Ignorance Isn't Strength

By PAUL KRUGMAN

New York Times

October 9, 2004

I first used the word "Orwellian" to describe the Bush team in October 2000. Even then it was obvious that George W. Bush surrounds himself with people who insist that up is down, and ignorance is strength. But the full costs of his denial of reality are only now becoming clear.

President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have an unparalleled ability to insulate themselves from inconvenient facts. They lead a party that controls all three branches of government, and face news media that in some cases are partisan supporters, and in other cases are reluctant to state plainly that officials aren't telling the truth. They also still enjoy the residue of the faith placed in them after 9/11.

This has allowed them to engage in what Orwell called "reality control." In the world according to the Bush administration, our leaders are infallible, and their policies always succeed. If the facts don't fit that assumption, they just deny the facts.

As a political strategy, reality control has worked very well. But as a strategy for governing, it has led to predictable disaster. When leaders live in an invented reality, they do a bad job of dealing with real reality.

In the last few days we've seen some impressive demonstrations of reality control at work. During the debate on Tuesday, Mr. Cheney insisted that "I have not suggested there's a connection between Iraq and 9/11." After the release of the Duelfer report, which shows that Saddam's weapons capabilities were deteriorating, not advancing, at the time of the invasion, Mr. Cheney declared that the report proved that "delay, defer, wait wasn't an option."

From a political point of view, such exercises in denial have been very successful. For example, the Bush administration has managed to convince many people that its tax cuts, which go primarily to the wealthiest few percent of the population, are populist measures benefiting middle-class families and small businesses. (Under the administration's definition, anyone with "business income" - a group that includes Dick Cheney and George Bush - is a struggling small-business owner.)

The administration has also managed to convince at least some people that its economic record, which includes the worst employment performance in 70 years, is a great success, and that the economy is "strong and getting stronger." (The data to be released today, which are expected to improve the numbers a bit, won't change the basic picture of a dismal four years.)

Officials have even managed to convince many people that they are moving forward on environmental policy. They boast of their "Clear Skies" plan even as the inspector general of the E.P.A. declares that the enforcement of existing air-quality rules has collapsed.

But the political ability of the Bush administration to deny reality - to live in an invented world in which everything is the way officials want it to be - has led to an ongoing disaster in Iraq and looming disaster elsewhere.

How did the occupation of Iraq go so wrong? (The security situation has deteriorated to the point where there are no safe places: a bomb was discovered on Tuesday in front of a popular restaurant inside the Green Zone.)

The insulation of officials from reality is central to the story. They wanted to believe Ahmad Chalabi's promises that we'd be welcomed with flowers; nobody could tell them different. They wanted to believe - months after everyone outside the administration realized that we were facing a large, dangerous insurgency and needed more troops - that the attackers were a handful of foreign terrorists and Baathist dead-enders; nobody could tell them different.

Why did the economy perform so badly? Long after it was obvious to everyone outside the administration that the tax-cut strategy wasn't an effective way of creating jobs, administration officials kept promising huge job gains, any day now. Nobody could tell them different.

Why has the pursuit of terrorists been so unsuccessful? It has been obvious for years that John Ashcroft isn't just scary; he's also scarily incompetent. But inside the administration, he's considered the man for the job - and nobody can say different.

The point is that in the real world, as opposed to the political world, ignorance isn't strength. A leader who has the political power to pretend that he's infallible, and uses that power to avoid ever admitting mistakes, eventually makes mistakes so large that they can't be covered up. And that's what's happening to Mr. Bush.