GADFLY: Discounting Experience 

Where this administration is concerned, actually knowing something about something is a disqualifier.

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Experience usually counts, doesn't it? You wouldn't take your car to a mechanic who had never owned a car (a principle one of my female friends uses to explain why she goes to a female ob/gyn).

 

You'd think that same logic would apply to something as important as, say, a war, wouldn't you?  But we went to war based on a sales pitch that was touted by a group of officials none of whom had any personal experience with war, and most of whom never served in the military.  This group has famously been called “chicken hawks,” because they were too “chicken” to fight for their country, but not “chicken” enough not to send others to fight for them.

 

When it came to the wisdom of the war, the advice of people with experience was discounted.  Colin Powell, an experienced warrior, warned that if we invaded Iraq we would own it, a lesson he learned during the first Gulf War, and successfully taught to Bush 41 (a decorated war veteran in his own right) during that war.  But other experienced military warriors were marginalized when they warned that a successful campaign in Iraq would take a considerably larger force than was eventually deployed, an unheeded warning that has cost this country dearly.

 

So it's no surprise that this administration has continued to resist the advice of experienced warriors in matters pertaining to the war.  One of them, Congressman John Murtha,  is a decorated Viet Nam veteran, and a retired Marine colonel. He is generally acknowledged to be one of the most militarily savvy officials in Washington, and a real hawk, as opposed to the chicken variety.  And yet, when he recently advocated a prompt redeployment of troops from Iraq for factually unassailable reasons, he was promptly vilified, first as a Michael Moore liberal by the White House and then as a coward by a freshman congresswoman in an infamous incident on the floor of the House.  Murtha's experience didn't count; not to this administration. 

 

Another voice of experience in the wilderness was John McCain's in his efforts to outlaw torture.  When it became apparent, following stories from Guantanamo and elsewhere,  that the chorus of protestations from the administration that “we do not torture” rang hollow, especially given the contrary efforts by the administration's lawyers to justify its use, McCain mounted his campaign. McCain knew from painful personal experience that torture was dehumanizing, barbaric and counter-productive.  Yet in spite of his experience and the resonance of his position precisely because of that experience, the Bush administration continued to insist that “cruel, inhuman or degrading” treatment was a legitimate tool in the “war against terrorism,” so important that the President threatened to exercise the first veto of his presidency to prevent the McCain amendment from becoming law.

           

Once again, the voice of experience was, at least temporarily, being ignored by this administration.  Eventually, the Senate's veto-proof support of McCain's position convinced the President to back down on his opposition to the amendment. This was despite the fact that enforcement of the new law is in doubt, given the statement issued by the President in connection with its signing. To wit: He announced his intention to interpret (and presumably enforce) the anti-torture restriction in the same way he interprets other laws (i.e., consistent with his constitutional and commander-in-chief authority).

 

The most recent voice of experience was heard just this past weekend -- this time on Bush's warrantless spying on American citizens. During a TV appearance, William Safire, the New York Times columnist and unabashed apologist for all things Bush, recounted how he became the subject of an illegal wiretap during his days as a speech writer for President Nixon. Safire's home phone, it turns out, was illegally tapped by the FBI because the Bureau was simultaneously (and illegally, of course)  tapping the phone of a reporter to whom Safire offered to “leak” advance notice of an upcoming Nixon speech. 

 

The experience gave Safire, as he put it, a “thing about personal privacy” and made him an opponent of government's excesses in the guise of national security, an attitude that has been echoed by several former (i.e., experienced) intelligence professionals.  Call me a pessimist, but my guess is that these voices of experience will be ignored as well.

 

 

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