July 26, 2006

Osama bin Luthor?

Simply a whimsy. Should Osama bin Laden be considered George W. Bush's Lex Luthor? Lex, as fans of Jerry Siegel will recall, was Superman's nemesis in the old DC Comics, a guy who once had noble aspirations, as a young mad scientist in Smallville, but then went off the rails when Superboy accidentally blew up one of his inventions, rendering Lex prematurely and permanently bald and earning Superman the life-long enmity of Luthor, who became an arch-villain dedicated to destroying Superman by any means necessary. Lex's bitterness led him to increasingly complicated and bizarre strategems for killing the Man of Steeel, including synthesizing Kryptonite and devising his own battle-suit (purple and green) which gave him some, but not enough, superpowers of his own. An over-reaction, to be sure; why not simply a toupee or allographic transplant (I realize Lex had no side hair to work with). Superboy's mistake was understandable, after all, and the Boy of Steel lacked Lex's intellectual brilliance. As Jerry Seinfeld, noted Superman fan once joked, Siegel actually portrayed Superman as kind of a yutz, despite his Kryptonite parents with the Hebrew names. It's why, to the everlasting shame of Jor-El and Lara, Kal-El went into physical work and never became the brain surgeon they hoped.

But I stray from the point, perhaps because there are an amazing number of websites devoted to Superman trivia. Osama as George W. Bush's nemesis, along Luthor/Superman lines, is something of a stretch for a number of reasons. Osama perhaps fits the bill better than Bush, although W is unquestionably something of a yutz himself. But the rivalry just seems a little one-sided, when you think about it. As those swimming in adjacent lanes here on the Pond know, I am not one of those haughty Bush-is-dumb critics. I hold firmly to the view that Bush is somewhat better than a mediocrity, and I will defend Bush's intellectual prowess with all the vehemence that such a tepid view commands. I will murmur from the rooftops, in other words, that Bush is a little better than so-so when it comes to thinking and analysis. In the pantheon of super heroes, Bush proudly takes his place as MediocreMan. Take that! you needling Leftist pundits!

But, in all intellectual honesty -- is MediocreMan as clever as Lex Osama? Bush has the Pentagon to support his side, a vast array of power rivaling even the Man of Steel's armamentarium. Surely the U.S. military has things faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. OBL has a camel and a laptop, which he can't use for anything other than video games or we'll pinpoint his location. Certainly, then, we have asymmetrical warfare on our hands.

To make it a fight, Osama has used manipulation. He can't fight the hated, decadent West by direct military means, or he'll be wiped out in an instant. His strategy, therefore, has been to provoke the United States into self-destructive acts of retribution, counting on the knee-jerk, play-to-the-uneducated-masses style of America's prep-school cowboy, MediocreMan himself. Bin Laden arranged for the assassination of Ahmed Massoud, the Afghan anti-Taliban leader, on September 9, 2001, using Qaeda soldiers posing as journalists. No doubt it was OBL who orchestrated the $5 billion buy-up of U.S. Treasuries (long positions) and simultaneous short-sale of airline, insurance, and tourism stocks in the weeks before 9-11. The SEC investigated, but of course its findings were either inconclusive, embarrassing or classified immediately because they were inconclusive except to the extent they were embarrassing. As with all such interesting and important questions in recent American history, such as who it was that dumped anthrax all over the American landscape in 2001, the inquiries sank beneath the relentless tide of ensuing disasters and were never heard from again.

I don't know if Luthor bin Laden could have foreseen events all the way forward to July 2006. I'm a chess player and appreciate the difficulties of imagining changing positions in a fluid environment, that is, where you must envision the results of your opponent's possible moves, your response, his possible responses, etc. 'Tis said the greatest chess players are able to imagine the board, seeing it steady and seeing it whole, perhaps 3 or 4 moves in the future. If you think that's easy, you haven't played much chess. Clearly Osama Lex saw the Afghan invasion coming, and did what he could to slow the inevitable American victory. I doubt that he was ever in Tora Bora, or spent any time in Pakistan, where Mastermind Khallid Sheikh Mohammed was captured. I think OBL simply floated rumors to that effect so the Democrats could harp endlessly about MediocreMan's failure to "capture or kill bin Laden at Tora Bora." I think Lex has always been in Iran, where he can count on consistent anti-American feeling and a more or less stable regime.

I think OBL saw the Iraqi invasion coming, and could probably foresee that 9-11 would be used as a generalized motivating principle by Bush to invade an Arab country. The handwriting for that one was on the wall, and not just in an Afghan cave. The PNAC crowd of neo-conservatives had been beating the drum for years. Of course, invading Iraq was a completely irrational response to terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., but taking stock of your arch-enemy's irrational tendencies is part of good strategic thinking. I think that bin Lexen also knew that MediocreMan's analysis of the post-invasion aftermath would be "facile," and not in the sense Bush intended in his solecism yesterday at the Maliki press conference, where he argued for a "flexible and facile" approach to curbing violence in Baghdad, demonstrating the dangers inherent in a new-word-a-day program when practiced by a verbally inept leader (Bush's verbal SAT actually was about 150 points too low for admission to Yale, so in this sense he is LessThanMediocreMan).

Bush's homely, touching vision of Iraqis as just like people everywhere is, of course, a noble ideal, but it appears that media accounts that Bush did not know about the Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish sects until the invasion was underway may have been right on the money. The Cowboy divided the Iraqi population into only two groups, (1) the aspiring democrats, and (2) the killers who hate freedom. This oversimplification has proved an intractable flaw in his analysis. Lex bin L., an ideological and religious foe of Hussein, probably had a good sense of what would happen when the artificial cohesion of Saddam's tyrannical rule was loosened; namely, exactly what we're seeing today, where the Iraqis are waging civil war and killing each other in carload lots, along with smaller numbers of American soldiers and international journalists. Osama knew about sectarian rivalries in the House of Islam, not always a perfect Dar es Salaam.

Could Lexama have seen all the way to the ascendancy of a Shiite government pulled gravitationally toward Shiite Iran, the strengthening of Hezbollah by its ties to Iran, the alawi Shia in Syria, and the new Shia government in Iraq, and the ensuing difficulites with Israel and the cascading difficulties for the United States in attempting to cope with a disintegrating Middle East? All as the result of 9-11 and of a hamfisted, unlettered response to a terrorist attack by a President in way over his mediocre head? Is this why bin Luthor would have timed his 2004 video to aid the Cowboy of Steel in his neck-and-neck struggle with another yutz, John Kerry?

If all that's true, bin Laden is a helluva chess player, and probably clever beyond the imagination of even Jerry Siegel. I think our modern day Lex has been pleasantly surprised by the fortuitous cooperation he has received from MediocreMan. To bring the world close to a Clash of Civilizations 5 years after hijacking 4 American airliners and committing what was, at bottom, simply a stateless, criminal act, exceeded even the arch-villain's fondest, perfervid fantasies. It is as if all bin Laden did was to pull the plunger on a pinball machine. The ensuing lights, bells, crashes, caroms and mounting death toll -- someone else did all that for him.

July 23, 2006

Bush as Rocket Scientist

Watching a recent panel discussion among New York Times columnists via the Web, I saw the execrable David Brooks huffing and puffing about his intimate access to the "inner circle" of the Bush Administration, much to the annoyance and disdain of Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich, the other two panelists. I don't usually say much about the personal appearance of other people, reasoning that we all have our crosses to bear, but there was something disgusting about the pudgy little Mr. Brooks sitting there in his tan suit with black shoes, grinning his smug little snaggle-tooth smile, his white sidewall haircut -- all of which must make the Bushies, with their rough frat boy humor, viciously savage him when he's not around.

But he does seem to be around. He carries the BushCo's water at the Old Gray Lady, writing irritatingly "evenhanded" columns that nevertheless wind up as full-throated defenses of every Bush insanity that comes at us with sickening regularity, and they have rewarded him by making him seem like a "serious" journalist with the inside scoop, and he's not going to give that up. He attempts to take the "social sciences" seriously, arguing with a "rigor" usually reserved for physics and mathematics (so he may think), but one thing I've noticed is that his columns are so incoherent, the arguments so diffuse, that you can read one sentence at a time and realize, as you go, that none of the sentences adheres to the one before or just after it. It is simply a series of ponderous, not to say sententious, declarations about....something. Iraq, or the tendency of Mexican illegal immigrants to buy children's furniture in greater abundance than Anglos (an actual example), and none of it ever leads anywhere. One is reminded of the great exchange between Sir Thomas More and Richard in "A Man for All Seasons." "More: It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world ... but for Wales, Richard?" For the sake of his little nook at the NY Times, his piece of Wales, Brooks has bartered his soul, and the withering disdain of Maureen Dowd, as she listened to Brooks tell his little story about going to a U-2 concert with someone on the Bush staff (Maureen looked as if she'd just swallowed a bad oyster), told me she shares this Faustian view.

But that's not really the point of this post. Brooks, as such, isn't interesting enough. He's another hack doing Bush's dirty work. The panel at one point turned its focus on Bush's intelligence. They all agreed he's actually smarter than he often appears in public. Thank God for that. What if he were actually stupider? Brooks, in his rigorous, quantifying way, said that Bush in private was about "20 points" smarter than he seems in public.

The natural question thus arises (although not addressed by the panel): What is y, where y = x + 20? I put the matter algebraically to show Brooks I'm a real numbers man myself. I also know you can't solve that equation without positing a value for x. So I'll posit one. In public, Bush comes off as a guy with an IQ of about 100, the center of the bell curve distribution. Some learned analysts who have attempted to estimate the IQs of U.S. Presidents have considered the syntax used, the papers written and published, and other (admittedly subjective) criteria to place the Presidents on some sort of continuum, and have ranged the IQs from the really smart (Nixon, Carter, Clinton) to the fairly smart (Kennedy, Johnson) to the not very smart at all (Bush the Elder, Reagan). Bringing up the rear in this analysis was L'il Georgie, who was pegged at 97, not flattering at all. But perhaps the data were forced? And anyway, George Junior has never published anything, probably including blue book exams at Yale and Harvard.

So I'll give Bush 3 points more and then agree that he's got an IQ in the range of 117 to 120, giving the serious cognitive metrics guys their due. I also think this comports with results he apparently achieved on the SAT and Texas Air Guard tests, and is also consistent with the tougher Law School Aptitude Test (LSAT) his score on which has perhaps understandably been kept confidential, since he failed to get into the University of Texas Law School despite his father's ownership of the state. A guy like Clinton, on the other hand, with a nice, normal Southern White Trash upbringing (about which I personally know quite a bit - not his, mine) got into Yale undergraduate and Georgetown Law all on his own merits. I just threw that in.

So Bush isn't dumb. He's somewhat above average. That's what he hates about himself, and why he's so pretentious, arrogant and delusional. He needs to believe, against all evidence, that he's actually brilliant, but in some iconoclastic, ethereal way that maybe only he understands. The thing is, he's not. He is somewhat better than a mediocrity. The question thus settled then leads to another one: is somewhat better than a mediocrity actually good enough to be President of the United States?

We might compare it to other fields, such as brain surgery, rocket science or law. If you needed difficult neurosurgery, say removal of a tiny tumor on the pituitary gland requiring entry through the nose and impinging dangerously on the optic nerves, would you be content with a neurosurgeon who told you his IQ was 117, that he'd graduated near the bottom of his class in med school, and spent the first 40 years of his life drinking? Inhale that anesthesia? How about if you were an astronaut sitting atop a Saturn rocket and the director of mission control was someone who had (in some nepotistic way) achieved a PhD in astrophysics, but whose IQ was 120? Count down to zero? You're on trial for a capital offense (killing a blastocyst with a .45, e.g.), and your lawyer tells you he graduated in the bottom 3rd of the class, he has an IQ of 118, but don't worry, we'll get through this thing? Sign the retainer?

The answers are likely to be (1) no, (2) all systems no go, and (3) you're fucking kidding me, right? A rational response in each instance. And why? Because these pros just aren't smart enough for what's involved, that's why. They're not fixing a faulty flush mechanism on your toilet, they're dealing with your survival. Suppose something goes wrong during the procedure, the orbit, the trial? You want someone who can improvise, think outside the box, come up with something quick that works. You want someone really, really smart, don't you. Otherwise, supposing this man is President, the second plane could hit the second tower, and he just sits there, stupefied, without a clue as to how to react. If you began to bleed profusely during your brain surgery, you don't want the neurosurgeon to grab his copy of "My Pet Goat" while he tries to figure out how to stop your imminent exsanguination. If the heat shield burns off your reentry vehicle, you don't want some clown who screams "bring it on" to your spacecraft as you atomize on hitting the atmosphere. If the prosecution elicits surprise testimony during your penalty phase, you don't want your lawyer to start complaining about what "hard work" being an attorney is.

Bush is a so-so guy trying to hold down a job that is one of the most complex and demanding in the world. The results are predictable. Everyone can see it. Thanks, Mr. Brooks, for providing a starting point, and have fun in Wales.