Are Our Leaders Really Incompetent ... Or Just Pretending?

Washington's Blog

People want to assume that when someone in power messes up - especially someone who appears incompetent - it was just a mistake.

For example, folks can't believe that an incompetent president could carry out scoundrelly deeds.

But as I wrote 5 years ago:

As noted social historian and author Michael Parenti writes:

"Generally, US foreign policy is remarkably consistent and cohesive, a deadly success, given the interests it represents. Those who see it as repeatedly befuddled are themselves revealing their own befuddlement.

Sometimes the policymakers themselves seize upon incompetence as a cover. [For example, when the Iran-Contra affair was discovered, President Reagan pleaded incompetence.] His admission of incompetence was eagerly embraced by various analysts and pundits who prefer to see their leaders as suffering from innocent ignorance rather than deliberate deception. Subsequent testimony by his subordinates, however, revealed that Reagan was not as dumb as he was pretending to be, and that he had played an active and deciding role in the entire Iran-contra affair.


No less a political personage than Henry Kissinger repeatedly pretended to innocent ignorance and incompetence when confronted with the dirty role he and his cohorts played . . . ."
This strategy of "playing dumb" and acting incompetent has, in fact, long been employed by leaders on both the left and the right. Many liberals and old fashioned conservatives have been suckered by this dumb and dumber act.


Let's take a look at the actual history of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld for insight into whether they are incompetent leaders.

After Bush lost his bid for congress because he was perceived as an over-educated, "spoiled rich kid from back East", he cultivated a bumbling, "good old boy" image, and then started winning his political elections. That's right: Bush actually cultivated a bumbling, misspeaking mannerism.

Moreover, President Bush proposed painting a U.S. surveillance plane in the colors of the United Nations in hopes of drawing fire from Iraqi military, as a way to justify war against Iraq. Is this the kind of proposal that someone who is incompetent would make, or is it the kind of thing a conscious deceiver would suggest?

Rumsfeld and Cheney are also long-time experts at using deception to justify their military and political goals. They were, in fact, the folks who intentionally hyped the Soviet threat during the Cold War so that the defense contractors would make a killing and the U.S. would have a suitably scary "bad guy" to rally against (see this article). These guys, like other neocons, are students of Machiavelli.

Remember how the TV character Detective Columbo pretended he was bumbling and dumb, so that people would underestimate him? Or remember the TV show Matlock, where Andy Griffith pretended to be a slow-witted country lawyer in order to put people off their guard?

I would argue that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld have also used this same trick: playing dumb.

Prominent liberal figures and 0ld-fashioned conservatives have tried to warn others of the ploy. For example, liberal guru George Lakoff wrote an article in 2006 called "Bush Is Not Incompetent" which demonstrates that the Bush administration has been incredibly successful in implementing its agenda (the article is well worth reading for its evidence that Bush is not incompetent; however, I believe Lakoff confuses neoconservatism with true conservatism).

Similarly, in an article entitled "Bush Didn’t Bungle Iraq, You Fools", veteran investigative reporter Greg Palast says that the administration got exactly what it wanted from the Iraqi war. And popular liberal writer William Pitt says "the 'incompetence' thing is nonsense . . . Can anyone still think this was all by accident?". Pitt recognizes that the White House, rather than being incompetent, has gotten exactly what they wanted all along -- to invade Iraq, get a foothold in the Middle East and to get control of the oil.

Indeed, the neocons have openly advocated civil war and instability in Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries as a long-range strategic plan.

I noted last year:

Countries need to lie about their enemies in order to demonize them sufficiently so that the people will support the war.

That is why intelligence "failures" - such as the following - are so common:
  • It is also now well-accepted that the Gulf of Tonkin Incident which led to the Vietnam war was a fiction (confirmed here).


Obama's Economic Incompetence

Obama - like Bush before him - also appears to be totally incompetent with regard to the economy. He hasn't been able to rein in the giant banks or significantly lower unemployment. Obama is following disproven models, and has appointed economists who either helped cause the crisis in the first place, or who have drunk the kool-aid of failed economic theory.

But Obama has actually been serving "his constituency": Goldman Sachs and the other Wall Street giants which funded his campaign.

And as I pointed out last year, top economists running the Fed and advising Obama don't miss the dangers to the economy due to negligence, but because they are rewarded for doing so:

Most economists don't exercise any independent thinking because economists are trained to ignore reality:

As I have repeatedly noted, mainstream economists and financial advisors have been using faulty and unrealistic models for years. See this, this, this, this, this and this.

And I have pointed out numerous times that economists and advisors have a financial incentive to use faulty models. For example, I pointed out last month:

The decision to use faulty models was an economic and political choice, because it benefited the economists and those who hired them.

For example, the elites get wealthy during booms and they get wealthy during busts. Therefore, the boom-and-bust cycle benefits them enormously, as they can trade both ways.

Specifically, as Simon Johnson, William K. Black and others point out, the big boys make bucketloads of money during the booms using fraudulent schemes and knowing that many borrowers will default. Then, during the bust, they know the government will bail them out, and they will be able to buy up competitors for cheap and consolidate power. They may also bet against the same products they are selling during the boom (more here), knowing that they'll make a killing when it busts.

But economists have pretended there is no such thing as a bubble. Indeed, BIS slammed the Fed and other central banks for blowing bubbles and then using "gimmicks and palliatives" afterwards.

It is not like economists weren't warning about booms and busts. Nobel prize winner Hayek and others were, but were ignored because it was "inconvenient" to discuss this "impolite" issue.

Likewise, the entire Federal Reserve model is faulty, benefiting the banks themselves but not the public.

However, as Huffington Post notes:

The Federal Reserve, through its extensive network of consultants, visiting scholars, alumni and staff economists, so thoroughly dominates the field of economics that real criticism of the central bank has become a career liability for members of the profession, an investigation by the Huffington Post has found.

This dominance helps explain how, even after the Fed failed to foresee the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression, the central bank has largely escaped criticism from academic economists. In the Fed's thrall, the economists missed it, too.

"The Fed has a lock on the economics world," says Joshua Rosner, a Wall Street analyst who correctly called the meltdown. "There is no room for other views, which I guess is why economists got it so wrong."

The problems of a massive debt overhang were also thoroughly documented by Minsky, but mainstream economists pretended that debt doesn't matter.

And - even now - mainstream economists are STILL willfully ignoring things like massive leverage, hoping that the economy can be pumped back up to super-leveraged house-of-cards levels.

As the Wall Street Journal article notes:
As they did in the two revolutions in economic thought of the past century, economists are rediscovering relevant work.
It is only "rediscovered" because it was out of favor, and it was only out of favor because it was seen as unnecessarily crimping profits by, for example, arguing for more moderation during boom times.

The powers-that-be do not like economists who say "Boys, if you don't slow down, that bubble is going to get too big and pop right in your face". They don't want to hear that they can't make endless money using crazy levels of leverage and 30-to-1 levels of fractional reserve banking, and credit derivatives. And of course, they don't want to hear that the Federal Reserve is a big part of the problem.

Indeed, the Journal and the economists it quotes seem to be in no hurry whatsoever to change things:
The quest is bringing financial economists -- long viewed by some as a curiosity mostly relevant to Wall Street -- together with macroeconomists. Some believe a viable solution will emerge within a couple of years; others say it could take decades.

Saturday, PhD economist Michael Hudson made the same point:

I think that the question that needs to be asked is how the discipline was untracked and trivialized from its classical flowering? How did it become marginalized and trivialized, taking for granted the social structures and dynamics that should be the substance and focal point of its analysis?...

To answer this question, my book describes the "intellectual engineering" that has turned the economics discipline into a public relations exercise for the rentier classes criticized by the classical economists: landlords, bankers and monopolists. It was largely to counter criticisms of their unearned income and wealth, after all, that the post-classical reaction aimed to limit the conceptual "toolbox" of economists to become so unrealistic, narrow-minded and self-serving to the status quo. It has ended up as an intellectual ploy to distract attention away from the financial and property dynamics that are polarizing our world between debtors and creditors, property owners and renters, while steering politics from democracy to oligarchy...

[As one Nobel prize winning economist stated,] "In pointing out the consequences of a set of abstract assumptions, one need not be committed unduly as to the relation between reality and these assumptions."
This attitude did not deter him from drawing policy conclusions affecting the material world in which real people live. These conclusions are diametrically opposed to the empirically successful protectionism by which Britain, the United States and Germany rose to industrial supremacy.

Typical of this now widespread attitude is the textbook Microeconomics by William Vickery, winner of the 1997 Nobel Economics Prize:
"Economic theory proper, indeed, is nothing more than a system of logical relations between certain sets of assumptions and the conclusions derived from them... The validity of a theory proper does not depend on the correspondence or lack of it between the assumptions of the theory or its conclusions and observations in the real world. A theory as an internally consistent system is valid if the conclusions follow logically from its premises, and the fact that neither the premises nor the conclusions correspond to reality may show that the theory is not very useful, but does not invalidate it. In any pure theory, all propositions are essentially tautological, in the sense that the results are implicit in the assumptions made."
Such disdain for empirical verification is not found in the physical sciences. Its popularity in the social sciences is sponsored by vested interests. There is always self-interest behind methodological madness. That is because success requires heavy subsidies from special interests, who benefit from an erroneous, misleading or deceptive economic logic. Why promote unrealistic abstractions, after all, if not to distract attention from reforms aimed at creating rules that oblige people actually to earn their income rather than simply extracting it from the rest of the economy?


Not only have our government "leaders" in the Fed, Treasury, Congress and White House ignored the real world, they have taunted it - like monkeys who pull the tail of the lion and then are surprised when the lion attacks:

They have:

  • Given trillions in bailout or other emergency funds to private companies, but then refusing to disclose to either the media, the American people or even Congress where the money went
  • Failed to take any meaningful steps to stabilize - let alone fix - the economy (see this and this)

These aren't the only areas where the "incompetence" card was played.

Cenk Uygur pointed out:

The New York Times reported ... that we sent in 36 U.S. Special Forces troops to get Osama bin Laden when we knew he was in Tora Bora. By contrast, we sent nearly 150,000 soldiers to get Saddam Hussein. In case you're keeping count at home, we got Saddam and we didn't get Osama. What does that tell you about this administration’s priorities? This goes beyond incompetence. If you send only 36 soldiers to get somebody in the middle of Afghanistan, it means you don’t want to get him...

Osama had about 1,500-2,000 well-armed, well-trained men in the region. 36 guys to get 2,000? Why would we let ourselves be outgunned like that?...

There is an inescapable fact – if you put this little effort into capturing someone, it means you don’t want to capture him.


If people inside the administration actually held back from capturing Osama bin Laden when we had him cornered, it borders on treason.

And former Federal Prosecutor, Office of Special Investigations, U.S. Department of Justice under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan; former U.S. Army Intelligence officer, and currently a widely-sought media commentator on terrorism and intelligence services (John Loftus) says:

The information provided by European intelligence services prior to 9/11 was so extensive that it is no longer possible for either the CIA or FBI to assert a defense of incompetence.

Postscript: If you still don't believe a bumbler like Bush could have really been a rascal, remember that Colin Powell's Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson said:

The vice president and the secretary of defense created a "Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal" that hijacked U.S. foreign policy.

(Just like they've hijacked foreign policy in the U.S. for nearly 40 years.)

if you think Obama is incompetent in fixing the economy and reining in Wall Street, remember that Harold Bradley - who oversees almost $2 billion in assets as chief investment officer at the Kauffman Foundation - said:

“We are in a cabal... five or six players ... own the regulatory apparatus. everybody is afraid to regulate them" 

Remember Richard Clarke?

As recently pointed out on Media Roots Radio, Richard Clarke's famous "I failed you" speech set the stage for the incompetence theory with regards to the 9/11 crimes.

I gain a lot from reading Washington's Blog

Orangutan, Thanks for all these postings.

Propaganda designed for the left

The "incompetence" meme is constantly hammer in by leftist "thinkers". I think this "government incompetence" idea might very well be a sophisticated and at some level deliberate piece of propaganda designed for the left. It's very clever since even well-meaning people seems to be fond of repeating it ad nauseam and thereby destroying any possibility for rational discourse. Like the sheep in Animals Farm. It downplays accountability, calms dissent and makes the people saying it feel clever and on top of thinigs.

With Obama the "incompetence" label does not really fit with his "Hopium Brand" and we are fed with a slightly different version "Obama has his hands tied". To me this is yet another form of the same idea.

Related to this is of course the often repeated argument that the government is simply too incompetent to be able to keep the 911 conspiracy secret. It is very remarkable that even top left thinkers use such an argument. For just a little thought reveals how vague the statement is. What do we exactly mean by government here? Does it include the military, for example, which routinely carries out large operations in secret?

Daniel Ellsberg and others on secrecy...

See this and consider spreading it around when that topic comes up:

I don't think

they are incompetent. I think they are just flat-out evil.

All of their

goals, as desired in advance, came true, there is no room for incompetence. It's a brilliant fraud to hide that fact.

Lee Hamilton - He knows how to "play dumb"

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to see Lee Hamilton in Texas (a forum on Immigration in which he advocated bringing into the United States more foreigners with high professional training / skills).

Lee Hamilton could turn "on" and "off" being dumb, being a dullard, being mentally slow.
In some conversations, he appeared almost incompetent. However, when he had the platform of the panel discussion, his communication skills and acumen was stellar.
I realized at that point that he is an expert in utilizing the "dullard ruse". This is probably why he has held so many high-profile, government positions.

great comments from all here ...

I agree - this "incompetence" meme has been played to full effect - and works with a more sophisticated 'left' audience.

It's worked with non-American audiences too - ie. "Those Americans are so incompetent at everything they do, they could never have pulled off 911". "These Yanks can't get anything together. NORAD and air defence and FBI and Pentagon were also incompetent and bumbling - which ALLOWED the 911 event to happen" and so on....

In fact, Americans are smart. The Pentagon is the most richly resourced military on the planet - funded to the tune of billions - which helps it maintain state-of-the-art equipment. US Air defence has a proud record. I'm not saying human error and some bureaucratic bungling occurs - as it occurs anywhere in the world - but the flat-out "incompetence" theory never rang true.

Stellar acumen and well-resourced professionals and researchers behind the scenes - the goofy, know-nothing spokesman up front. G W Bush was a prime example. Cui bono?

Now with Obama, the message has been fine-tuned. Obama is the all-rounder nice guy with star quality. The poor guy is unfairly criticised by 'crazies' (birthers). The poor guy is trying his best but his hands are tied. Just have patience, people... okay he hasn't kept half his promises (Guantanamo, reigning in Wall Street etc) but his heart is in the right place.. etc.

Why is it that many of the same kind of people

Why is it that many of the same kind of people we are discussing here didn't seem to have a problem when Hillary Clinton spoke of a 'vast, right-wing conspiracy' against her husband?

And why, in 2001 (prior to 9/11), while they were looking down (waaaaaaaay down!) on the new occupant of the White House, and talking about how dumb he and his administration were, didn't it occur to such people to ask: Wait a minute--if we're so much smarter than they are, how come they got into the White House even after losing the election? (And I don't just mean the popular vote.)

A sense of intellectual superiority vis a vis Republicans seems to be so crucial to the psyche of American liberals--like a kind of crutch they're terrified of losing.* Birthers, tea-partiers, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, just seem made to order for them, while they go on missing the larger picture.

*I suppose to be fair, we might also note a parallel attitude among Americans who identify themselves as conservative or right-wing, where, by contrast, the pride isn't expressed so much in terms of intellect rather than of supposedly being more practical, and in touch with 'the real world' than liberals are (and, of course, 'more-patriotic-than-thou' as well.)