Large dose of hubris hampers the White House

John Troyer

Over the last two years, a deep sense of growing doom persisted when I listened to person after person discuss the rest of the world, the parts not including the United States.

The sensation is like a door being slammed repeatedly against my head, because it makes more sense to knock myself silly than to listen to the blathering of couch cushion politicos. After my head has suffered a number of blunt hits, an old word pops into my head: hubris.

More than any other time, I think about the meanings and pitfalls of hubris for the general public when reading stories about President George W. Bush’s administration’s entire bungling of U.S. policy. Maybe I am being a bit unfair because I realize President Bush is doing the best he can, but I would like to think life in the White House executive office is better than a high school principal’s average day. Again, a deep sense of doom. 

Before my people of Thebes begin slamming their own heads against walls, we need to discuss the hubris described in tales by the ancient Greek.

I remember first encountering the dangers of hubris while reading the work of Greek playwright Sophocles and his most infamous character, Oedipus Rex. Webster’s dictionary defines hubris as “exaggerated pride or self-confidence often resulting in retribution.” So is the story of Oedipus who, despite being warned, allows exaggerated pride become his ultimate downfall. Instead of listening to warnings, he spends far too much time listening to advisers who tell him to take the worst kind of action possible.

Some people say Oedipus is fated to fall – to sleep with his mother, kill his father and eventually blind himself to the world. Yet others, and I happen to be in this camp, see Oedipus as a warning to the demos against a worldview emboldened by hubristic action. Plenty of opportunities existed for Oedipus to make a different decision, but he chose the most destructive path at his own detriment. 

I am not the first to suggest the Bush administration (or at least its significant players) is hampered by an excessively large dose of hubris because those warnings have been coming quite often from our own allies, like the French.

French government leaders who oppose or opposed U.S. military occupation of Iraq are often described as exhibiting excessive and stubborn pride in their inability to deify U.S. power. I have a much different take on what French leaders, in particular Jacques Chirac and Dominique de Villepin, were and continue to say by refusing to immediately accept the Bush administration’s decision to make warfare a policy choice, not a last resort. The French government was and is offering a warning to the Bush administration about the hubris of wanton violence. In a way, French officials, while not pointing directly to their own colonial history, are offering war planners a warning about the expense of conquest for those who initiate war.

Critics will say Saddam Hussein initiated the war but he didn’t really – that’s why hubris is so valuable: It helps legitimize violence instead of pursuing other options. To those who disagree, just keep saying over and over: Saddam planned Sept. 11, 2001.

It appears some in the Bush administration are beginning to see the dangerous folly in their plans. The formation of the new Iraq Stabilization Group headed by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice might, and I stress might, make a difference in keeping the rebuilding of a country under American duress from falling even further beyond repair.

In the meantime, members of the European Union, namely Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg and France will continue to discuss how to prepare themselves militarily to fight a war against the United States because that has suddenly become a possibility fostered by White House hubris.

Pre-emptive war mongering hubris is only one small part of what blinds many officials in the Bush administration. The domestic situation in the United States suggests not only a country in a dead-end intellectual decline, but a vast population unwilling to recognize political hubris for the problems it creates. Most people willingly watch the king undo the kingdom because it is easier than recognizing self-delusional blind faith. So it goes.

It’s too bad the hubris of leaders takes an entire country along for the ride, but some mistakes will never stop persisting. In the end, I do not think the Bush administration will suffer any direct penalties for its hubris laid naked for the rest of the world to see, but it comes at the expense of the United State’s tomorrow.

John Troyer’s column appears alternate Fridays. He welcomes comments at [email protected]