A Chinese perspective on Karl Rove

Yesterday I spoke with a Chinese-American scholar who I'm not sure at the moment I should name. (I need to check with him, since it was a chat rather than an interview.) Among other things I asked him why the Chinese leadership, skillful in so many ways, did so many other things that were pointless and self-damaging. Clumsy censorship, to take a recent example; or firing off an anti-satellite weapon early this year, which gave Japan, America, South Korea, Russia, and many other countries a whole new reason to wonder about China's military plans.

My friend's answer boiled down to: a Chinese version of the "tragedy of the commons." It was bad for the "brand image" of China when the censors were heavy-handed or annoyed the foreign media. It was bad for the central Communist leadership too. But it was good for the censors in the propaganda ministry. No censor had ever been fired for being too restrictive, so they kept on doing it. The larger interest of the country, even the narrow interests of the regime, took second place.

I thought of that when I heard of Karl Rove's departure. I suspect that historically he will be seen as a "tragedy of the commons" type. Or at least he should.

My colleague Josh Green, in his (well-timed!) new story* about Rove, makes clear what Rove's divide-and-conquer strategy has done for his party. It has also done something terrible to the country, in particular in the change it wrought in George Bush some time early in 2002.

For the first three months after September 11, 2001, George W. Bush behaved as if he was President of all the United States. By the time the decision to invade Iraq was underway, early in 2002, he had in effect begun to act as president of "the base." (Had the decision to invade been made that early? Yes.) There was less and less effort to engage all Americans, despite differences; more and more stress on de-legitimizing critics and criticism itself.

Three years ago I did a long cover story in the Atlantic called "Bush's Lost Year," about the change in America's international situation as it went from hunting Osama bin Laden, at the start of 2002, to preparing for war in Iraq, at the year's end. The next to last paragraph said this:

To govern is to choose, and the choices made in 2002 were fateful. The United States began that year shocked and wounded, but with tremendous strategic advantages. Its population was more closely united behind its leadership than it had been in fifty years. World opinion was strongly sympathetic. Longtime allies were eager to help; longtime antagonists were silent. The federal budget was nearly in balance, making ambitious projects feasible. The U.S. military was superbly equipped, trained, and prepared. An immediate foe was evident—and vulnerable—in Afghanistan. For the longer-term effort against Islamic extremism the Administration could draw on a mature school of thought from academics, regional specialists, and its own intelligence agencies. All that was required was to think broadly about the threats to the country, and creatively about the responses.

The change from that situation to the world we know has many authors. Bush himself; Vice President Cheney; the Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz-Franks-Bremer team that brought us catastrophe in Iraq; Gonzales and Rice; so many more. But just as the Iraq policy probably needed Wolfowitz to have its air of righteous certainty, so the whole package probably needed Rove to provide the sense of historical mission, the task of building the permanent majority.

Political strategists are divisive; that's their job. But there are different ways of dividing, and the master of the 51-49 "turn out the base" "screw the moderates" win leaves the country weaker, nastier, and more mutually suspicious than he found it.

Hail and farewell, Karl Rove. Officials here in the propaganda ministry send you a salute.

* Most Atlantic stories cited here are subscriber-only. Subscribe! That's how we pay people to write 'em.