Reagan’s Bind

Reagan’s Bind December 12, 2003

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 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 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.


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  • Dan

    I like Wolfowitz, but he and Rumsfeld have outlived their usefulness. You’re right, for the sake of lashing out in punishment mode, Wolfie pulled a boner, at a time when we need these UN/European guys on board more than ever. I think the directive was correct, but the timing and method of its release foolish. These contracts would have made (or might still make?) a fine carrot before the oxcart. See here.

  • Michael

    Of course, Reagean’s plea of incompetence may also have been true. Alzheimer’s is a long-onset disease, after all.

  • A Neo-Futurist

    I heard there is a congress bill to put Reagan on the dime. We had it on the radio station I work at. We ripped into it because Roosevelt had accomplished so much more. Conservatives are going to get it, the EU is going to start beating the crap out of us financial with the entrence of cheap eastern euro countries. One Blair is gone, and England goes more radical, they can great a powerhouse that will leave America in the dust.
    America is running out of Iraq’s, it can’t keep assigning blame. Reminds me of the Romans, and I feel like a christian. Public Speakers at Conferences = The Circus. Sports Venues = Colisuem. Attacking countries
    anyway I’m off topic now. I felt like venting against the callous immorality of those in power, who call themselves christians.

  • Stan

    “Reagan’s Bind”: I knew the second I read it what it referred to. That’s going in my vocabulary.

  • Stop Making Sense

    Two thoughts about the whole reconstruction contracts mess. First, if the prohibition on bids from German, French, and Canadian companies…

  • Ron

    Of course in the end it really didn’t matter, because he did it without any down side to himself. These guys do it, they get caught, they get away with it. So then they do it again. There is no down side as far as they are conserned. You can point out their lies their dishonesty, their out and out evil, and still they get away with it. Why shouldn’t they keep on doing it?

  • Adam Kotsko

    In a political discussion, one of my friends raised the prospect of writing a novel or movie in which a vehement “conservative” would get everything he wants — a virtually powerless government heavily favoring the wealthy, brutal laissez-faire, etc. I remarked that it would be similar to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” except that the main plot would begin with the protagonist declaring, “I wish FDR had never been born!”
    That’s the message behind putting Reagan on the dime: “I wish FDR had never been born.” I wish the country would have been left to the robber barons.

  • dalai

    well done. Check and mate!

  • Reagan’s Bind

    Slacktivist pins the tail on the Wolfowitz….

  • dmm

    It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it? Conservatives simultaneously slam Clinton because he failed to take a hard enough stand against terrorism, yet they venerate Reagan, who actively supported it.

  • a lesser mongbat

    actually, your movie sounds a lot like a Cyberpunk future.

  • Weekend Update

    Atrios links slacktivist. slacktivist: Reagan’s Bind 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…

  • charles

    Let’s not forget how many of Bush’s appointees were actually involved in Iran-Contra (Negroponte, Abrams, Reich, Poindexter), and as such are intimately familiar with Reagan’s bind. It’s not much of a bind, however, when you can bet on a presidential pardon if anything goes wrong.

  • Allen Brill

    When a chess-playing college roommate of mine would get someone in that position with the his knight and their queen and king, he would cry, “Fork you!” Maybe the Bushies are finally there.

  • http://www.josephfinn.net/mt/archives/001906.html

    Slacktivist has some interesting thoughts on how Bush and the Coup are caught in Reagan’s Bind. Make sure to check

  • not deceitful… just stupid

    I’ve been reading about Tony Blair and his WMD fiasco. Over at signposts Phil’s been posting here and here, and

  • Reagan’s Bind

    From the Slacktivist:
    “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…

  • drieux just drieux

    slacktivist, I so DISLIKE this phrase, but unfortunately it keeps, working. So I guess under classical IETF rules “rough consensus and working code” it will work as a freaking protocol spec until someone comes up with a better neologism.

  • RB II

    I first got the phrase “reagan’s bind” from a blog entry, here. The basic idea is that Either the person admits to malice of forethought, or to avoid that malice, concedes to mere incompetency. A problem that this administration has been trying to figu…

  • Bush steps into “Reagan’s Bind”

    (not that he’s going to notice) SLACKTAVIST was there first, months ago.”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…

  • Why Plame is Important

    The big scandal in the news today is, of course, the burning of Valerie Plame. This is a complicated one, and the Fitzgerald investigations concern some pretty specific legal questions. Did Karl Rove (and Scooter Libby, and whoever else was…

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