Monday, 31 January 2011

Schoolboy Errors

No-one needs me to tell them that the situation in Egypt is complicated and potentially disastrous. I don't know nearly enough about the current state of play or the history of the area to offer any kind of intelligent or coherent thoughts on the matter.

Having said all that, and recognising that it would be both distasteful and unwise to attempt to use Egypt as a political football, Maha's post on Republican reaction did get me thinking once again about their rhetorical strategies.
As Egypt continues to unravel, some rightie bloggers have seized a story at Huffington Post to bash the Obama Administration. The article says that in 2009 the Obama Administration deeply cut money for programs designed to promote democracy in Egypt, partly at the urging of the embassy in Cairo.

Now, in retrospect, the White House might deeply regret that decision. But, y’know, that’s how it is with cutting government programs. It isn’t painless.

Sen. Rand Paul last week (before Egypt began to unravel) was marching around boldly declaring that all foreign aid should be cut, which would include what’s left of the programs to promote democracy. And, y’know, in their speeches Republicans are gung-ho for cutting just about all government spending that’s not attached to a defense contract. 
 I wouldn't want to go too far down the Republican hypocrisy route on this occasion: it might be their defining feature, but having some of them calling for spending cuts whilst others (bloggers, no less) criticise the results of those cuts isn't hypocrisy a priori.

Having said that, if this does get picked up by the GOP establishment - and I'd be surprised if it doesn't, since a) "Obama is losing us Egypt" is already the party line and b) it's not like logic or shame has ever stopped these people before - it arguably won't be their demands for cuts across the board that will make them hypocritical.  That's mainly just incoherence.

What will make them hypocrites is their own former responses to things that went south after they tried/managed to cut the safeguards that were supposed to help.  Remember Bobby Jindal mocking the idea that the US needed volcano monitors in the official SOTU rebuttal? Just before Mt. Redoubt erupted? Awkward.

Of course, there were ways to walk that back. "We believe that monitoring Mt. Redoubt and other active volcanoes can be done at less expense without sacrificing efficiency" would be one option. "No-one is saying volcanoes aren't dangerous, merely that we have finite resources and more commonplace threats" would be another.  Neither response is entirely without its problems; the second in particular doesn't really work with an eruption fresh in the public memory, even if it might actually have some validity in terms of risk theory [1]. You could still spin them, though.

What did the Republicans settle on, though? "We didn't know a volcano was going to erupt!" Get off our backs, man!  How were we to know shit would go down?  You can't predict this stuff!

The Republican response to their refusal to imagine anything but the best-case scenario for any policy change they suggest, and their petulant refusal to accept criticism when they are proven wrong, reminds me of story a colleague told me back when I was teaching. He taught chemistry, and was running an experiment in which his Y10 students (fourteen or fifteen years old) were heating various mixtures and measuring the resulting temperature changes.

Obviously, my colleague -who we shall call Bob - had reminded the class that they were not to stick their glass thermometers directly into the Bunsen burner flames, because that would be dangerous.  As will surprise no-one who has taught in - or indeed been to - a school, one bright spark decided to do exactly what he'd been warned against, presumably grinning inanely and drooling with excitement right up until the thermometer exploded.

Bob was furious, and demanded to know in no uncertain terms what his leprous arse of a pupil thought he was doing.

"It's your fault!" the scumbag retorted.

"My fault?" Bob spluttered. "How can it be my fault?  I specifically told you not to stick the thermometer in the flames! I told you it was dangerous!"

"Yeah,", the kid said, "But you didn't tell me why."

This is the standard Republican position, of course.  Demand the ending of volcano monitoring - suggest the idea of monitoring volcanoes is laughable - and then argue they didn't know a volcano would erupt.  Launch a hideously protracted, blood-and-treasure sapping war for no good reason, and then pout and proclaim they had no idea a war could go wrong, or that Hussein could turn out to have been entirely without WMD.  Cut or remove programmes and safeguards designed to ameliorate the after-effects of a stock market crash, then whine piteously about how it looked like no stock crash could ever happen ever again.

If we assume for the sake of argument that what is happening in Egypt can be traced back to a budget cut somewhere (which I can't comment on, other than to say it sounds a bit like the standard US tendency to over-value their own importance), and moreover if we assume that the final result of this crisis is bad for the US (which may or may not be true), then I wouldn't have a problem with holding Obama's feet over the fire for it. But this latest round of belly-aching is just the latest example of what seems to be the universal rule of American politics: only the left should have to behave like adults.

[1] Of course, a sudden interest a sober-minded approach to risk assessment might be a bit hard to take from a party so hyperbolic in its reaction to any form of terrorist threat - unless it's white guys setting up the explosives. You won't hear them say shit about that.

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