Talking About Nothing

To say that politics makes people stupid may be painting with too broad a brush, although there’s plenty of evidence of politically induced stupidity committed by people who really ought to know better. I have sometimes posited that going into government at almost any level automatically causes one to lose 50 IQ points. The first example in my lifetime to draw me toward this conclusion was Herb Stein, father of our gone-Hollywood friend Ben. Herb was a reasonably sound economist before and after he served in the Nixon administration, but during his tenure in government he found himself having to make statements that made it sound not so much as if he had failed Econ 101, but that he had never taken the course.

He was hardly alone in this respect. Similar examples abound, on all sides of the political spectrum or graph or whatever imperfect method we might find of locating political tendencies. Think of the older William Simon or Clinton Treasury Secretary Larry Summers.

To whatever extent politics tends to make people stupid, however, there is little doubt that the tendency is exaggerated during election years. To put it as mildly as possible, elections tend to bring out whatever latent stupidity candidates and their supporters may harbor, or they induce people to say stupid and simplistic things in the belief that voters respond only to the stupid and simplistic.

What inspires such a dire reflection this time around is the increasingly shrill and pointless debate over whether likely Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama will or should go on what some call a freshman tour of egregious dictators, talking simply for the sake of talking, just to show them that he’s not Bush. The discussion doesn’t reflect well on either side.

He probably should have said something like "I probably didn’t put that very well. Of course there would have to be lower-level diplomatic preparations and the prospect of something constructive coming out of it." But American politicians these days, whether they think the voters will punish them or because they have bought into the ridiculous image of the all-wise, infallible president, seem to have forgotten how to admit minor errors.

He’s tried to add some nuance to his position, but it’s done little good. From what we hear on the campaign trail, and in Israel, where President Bush said that anyone who negotiates with "terrorists and radicals" is falling for the "false comfort of appeasement," jumping immediately to the old Chamberlain-Hitler example, you would think there are only two possible approaches: that the U.S. will never-never-never talk to dictators or terrorist leaders because to do so would "elevate them to our level" and reward them for bad behavior, or that the U.S. president should talk directly with everyone, starting with the worst of the bad actors, because talking is inherently good.

Neither of these positions is the least bit sensible, nor is it likely any president would embrace either. The Bush administration, for all its posturing to the effect that even talking sends an image weakness, has undertaken extensive talks and made agreements with North Korea – to the dismay of more than a few of its erstwhile supporters – one of the original reputed members of the "axis of evil" and a decidedly reprehensible regime. It has had both open talks and back-channel communications with Iran. It conducted quiet talks with Libya when it was officially a terrorist regime that resulted in Libya giving up, apparently credibly, its quest for nuclear weapons. I would be surprised and perhaps mildly appalled if it didn’t turn out to have at least some indirect ways of communicating with Hamas and Hezbollah.

On the other side of the rhetorical impasse, if Mr. Obama were elected president, he would be both constrained and facilitated by the permanent bureaucracy, in ways that would make it highly unlikely that he would just hop on a plane to Tehran without considerable preliminary negotiations, which might well preclude direct president-to-president talks. Some of his efforts at nuance – saying he would have to be assured there would be no Iranian nukes before he would break pita with them – are clearly acknowledgments of this.

It turns out there could well be little difference on this issue between an Obama administration and the Bush administration, or even a likely McCain administration (or an unlikely Clinton administration). All would employ different rhetoric, have slightly different priorities, and use different methods of operation internationally. But all would have some kind of communication with regimes they consider hostile to the United States. All would likely do extensive, quiet background work before authorizing even lower-level direct talks, let alone anything at the president-to-president level.

It’s also unlikely that either of the Democrats would do anything as interesting as challenging by action the current policy of refusing to grant diplomatic recognition to countries viewed as reprehensible. There’s a solid argument that this policy deprives the U.S. of potentially valuable knowledge about actual or potential adversaries with which we are not in a condition of open declared war, both through the embassy employees, who would really be spies, and the normal contact with a regime that aboveboard diplomats would have. This would reduce the likelihood of stumbling into open conflict through misunderstanding – but could also provide early warning of times when a regime might be moving into or trying to provoke more genuinely threatening hostility.

But seeing diplomatic recognition as a reward for good behavior, however inconsistently – does anyone believe Burma/Myanmar, where we have diplomats, is less repressive that Iran, where we don’t? – has become such a habit in American’s practice of international relations that "serious" candidates don’t even think of challenging it.

It’s likely that all the candidates, and perhaps even the current president, know much of this perfectly well. But during elections the impulse is to invent or amplify differences in the starkest black-and-white terms, often enough in terms that poll well among the most ignorant or inattentive portions of the electorate, whether those are "base" voters for one party or another or the coveted, perhaps mythical, "independent" voters.

So whether they think voters are stupid or they simply want to energize their bases, both parties are likely to perpetuate and magnify such beside-the-point "issues" in the most simplistic ways.

Read more by Alan Bock

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000).

Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).