Post 9/11’s Hobson’s Choice


I normally do not address anything 9/11 related on this day. I said my piece on it the day after, and prefer to leave it at that.

However, something I read yesterday struck a chord with me. The notoriously right wing Op-Ed pages of the WSJ has one of the most intriguing commentaries on this political race I have ever read. It is by Mark Helprin, a contributing editor at Wall Street Journal.

I approach anything on that page with a presumption that it will be coming from the far right wing of the political spectrum. That, in and of itself, does not make it wrong. Many of history’s most respected and intellectually rigorous thinkers were conservatives. Do not allow the present crew of charlatans and prevaricators to bias you against intelligent rhetoric, regardless of origin.

My own viewpoint tends towards the pragmatic. I prefer not to think in terms of left or right, but rather in the language of execution: competance versus incompetance, intelligent versus foolish. This leads me to hold some rather unusual viewpoints: I would much rather see a policy whose goals I disagree with — excepting extremes — executed competently, than have something I am in favor of hamhandedly mismanaged. Poor execution of a favorable goal actually does far far more damage than the crisp, well-executed policies I may be against, be they smartly done.

One need think no further than Iraq to understand this concept.

Which leads me to Helprin’s editorial: Competance is the key theme underlying his worldview. He writes of how unprepared we were for 9/11, despite the myriad warnings ignored by 4 Presidents. Even worse, three years after 9/11, he is essentially dumfounded that we have done nothing — or worse — to prepare for the next assault, all but guaranteed to be coming our way.

Finally, he finds the incompetance demonstrated by the present Commander-in-Chief — “in appearance a denizen of the Pleistocene, who recites slogans that he believes but does not understand” — to be frightening. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, he remains astounded that the challenger cannot articulate a message of our horrific vulnerbility in terms that are clear and persuasive. Given the current adminisitration’s failure to take the appropriate steps to protect this nation, it is simply dumfounding that his opponent is so mute.

An incendiary excerpt — none too flatterring to either candidate — is below:

“Our strategy has been deeply inadequate especially in light of the fact that we have refused to build up our forces even as our aims have expanded to the point of absurdity. We might have based in northern Saudi Arabia within easy range of the key regimes that succor terrorism, free to coerce their cooperation by putting their survival in question. Our remounted infantry would have been refreshed, reinforced, properly supported, unaffected by insurgency, and ready to strike. The paradigm would have shifted from conquer, occupy, fail, and withdraw — to strike, return, and re-energize. At the same time, we would not have solicited challenges, as we do now, from anyone who sees that although we may be occupying Iraq, Iraq is also occupying us.

We have abstained from mounting an effective civil defense. Only a fraction of a fraction of our wealth would be required to control the borders of and entry to our sovereign territory, and not that much more to discover, produce, and stockpile effective immunizations, antidotes, and treatments in regard to biological and chemical warfare. Thirty years ago the entire country had been immunized against smallpox. Now, no one is, and the attempt to cover a minuscule part of the population failed miserably and was abandoned. Not only does this state of affairs leave us vulnerable to a smallpox epidemic, it stimulates the terrorists to bring one about. So with civil aviation, which, despite the wreckage and tragedy of September 11, is protected in an inefficient, irresponsible, and desultory fashion.

The incumbent’s record has been cast in stone. As we saw at the RNC, it was not trumpeted as proof of successful stewardship of the nation. It comes as no surprise the incumbent is running away from it.

Over the next 50 days, the rehetoric of the challenger can still be sharpened, refined, articulated. However, if he allows the President to define him, to set the agenda for discussion, to dictate the terms of the debate, then, he loses.

Here’s an additional excerpt:

We have watched the division of the country into two ineffective camps, something that is especially apparent in an electoral season. On the one hand is John Kerry, a humorless Boston scold, in appearance the love child of Abraham Lincoln and Bette Midler, who recites slogans that he understands but does not believe. And on the other is the president, proud of his aversion to making an argument for his own case, in appearance a denizen of the Pleistocene, who recites slogans that he believes but does not understand.

At this point the American people, who most of the time are wiser than the experts or politicians who briefly take the helm, may already have decided to reinstall the president despite his shortcomings. If this is so, it is because Sen. Kerry’s main motive power has come from those who are foolish enough to exult in the crude and baseless propaganda of a freakish Leni Riefenstahl wannabe (too heavy), and because, in what may have been his campaign’s defining moment, Sen. Kerry stated that he learned a long time ago that when under attack you turn your boat toward the enemy. And yet it is clear from his record, his character, and his present policy that this is precisely what he would not do. Nor, though it is exactly what the country should do, is it at all what his most enthusiastic partisans or the base of the Democratic Party would want him to do.

He and they have adopted simultaneously two opposing propositions and embraced two opposing tendencies, which they then present to the electorate as if there is no contradiction. They do not feel acutely, as others do, the dissonance of their positions, because they truly believe in only the less martial of the two.

Although they cannot state why the American, British, Spanish, and Australian invasion of Iraq was any more or less unilateral or multilateral than France, Germany, and Belgium working to derail that invasion, or deny that they admire Britain for standing alone, unilaterally, in 1940, or that the multilateral Axis invasion of Greece was wrong, or that they themselves urge unilateral American action to stop genocide in Africa, they use these words fervently and without logic. They may believe that this is their subtlety, but it is nothing more than confusion and a stylish capitulation to the French, who unfortunately are perfectly willing to capitulate to Islamic terrorism as long as France has purchased its own safety, as of old.

Given the lack of movement in the war and poverty of choice in leadership, Americans looked to a commission. Like the senescent Ottomans we waited and waited as the seasons passed, and were presented neither with swelling armies, well defended borders, nor a string of victories. Although the bravest commissioners of said commission fought to tell us that we are indeed in a clash of civilizations, even they, appointed by their respective parties, did not state the simple unvarnished truth that for 20 years administrations both Republican and Democratic have ignored or misread the evidence concerning terrorism and must be judged negligent and culpable.

The president could have said this, and in doing so clarified the course ahead and won the trust of the people. The commission could have said it simply and directly, but did not. Instead, it offered the labored and nearly impertinent conclusion that the way to prevail in this war is to rearrange the organizational table of the intelligence agencies. Many of its reforms are questionable on their face, most would have merely a neutral effect on the substance of intelligence, and the emphasis is mistaken. Like those who want to fight the war by funding fire departments — knife attacks are not defeated by bandages, and the Battle of Britain was not won by the London Fire Brigades — the commission looked upon one aspect as if it were the essential element, which it is not.”

Go read the entire piece. Then wonder what your country may look like in 10 years . . .

Three Years On
By Mark Helprin
Wall Street Journal, September 10, 2004; Page A12,,SB109477485052714314,00.html

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  1. cheaptalk commented on Sep 13

    One more excerpt from Helprin paints him as the ultimate non-pragmatist:

    “[S]o many Americans do not yet feel, as some day they may, the gravity of what we are facing.”

    In other words, facts must precede feelings which must precede action.


    The problem with this extremely well disguised right wing propaganda (and don’t for a minute think that anything else could possible appear on the WSJ’s op-ed page, except as comic relief), is that by dressing up his opinions in first person plural, Helprin means to shame us into action. If he truly believed he was one of us and not one of the wisdom blessed, he wouldn’t equate the factual case he makes of the current Administration’s failures and the hypothetical case he posits for a Kerry Administration’s failures.

    Regardless of the “truth” of Helprin’s claim that a Kerry Administration wouldn’t believe in a pragmatic approach to threats, if they were elected on that basis, they could be forced to act as if they believed in pragmatism, in the same way Clinton (about whom I’m sure Helprin also harbored doubts) was forced to adopt all sorts of policies abhorrent to his left wing.

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