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Nuance vital in a complex terror war
by Jay Bookman
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
August 19, 2004

"I don't do nuance," President Bush is famously fond of saying, and his first term offers convincing evidence that he means it, for better or worse.

John Kerry, on the other hand, is famous for knowing the nuance behind the nuance, and for trying to explain it at every opportunity. As a result of that fundamental difference in style between the two men, nuance has become the unlikely fulcrum of the presidential election of 2004.

Echoing the president, Republicans are arguing that nuance is a distraction from strong, effective leadership, and that those who pay heed to petty details are weak in character and backbone. Conversely, Democrats paint the world as a complex place that defies fixed ideas and simple solutions, and suggest that those who downplay the importance of nuance do so because they aren't intellectually equipped to process it.

If it's possible to find some common ground between those two viewpoints, it might be this: The type of leadership required depends on the type of challenge to be confronted. Sometimes an appreciation of nuance is useful in solving problems; sometimes it can paralyze you and prevent you from taking necessary action.

If you accept that statement as true, then the next question is obvious: What type of approach does the war on terror require? Is it the type of challenge best addressed by a single-minded, consistent application of a few basic ideas, or does winning this war require flexibility, adaptability and attention to detail?

In World War II, for example, we knew who the enemy was and where to find him, and we knew that victory depended on killing Japanese and German troops more quickly than they could kill Allied troops. There was a primal simplicity to that struggle that rendered nuance superfluous, which is one reason why Winston Churchill, the British bulldog, proved the perfect leader for that era. His stubborn conviction won him great popularity during that war, in large part because of the reassurance it offered the frightened British people.

While Bush lacks Churchill's natural eloquence, in the wake of Sept. 11 he nonetheless exuded a Churchillian resolve and conviction that millions of Americans, including many Democrats, found reassuring. But, overall, this is a different type of war; and since those early days, Bush’s reliance on conviction and instinct — and his disdain for nuance — have served him and this nation poorly.

Part of that's due to the nature of our opponent, which has proved itself enormously well-attuned to nuance and has demonstrated a startling ability to adapt to changing conditions. But much of our problem lies in the limitations of conviction itself.

Conviction told us that the Iraqi people would greet us as liberators from Saddam Hussein's tyranny; nuance, in the form of history and a knowledge of Arabic culture, argued that Iraqi nationalism and resentment would quickly overwhelm whatever gratitude the Iraqi people might feel. Conviction argued that the trend toward democracy is irreversible and that everyone, including the Iraqis, would embrace it as we have; nuance cautioned that the Iraqis had never known democracy and lacked the basic civic structures to make it work. Conviction argued that the U.S. military was the most powerful in the history of mankind and could accomplish any feat; nuance argued that occupying a violent, well-armed Arab nation would be exceedingly difficult and dangerous.

In other words, a basic respect for the wisdom found in nuance might have kept us out of Iraq, and no amount of pure conviction can now extricate us from that mess. The war on terror and Islamic fundamentalism is not and never has been a simple war of kill or be killed in which brute power can be pitted against brute power. It is instead an enormously complex undertaking requiring a sophisticated interplay of military, economic, political, diplomatic and cultural weaponry. It is also a war in which mistakes can exact a very harsh penalty, as the deaths of more than 940 U.S. personnel in Iraq now attest.

Jay Bookman is deputy editorial page editor. His column appears Thursdays and Mondays.

Posted: August 30, 2004


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