly, realists vs. ideologues is a conflict we can understand without spraining our brains too much. This makes the Dana Milbanks and Joe Kleins of the world happy. When a sturdy distinction still works it's good news for incumbent interpreters--and journalists are interpreters even when they are "just" reporting--because they don't have to introduce an unfamiliar language to describe what they are seeing.

More accurate, less credible

Whereas if they tried to narrate the expansion of executive power (led by the vice president) through a revolt against empiricism (led by the chief executive) their story would be more accurate (to what happened) but less credible to more people. Because it sounds so extreme.

This is in fact a way to discredit the press that the press has not fully appreciated. Take extreme action and a press that mistrusts "the extremes" will mistrust initial reports of that action-- like Suskind's. This gives you time to re-make the scene and overawe people. There are all kinds of costs to changing a master narrative that has been built up by beat reporters and career pundits. When the press can hang on to an old and proven one it will. The Bush people understood that. They knew they could change the game on the press because the press finds it hard to act in reply. Therefore it tends to behave.

The idea that accuracy improves credibility is comforting. The more accurate you are, the more credible you will be, right? But in extreme situations--and invading Iraq with no particular and specific idea of what to do once there is an extreme situation--an accurate description is likely to be rejected, and the describer treated as in-credible. Reporters and editors are, I believe, intimately aware of this. Bob Woodward, as I have said elsewhere, wrote Plan of Attack because at the time it was a more credible book, even though Attack Without a Plan would have been more accurate.

When I read "Without a Doubt" I felt an immediate kinship with Suskind. Because I could see what he was trying to do: warn us about something that sounded crazy but was all too real. I could see he was going to fail in that, and I sensed that he knew it too. That's what made it so sad to read.

Journalists and talking heads: if this month you wish to tell me that realism is back kindly tell me where you think it had gone to.
Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University and writes the blog PressThink, where this first appeared.