Denial Anger Bargaining Depression

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Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. Those, of course, are Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grieving. But the model applies to public policy as well. And sometimes, shall we say, more than others.

I had moments of imagining — a forlorn hope, I grant you — that the White House might have gotten up to the ‘bargaining’ stage in dealing with the demise of their ‘plan A’, as Fareed Zakaria recently described it, for Iraq.

I guess not.

They seem firmly wedged between denial and anger — a betwixt and between state producing a sort of militant ridiculousness.

According to advance leaks coming from the White House, when President Bush addresses the UN next week, he will challenge the world body to pony up money and troops for Iraq or risk irrelevance. (Of course, these claims of the UN’s irrelevance are rather belied by the president’s hasty retreat to the same.) The UN must show, says Condi Rice, that it is “actually capable of acting, and really willing to act, and not just debating.”

That should go over well.

“If that’s the attitude, he’s going to get the door slammed in his face,” says Ivo Daalder, a former Clinton NSC staffer and now think-tanker. “Because no one regards it to be their duty or responsibility to clean up the mess that many people think has been created by the way we have handled the postwar period.” (Daalder by the way has a really good new book out about Bush foreign policy, which I just reviewed, America Unbound.)

I’m going to reserve judgment and see if the tone and the message is actually as stupid as these reports imply. But if it is (and piece in Monday’s Times seems to confirm that it is), you do have to wonder just the White House is trying to achieve.

I have no doubt that the administration really wants foreign money for this operation — even more than foreign troops probably. Yet this is the kind of tack that makes you wonder how badly they really want it, or even if they want it.

A few days ago President Bush said he was issuing a “plea” for financial aid and troops for Iraq — something his journalistic defenders have understandably ignored. But while that sort of begging isn’t called for, insults aren’t going to produce good results at this point. A bit of magnanimity perhaps? Trash talk works a lot better when holding a handful of aces than when you’re holding no cards and the rest of the people at the table know it. (If they’re worried about the French, this’ll play right into their hands.)

I don’t think there’s a lot of analytic thought behind any of this. It’s seems more reflex response. They’re locked in a feedback loop, a tangled form of denial. They know they need help. But they can’t get past their arrogance and ideological fixations to ask for it. They know they need to ‘go to the UN.’ But they go there and hit them with the same trash talk that worked so well last year.

They are, in a word, adrift. And unfortunately ‘they’ is ‘we’.

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