Reagan’s Bind (again)

It is often the case in life that we find ourselves misled, thinking we know something we don't actually know. We may be misinformed, misled, deluded, ideologically blinded, confused by ambiguities or complexities — whatever the cause it happens to us all. It's part of what it means to be human.

We may act on this mistaken information, or we may pass it on to others. Later, we may have to face the consequences of our misguided actions and, when the truth arises, the consequences of having said things that weren't true. At that point, the question of intent becomes important.

"What you told me wasn't true," a friend will say. "Did you know that at the time?"

The friend wants to know about our intent: Were we lying to them? Or were we simply ourselves deceived? These seem to be our only options and neither is especially flattering. Yet the latter case — that we were simply misguided — is usually, and reasonably, considered a far less serious offense. We did not intend to deceive, so we are therefore "innocent." (That word here carries as well several of its lesser meanings and connotations — naive, gullible, credulous.)

In some cases, however, intent is less significant. If the consequences of our misguided actions are particularly grave, or if our untrustworthy statements were of particular import, it may not matter to others whether we are guilty of — to use Jim Hoagland's terms from the post below — credulity or chicanery. Sometimes, as in the case of those possessing stolen property, ignorance is no excuse.

Let me provide a trivial example from my own sad history.

Years ago I was in the awkward situation of trying to choose a birthday present for someone I had been dating for about five months. Five months is a tricky gift-giving time — the potential for either over- or under-doing it looms large.

I decided to enlist the advice of my then-girlfriend's best friend and, after several hours wandering with her through the King of Prussia Mall, I settled on a gift about which the best friend had said — and here I'm quoting — "Ooh, this is perfect! She would love this!"

As it turns out, the best friend was disastrously wrong. The gift was, to put it mildly, not well received.

I attempted to plead innocent due to credulity, but found that simply being misguided, in this case, did not mitigate the offense. The stakes were apparently such that whether or not I was simply acting on flawed intelligence was to her irrelevant. Whether due to credulity or chicanery, she felt I was no longer fit for the office of boyfriend, a post from which I was summarily dismissed. (No regrets, it spared me from the impending doom of Christmas shopping.)

It seems to me that such a circumstance requires a term. I have come to call it "Reagan's Bind." I outlined this concept in an earlier post, but here let me clarify with greater precision what I mean by the term.

Reagan's Bind applies to a situation in which both of the following are true:

A. A person's statements or actions can be accounted for by one of two, and only two, options: 1) malicious intent, or 2) credulousness.

and

B. The statement or actions were such that either motive/cause — malice or credulity — is equally damning.

I will occasionally on this site point out situations in which I believe a person is entangled in Reagan's Bind. You're free to disagree, of course, but doing so does not require you to refute the concept itself, only to show that it does not apply because either "A" or "B" above is not the case in this particular situation.

My invocation of Reagan's Bind in this post produced a series of complex analogies from people who objected to what they saw as the categorical application of the term to every instance of a misguided action or a false statement. I don't think I implied such a categorical use, and I certainly did not intend to.

In most situations where "A" is the case — and, because we're all human, "A" is often the case — "B" is not. In such cases, credulity is preferable to chicanery, and Reagan's Bind cannot be said to apply.

Yet I think we can all agree that there are cases — both hypothetical analogies and real-world instances — in which credulity seems even worse than chicanery. There are cases in which it does not matter whether a person spoke or acted out of malice or out of ignorance — both are equally appalling.

To spare us all the convolutions and revisions of further hypothetical analogies, let us consider again the namesake incidence of Reagan's Bind:

The American people were shocked to be presented with hard evidence that members of the Reagan administration were not only "negotiating with terrorists," but actually selling them weapons. What's more, the proceeds were being used to fund other terrorists in a flagrant violation of U.S. law.

The president's options were binary. Either he knew about these arms sales — in which case he had violated the law and his oath and was therefore unfit for office; or else this massive operation was going on right under his nose at the White House but he was oblivious — in which case he was so astoundingly incompetent that he was probably still unfit for office.

Reagan pled incompetence, arguing essentially that he was an idiot, but not a crook. He had no idea this was going on in his White House, he testified. When others' testimony indicated that the president had, in fact, been informed of this operation, Reagan was forced to argue that he neither understood nor recalled what had been explained to him — that he was, in other words, not merely irresponsibly out of touch, but also incurious and dim.

Please note that I am not attacking the former president, merely repeating his own argument. He enthusiastically asserted his own befuddled incompetence, since doing so was his only remaining defense against the charge that he knowingly and illegally sold arms to terrorists in order to fund an illegal proxy war.

  • dre

    It became apparent that Nixon was finished when the comment “he was either responsible or irresponsible” began to be uttered by his erstwhile supporters.

  • twig

    I know this post is supposed to be about serious political spoo… but as a girl, I think it’s really, really wrong to dump a guy for present choices. I don’t care if you got her a jar full of donkey poo becuase you were told it would remind her of the Grand Canyon.
    I wouldn’t expect a guy to do more than say “Happy Birthday,” no matter how long we’d been together. Presents aren’t obligations.
    So yeah, sorry about that. Good thing about saving Christmas cash though.

  • oh

    Good work Fred (Slactivist). It’s a better summary than I’ve seen before. If clear testimony was produced showing that Reagan had been informed about, and should have understood, what was occurring in these transactions then I think his bind was just as vivid as that of President Clinton’s and there is every reason to believe that Reagan also lied in his denials of such knowledge.
    Your first assertion is that: A person’s statements or actions can be accounted for by one of two, and only two, options: 1) malicious intent, or 2) credulousness.
    You, and others, often seem to assert that Bush acted with in Iraq with malicious intent. Such is implied in the accusation “liar” or worse. This despite the fact that, at the moment, evidence for such an accusation is as absent as the WMD in Iraq (with the exception of Saddam himself).
    Since it cannot yet be proven that Bush acted maliciously many resort to accusations of credulousness or incompetence. Or they assert that this is one of the bind, “cases in which it does not matter whether a person spoke or acted out of malice or out of ignorance — both are equally appalling.”
    I believe that words such a “credulousness” or “ignorance” may be technically applicable to Bush in this case. The President asserted his belief in something that appears increasingly dubious. He was ignorant of the fact that when “most intelligence agencies believed Saddam Hussein had something” in the nature of WMD they were probably sharing false information.
    Slactivist asserts that such ignorance is a “damning” and “appalling” sign of “incompetence.” Such accusations are relative of course. We sympathize with Fred for his ignorance in trusting his then-girlfriend’s friend but the competence of his intelligence source (the friend) is called far more into question than his own competence. If Fred had been misled by consulting with 15 of her friends we would sympathize all the more with his plight and be incensed by the ignorance of her friends. While, even after 15 consultations, Fred may still have been technically ignorant of his then-girlfriend’s desires few would have suggested that Fred had shown appalling incompetence in his pursuit of a gift. Most would give Fred a break in recognition that, after that much effort, selecting the right gift would probably has required the capacity for reading his girlfriend’s mind or, better yet, omniscience.
    Many on this blog seem to embrace the then-girlfriend’s attitude that “whether or not [Bush] was simply acting on flawed intelligence was…irrelevant.” Personally I think it is the then-girlfriend that proves herself incompetent rather than Fred.
    Slacktivist appears to say that when Bush acted upon the conclusion that “most intelligence agencies believed Saddam Hussein had something” in the nature of WMD his decision-making was an act of incompetence. For a President not to consult with these intelligence agencies clearly would have been an act of great incompetence. For a President to contradict what “most intelligence agencies believed” would have required special knowledge – say a capacity for reading Saddam’s mind or, better yet, omniscience.
    If, at the end of the day, the criticism of Bush’s seemingly false conclusions about WMD in Iraq is designed to provoke recognition that Bush is not omniscient I’m perfectly ready to concede the case. However, if the only means by which to avoid the accusation of appalling incompetence is to employ omniscience I’m afraid we’ll spend the rest of our lives like Fred’s ex-girlfriend – condemning future gift-givers, future Presidents – and one another.

  • John

    For a President to contradict what “most intelligence agencies believed” would have required special knowledge – say a capacity for reading Saddam’s mind or, better yet, omniscience.
    Ha! Come on, the President massively contradicted what “most intelligence agencies believed.” He made a far stronger case for Iraqi WMDs than the (we now know already inflated) estimates the CIA was giving him. Wolfowitz and co. did exactly the same thing in the 80s with regard to Soviet military capability. For Republicans to pretend not to understand this distinction is simply ridiculous.
    Now, on to meatier matters – what the hell was the present you gave? Must’ve been remarkably bad. Did you put the girlfriend’s friend into “Reagan’s Bind”?

  • Fred

    Josh –
    In clear language, and without big words, the above describes a concept in the abstract.
    It doesn’t mention Bush. At all.
    That was deliberate. This was a very careful, painstaking attempt to explain a concept clearly while avoiding the topic that seemed to make you see red and twist this concept into something it wasn’t.
    So I didn’t mention Bush. At all.
    But you did. You defended him, yet again, even though he wasn’t being attacked.
    The post isn’t about Bush. Your comment, again, is.
    Odd.

  • Jesurgislac

    I know it’s not relevant, and I entirely support your right to privacy, but like everyone else, I’m dying to know what the present was that your girlfriend dumped you over!
    On to Oh’s the-guilty-flee-where-no-man-pursueth: Let’s suppose Fred’s now-ex girlfriend was the sort of woman who never wears make-up. No lipstick, no nail varnish, no hair spray. Let’s further suppose that Fred got his girlfriend’s best friend to give him guidance by taking her downtown to the biggest cosmetics store in town and saying “Pick out the kind of make-up you think my girlfriend would like.”
    Under the circumstances, Oh, it would be hard to blame the best friend for doing the best she could within the limits available. It wouldn’t make any difference if Fred had asked just her or 14 others: if he was deliberately focussing on “What kind of make-up can I get my girlfriend (because I’d like to see her wear more cosmetics)” then plainly he’s heading in the wrong direction, and any advice, good or bad, about color or brand-name, isn’t going to make a lot of difference.
    (Fred, apologies for taking your name in vain. I’m certain that you were much better at gift-buying than we have to conclude George W. Bush is.)

  • oh

    Fred, Thanks for the correction. So I should have assumed that, despite your previous posts, you’ve now decided that “Reagan’s bind” does not apply to the Bush & WMD dilemma? I’d find that reversal odd as well.
    I thought you’d appreciate my defense of your general competence in the process of gift selection (although you might have proven more competent if you had consulted more intelligence sources). Still your then-girlfriend exhibited a common sign of immaturity in assuming that you should have been able to read her mind and know the true state of things with or without resorting to consultation. She really needed to face the reality of our human limitations.
    By the way, I’m not angry, or seeing red, just persistent. If you can explain how I’m twisting things I’d be glad to learn from it. I do agree that there was a massive, worldwide, lack of intelligence about what was actually occurring in Iraq. I find that an argument for, rather than against, intervention.

  • oh

    Jesurgislac, in order for your analogy to ring true the President would need to control the operations of intelligence agencies all over the world – directing and limiting their investigations. Is that what you believe to be the case?

  • Fred

    Twig guessed correctly. It was a jar full of donkey poo.
    (Ok, actually it was the exact same thing that it turns out a previous boyfried had given her. The best friend had a vague memory of this that I suppose she translated into the sense that this item was somehow powerfully connected to our mutual friend.)
    Josh –
    Of course I believe that, as the Hutton report seems to support, Bush and Blair are entangled in a Reagan’s bind. When I said as much, you responded by suggesting that the whole idea of saying so was bad for civil discourse and that the very concept — the idea that leaders might find themselves, in dre’s more elegant phrase, in a position in which they were either responsible or irresponsible — was wrong to suggest.
    You seem to be arguing that B/B were irresponsible and credulous, but that this irresponsibility is not, in itself, damning. In the terms above, their situation meets “A” but not “B” and therefore is not an example of “Reagan’s Bind.”
    The entire point of this post was to clarify — for your sake and whiplash’s, and any others who may have (mis)interpreted what I was saying — that I did not, have not, and am not now arguing that any and every case of a person’s being misinformed constitutes gross negligence, but that in some cases, ignorance is no excuse.
    Sheesh.

  • Jesurgislac

    Oh, Oh, I think if my analogy can confuse you to that extent, you’re in a bind of your own.
    In my analogy, Fred does not control or direct what his girlfriend’s best friends (all fifteen of them) know about their best friend. Why would you think it did? Only if you were really that stupid, and I don’t believe you are.
    The analogy-Fred is clearly asking the wrong questions: rather than starting from the point “What would be the best gift to get my girlfriend?” he’s starting from the point “I want to get my girlfriend make-up, what kind of make-up should I get her?”
    Just as, in the real world, instead of starting from the point “What’s the best way to resolve the problem of Iraq?” Bush appears to have started from the point “I want to invade Iraq in 2003, what kind of evidence have you got that proves Iraq’s an imminent threat?”
    Got it?

  • Scott Cattanach

    “oh”, if someone in a Reagan’s Bind wants to claim “never attribute to malice that which can adequately explained by stupidity”, shouldn’t he do one thing to demonstrate some honesty on his part and at least admit he was totally wrong instead of still pretending he was right? Slacktivist isn’t refusing to even acknowledge he bought the gift he mentions (“honey, the biased liberal media is telling you I bought that, but I really didn’t”).

  • oh

    “You seem to be arguing that B/B were irresponsible and credulous, but that this irresponsibility is not, in itself, damning.”
    I’m simply pointing out that it is possible to be ignorant and credulous and still not irresponsible or incompetent. I’m assuming all of you recognize that distinction.
    Irresponsibility or incompetence implies that, as it appears in Reagan’s case, you had, or should have had, access to information contradicting your beliefs. Were you really “irresponsible and incompetent” in your purchase of the gift? I think not. The friend was basically incompetent – because she had reason to know better. Ignorant yes – but does anyone out there really believe that Fred was irresponsible and incompetent in this situation?
    In addition to defending you against charges of irresponsibility and incompetence I’m raising questions about what kind of knowledge you would have had to have to ensure you could avoid these charges. It seems to me that, far from being irresponsible, consultation with a friend, or even friends, was a highly responsible response to your dilemma. Your former girlfriend seemed to think that you should have been able to read her mind. If, in your girlfriends case, mind reading or omniscient is required for avoiding charges of irresponsibility I’m pointing out the immaturity of her demands and her standard of judgment. If she charges you with irresponsibility and incompetence because you are not omniscient she is, in fact, irresponsible and incompetent in her criticism of you. Wouldn’t we all agree that this woman’s dismissal of Fred on this basis was a sign of her, and not his, incompetence?
    The price I pay for coming to the defense of Fred…
    Scott (as I mentioned in a previous post) – If, at the end of the day, the President never acknowledges what appears to be a massive intelligence failure I will agree that he has been dishonest. I think it’s a little early to demand that however. After all if he were to admit he was misled, and then WMD (other than Saddam) turned up, he would, according to the standard often employed on this blog, be a “liar” once again.

  • Scott Cattanach

    ” I think it’s a little early to demand that however.”
    No, its not. You won’t consider it ‘too early’ until he’s back home in 2008 and are just trying to cover his butt.

  • Itea

    I’m with “oh” in the matter of Fred’s gift. I strongly believe that in a relationship, intentions are far more important than the occasional unfortunate result. On the facts presented, it’s Fred’s then-girlfriend who acted poorly; everyone else was trying to make her happy.
    To digress slightly, I also respect “oh”‘s willingness to post despite his/her unpopular opinions. A blog that understands different viewpoints is far more interesting than one that shouts down all dissension immediately. I’ve often been the lone dissenter; I don’t think I have a particularly contentious personality, but I do feel that one should stand up for one’s beliefs. Just because one disagrees with “oh”‘s politics doesn’t mean that “oh”‘s arguments don’t deserve to be evaluated on their content.
    (For the record, I think George Bush is a hypocritical self-serving lying pile of donkey poo.)
    - Itea

  • oh

    Ah Itea, I feel my heart strangely warmed.
    I too hate to see people falsely accused of appalling incompetence – even, perhaps especially, if that accusation is self-inflicted. Buck up there Fred, you’re not, in this case, an irresponsible or incompetence boyfriend!
    (You’re willingness to put up with this ex-girlfriend for five months might raise other questions of competence however.)

  • drieux just drieux

    First off thanks for the unpleasantly useful phrase “reagan’s bind”.
    It worries me that those who were once so concerned that the CIA was ‘covering up’ the well known stuff about Iraq have now trying to explain away not only the imminent threat basis of the problem, but also that the CIA stabbed the president in the back and that the president should not be held accountable.
    Maybe NOT as the President, but one might want to ask whether as the Commander in Chief of the American Armed Forces, he at any time was at all concerned with the value of GI’s.
    cf
    My take
    We can hope that americans will decide if ‘moral standards’ have any value, or should we merely arbitrate matters based solely upon who has more military like force to deploy.

  • Fred

    Josh –
    You write: “I’m simply pointing out that it is possible to be ignorant and credulous and still not irresponsible or incompetent. I’m assuming all of you recognize that distinction.”
    No freaking duh. Most of us just read the post above, THE ENTIRE SUBJECT OF WHICH is just such a distinction. (A but not B.)
    “In most situations where ‘A’ is the case — and, because we’re all human, ‘A’ is often the case — ‘B’ is not. In such cases, credulity is preferable to chicanery, and Reagan’s Bind cannot be said to apply.”
    Once again, you’re yelling “gotcha!” despite the fact that you don’t actually disagree with the post.

  • none

    You’re nibbling around the edges of a useful reduction in the argument.
    Asked, “Does Bush lie?” the right-wingnut insists that Dubya be caught in a transparent, literal falsehood, red-handed. But the essential question is not whether Bush knowingly misrepresents the truth, but “Is Bush trustworthy?” If my daughter’s pediatrician misdiagnoses her serious medical condition, and she suffers, the effects of his motivation are the same on my daughter, and he loses my faith. If I can’t prove his evil intent, I might be civil to him because he harbors me no ill will, as far as I can tell. But he’s not touching my kid, again, either.
    If Bush misses plain warnings for 11 September, can’t reliably budget Federal collections and expenditures, goes to war based on information that turns out to be dramatically wrong, who gives a damn why? He may be a delightful, charming person, one who is kind to pets and children. Or, not. You can admire the man’s “godliness” all you want, or curse his evil nature. He’s just no good at his job, practically. “I know his heart’s in the right place!” is hardly a ringing endorsement if the hands that the heart motivates are exclusively equipped with thumbs.
    I mean, that pediatrician may be godly, too, but he’s still not good enough to treat my kids.

  • oh

    Fred, You’re right. I do agree with your post (assuming the information about Reagan is correct).
    In fact I think your personal experience with the former girlfriend vividly illustrates that it would be inappropriate to accuse someone of incompetence or irresponsibility when they make a reasonable decision after having made every reasonable effort to assess the available intelligence.
    You don’t really think that your gift selection proves you were irresponsible or incompetent do you?

  • Scott Cattanach

    If Fred’s gift had killed a few hundred US soldiers and a few thousand Iraqis, then yes, he would have been an incompetent gift giver.

  • oh

    Scott wrote: “You won’t consider it ‘too early’ until he’s back home in 2008 and are just trying to cover his butt.”
    Scott – I just wanted to compliment you. While so few people possess the gift of ESP or omniscience you so confidently assert that you can read my mind. You’re wrong, of course, but I admire your boldness nonetheless.
    I think that death by violence is always regrettable. Still there are times, I believe, when the deaths of many are preferable to the deaths, or torture, of a great many more. I believe that’s part of the just war theory Fred mentions above.

  • Jesurgislac

    I think that death by violence is always regrettable. Still there are times, I believe, when the deaths of many are preferable to the deaths, or torture, of a great many more.
    …which would rule supporting the invasion of Iraq right out, if you meant that sincerely. But I suspect that in your head, some lives are just automatically worth more than other lives.

  • oh

    Ah, Jesurgislac, another failed mind reader.
    Human lives are of inestimable value. That’s why an aggressive response is required to those who would seek to rule people’s lives by terror. I’d prefer that this be an aggressive nonviolent response but if, after years or decades, nonviolent means seem ineffective or unavailable I’m willing to consider other options. To take no action in the face of totalitarian rule truly reflects a diminishment of the value of human life.
    After all even Martin Luther King, Jr., who was nonviolent in his personal life, regularly called upon the federal government to send in troops and use necessary force to ensure the maintenance of civil rights and human dignity in the face of those who sought rule by terror. Dr. King commended the Presidents who used just force for a just cause. (You don’t have to take my word on this a number of his letters are online at Stanford.)

  • Jesurgislac

    That’s why an aggressive response is required to those who would seek to rule people’s lives by terror.
    And since the US government are sponsors of terrorists, do you advocate an aggressive response against all Americans? Just checking.
    To take no action in the face of totalitarian rule truly reflects a diminishment of the value of human life.
    Actually, I agree to that: but to target civilians, as the US military did in Iraq, shows not so much a “diminishment” of the value of human life as a total disregard for it.
    After all even Martin Luther King, Jr., who was nonviolent in his personal life, regularly called upon the federal government to send in troops and use necessary force to ensure the maintenance of civil rights and human dignity in the face of those who sought rule by terror.
    Here’s Martin Luther King, Jr, on the Vietnam War: “If we continue, there will be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the world that we have no honorable intentions in Vietnam. If we do not stop our war against the people of Vietnam immediately, the world will be left with no other alternative than to see this as some horrible, clumsy, and deadly game we have decided to play. The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people. The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways. In order to atone for our sins and errors in Vietnam, we should take the initiative in bringing a halt to this tragic war.” cite
    Do you seriously imagine that Martin Luther King, Jr, would support the aggressive invasion of Iraq? Hardly. (Indeed, were he alive, we’d have heard from him for years about the 57 thousand black people in Florida who were stripped illegally of their right to vote…)

  • Scott Cattanach

    Scott wrote: “You won’t consider it ‘too early’ until he’s back home in 2008 and are just trying to cover his butt.”
    Scott – I just wanted to compliment you. While so few people possess the gift of ESP or omniscience you so confidently assert that you can read my mind. You’re wrong, of course, but I admire your boldness nonetheless.
    ————
    I don’t have to read your mind – its an obvious debating tactic. Tell me “oh”, when will it be time for Bush to admit fault? Be specific enough to be held accountable later.

  • none

    Bush and Blair have both been proven to have used distorted versions of intelligence reports — out-of-context quotes not approved by the intelligence agencies — in order to bolster the case for war. I can provide references if you don’t believe me.
    If that’s incompetence, it’s not due to relying on good authorities — it’s due to *ignoring* good authorities.
    Just to point out that “oh”‘s claim that Bush does not fall in Reagan’s bind simply isn’t grounded in the facts.

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