When I first read Paul Krugman's column in today's New York Times, I was disappointed to find him musing on the possible motives behind the Bush administration's latest diplomatic screw-up:
James Baker sets off to negotiate Iraqi debt forgiveness with our estranged allies. And at that very moment the deputy secretary of defense releases a "Determination and Findings" on reconstruction contracts that not only excludes those allies from bidding, but does so with highly offensive language. What's going on?
Maybe I'm giving Paul Wolfowitz too much credit, but I don't think this was mere incompetence. I think the administration's hard-liners are deliberately sabotaging reconciliation.
Isn't it enough, I thought, to point out that this was a debacle without speculating on whether it was also, as Krugman's column is titled, a "deliberate debacle"?
But then I realized what Krugman was up to. He was pointing out that the Bush administration is, once again, trapped in Reagan's Bind.
"Reagan's Bind" describes the conundrum in which one is unable to explain or defend one's actions except by ascribing them to either: A) malicious intent; or B) glaring stupidity and/or incompetence.
To be caught in Reagan's Bind is like being pinned in wrestling, or checkmated in chess. Actually, in terms of chess, it's a bit more like realizing that the knight placing your king in check is simultaneously threatening your queen.
I have called this "Reagan's Bind" in keeping with the current trend of naming everything after the 40th president, but also because Ronald Reagan provided the most spectacular example of this during the Iran-Contra scandal of his second term.
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 he was so astoundingly incompetent that he was probably still unfit for office.
The classic example of Reagan's Bind.
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.
By writing today of a "deliberate debacle," Paul Krugman is being as charitable as possible toward Paul Wolfowitz. Speculating on someone's subversive, malicious intent may not seem charitable at first, but the only other option available is that the debacle Krugman describes was not deliberate. In that case, Wolfowitz would have to be a dimwitted bumbler. And suggesting that wouldn't seem terribly charitable either.
Alas, it seems the undersecretary of defense is hopelessly trapped in Reagan's Bind. He has only two options — neither of them good.