WORST CASE SCENARIO….My friend Armed Liberal announced a few days ago that he has made up his mind: he will vote for George Bush this year. That wasn’t really a big surprise, but it got me curious anyway.

What I was wondering was this: AL is (duh) a liberal. Bush is the most conservative president in 50 years. Does he really think Bush is that much better on terrorism compared to Kerry that he’s willing to vote for the guy?

So I asked him to rate the two candidates on their likely handling of terrorism over the next four years. His answer: on a scale of 1-10, he rates Bush a 6 and Kerry a 4. That hardly seems like it should be enough to swing a confirmed liberal into the Bush camp, but it turns out there’s a twist.

AL actually provided three ratings: Best/Most Likely/Worst. And he gave Bush a score of 8/6/3 and Kerry a score of 9/4/1. The deciding factor, he said, was Kerry’s “Worst” score. He just couldn’t take the chance that Kerry would screw things up completely. Via email:

[For Kerry,] the worst outcome is that we a) don’t break isolationist, but break hard ‘America, Fuck Yeah!’, or b) that we break isolationalist and then get attacked again (in which case, see ‘America, Fuck Yeah!’).

….[For Bush,] the worst is that a) the Arab street really does rise up; or b) he gets locked in an internal culture war in the US, which paralyzes him.

Obviously I disagree with AL, but the weird thing is that aside from thinking Kerry a better choice to handle the foreign policy issues we’re most likely to face over the next four years (not a shooting war, but nation building, nuclear proliferation, alliance building, Mideast diplomacy, and making terrorism a bipartisan issue), I’d score it exactly the opposite on the risk axis. Kerry strikes me as a hard worker who will make some headway in reorienting our approach to terrorism, but who is probably too cautious and grounded to make either big mistakes or big breakthroughs. Conversely, although Bush’s go-for-broke style arguably has a chance of fundamentally changing the nature of the game, it also runs a significant risk of digging us into a very deep hole indeed if he allows his gut to make a disastrous decision at just the wrong time. Here’s how I view Bush’s downsides:

  1. Bush has a well-known penchant for relying on instinct instead of real-world evidence and for refusing to admit error. That might be tolerable if his instincts were always sound, but as the events of the past four years have demonstrated, that’s not the case.

  2. Bush surrounds himself with advisors who either share his deficiencies (Cheney, Rumsfeld) or who decline to seriously challenge him when he’s wrong (Rice, Powell). This amplifies the potential for disaster inherent in #1.

  3. The abysmal postwar planning in Iraq was not merely bad luck, it was a result of one of Bush’s fundamental character weaknesses: he believes what he wants to believe and disdains dissenting views. He allowed himself to be convinced that Iraq would be a cakewalk mostly because he wanted to believe it and brushed off naysayers who suggested otherwise. This has produced disaster in Iraq, and since it’s such a core weakness in Bush’s character, is likely to produce disaster again.

  4. On a substantive level, Bush and his team are too obsessed with a late 20th century view of state-sponsored terrorism as our primary problem. It’s not. Non-state terrorism and failed states ? along with nuclear proliferation ? are the primary problems of the 21st century. Bush’s failure to recognize this makes him far more likely to make a disastrous miscalculation than Kerry.

  5. Kerry may place too much faith in multilateral diplomacy, but Bush’s instinctive aversion to taking other countries seriously is at least equally dangerous. If diplomacy breaks down, you can always switch to other options. If you refuse to take it seriously in the first place, it removes one of our key levers of international influence and places the country on a hair trigger.

Put all this together, and it points in one direction: the mistakes Bush has made in his first term are likely to be amplified in a second, not reined in. In a crisis, it’s likely that he will rely on his gut, refuse to recognize ground truth from dissenters, ignore foreign leaders, and fatally fail to recognize the real sources of danger.

It may be that none of this will happen. But it might ? and the worst case scenario for Bush is not merely that the Arab street rises up, but that his instincts continue to rule him and he finishes the job he’s already started of convincing the rest of the world that America is the problem, not radical Islamic terrorism. That would be a disaster.

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