Tuesday, June 3, 2008

George Bush: the Great Pretender

Bush is a man of personal charm, wit and enormous political skill. On paper, the team he assembled was impressive. Dick Cheney, the vice-president, was a serious, vastly experienced hand in the top levels of government. Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, had already enjoyed one successful run at the Pentagon. Colin Powell, the secretary of state, was easily the most popular public figure in the country and could well have been the first African-American president of the United States had he been interested in the job. Even Bush’s chief political adviser, Karl Rove, had a powerful reputation as a brilliant strategic thinker.

But today the high hopes that accompanied the early days of his presidency have fallen back to earth. Rumsfeld and Powell are gone, their tenures controversial and disappointing. Cheney’s role is widely viewed as sinister and destructive of the president’s legacy. And Rove’s reputation for political genius is now matched by his reputation as an operative who places political gain ahead of the national interest.

Through it all, Bush remains very much the man he always was — self-confident, quick-witted, down-to-earth and stubborn — though not quite the leader I once imagined him to be. It was the decision to go to war in Iraq that pushed his presidency off course. For Bush, removing the “grave and gathering danger” that Iraq supposedly posed was primarily a means for achieving the far more grandiose objective of reshaping the Middle East as a region of peaceful democracies.

This fateful misstep was based on a confluence of events (the shock of 9/11 and our deceptively quick initial military success in Afghanistan), human nature (ambition, certitude and self-deceit), and a divinely inspired passion (Bush’s deeply held belief that all people have a God-given right to live in freedom). Every president wants to achieve greatness but few do. As I have heard Bush say, only a wartime president is likely to achieve greatness, in part because the upheavals of war provide the opportunity for the transformative change that he hoped to achieve. In Iraq, Bush saw his opportunity to create a legacy of greatness.

War should be waged only when necessary and the Iraq war was not necessary. Waging an unnecessary war is a grave mistake. But an even more fundamental mistake was made — a decision to turn away from candour and honesty when those qualities were most needed.

In the autumn of 2002 Bush and his White House engaged in a carefully orchestrated campaign to shape and manipulate sources of public approval to our advantage. We’d done much the same on other issues — tax cuts and education — to great success, but war with Iraq was different. Our lack of candour and honesty in making the case for war would later provoke a partisan response from our opponents that further distorted and obscured a more nuanced reality.

Most of our elected leaders in Washington, Republicans and Democrats, are good, decent people. Yet too many of them today have made a practice of shunning truth and the high level of openness and forthrightness required to discover it. Washington has become the home of the permanent campaign, a game of endless politicking based on the manipulation of shades of truth, partial truths, twisting of the truth and spin. Candour and honesty are pushed to the side in the battle to win the latest news cycle.

Bush did not consciously set out to engage in these destructive practices but, like others before him, chose to play the Washington game the way he found it rather than changing the culture as he had vowed to do at the outset of his election campaign. And, like others before him, he has engaged in a degree of self-deception that may be psychologically necessary to justify the tactics needed to win the political game.

He has always been an instinctive leader more than an intellectual leader. He is not one to delve deeply into all the possible policy options — including sitting around engaging in extended debate about them — before making a choice. Rather, he chooses based on his gut and his most deeply held convictions. Such was the case with Iraq.

One core belief Bush holds is that all people have a God-given right to freedom. Another is his deep disdain for tyrants like Saddam Hussein and his well grounded belief that tyrants never give up their desire to possess the world’s most deadly weapons. Bush also believes that America has an obligation to use its power to lead the rest of the world towards a better and more secure future. And he believes a leader should think and act boldly to strive for the ideal.

Once Bush set a course of action, it was rarely questioned. That was certainly the case with Iraq. He was ready to bring about regime change and that, in all likelihood, meant war. The question was not whether, but merely when and how.

Over the summer of 2002 top Bush aides outlined a strategy for carefully orchestrating the coming campaign to sell the war aggressively. But in the pursuit of that goal, embracing a high level of candour and honesty about the potential war — its larger objectives, its likely costs and its possible risks — came a distant second.

What drove Bush towards military confrontation more than anything else was an ambitious and idealistic post–9/11 vision of transforming the Middle East through the spread of freedom. This view was grounded in a philosophy of coercive democracy, a belief that Iraq was ripe for conversion from a dictatorship into a beacon of liberty through the use of force and a conviction that this could be achieved at nominal cost.

Intoxicated by the influence and power of America, Bush believed that a successful transformation of Iraq could be the linchpin for realising his dream of a free Middle East. But there was a problem here — a disconnect between the president’s most heartfelt objective in going to war and the publicly stated rationale for that war.

Bush and his advisers knew that with their strong isolationist streak the American people would almost certainly not support a war launched primarily for the ambitious purpose of transforming the Middle East. The idea of coercive transformation might also provoke all kinds of debates about the realism of the project.

Rather than open this Pandora’s box, the administration chose a different path — not employing out-and-out deception but shading the truth; downplaying the reason for going to war; trying to make the weapons of mass destruction threat and the Iraqi connection to terrorism appear just a little more certain than they were; quietly disregarding some of the crucial caveats in the intelligence and minimising evidence that pointed in the opposite direction.

They also encouraged Americans to believe as fact some things that were unclear and possibly false (for example, that Saddam had an active nuclear weapons programme) and other things that were overplayed or wrong (for example, that Saddam might have had an operational relationship with Al-Qaeda). In late August, at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Nashville, Cheney said: “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us.”

Although Cheney’s strong language may have been due to his habit of being unable to stay on message — at times he simply could not contain his deep-seated certitude, even arrogance — it’s obvious that Bush knew the increasingly strong language he was employing on Iraq. Their relationship has always been clouded in mystery to some extent, but it is a close one. They spend considerable time together in private meetings, their discussions largely kept confidential.

In the 2004 re-election campaign, Cheney would be the attack dog who went after John Kerry, the Democratic candidate, a little more pointedly than the president could. It is clear to me now that some of the same strategy was used in the Iraq campaign. The vice-president can lean a little more forward in his rhetoric than the president — though I was present on one occasion when, with the media excluded, Bush himself was conspicuously candid.

On Friday September 20, 2002 he hosted a meeting with Republican governors at the White House. “Military force is my last option but it may be the only choice,” Bush stated. “I’m gonna make a prediction. Write this down. Afghanistan and Iraq will lead that part of the world to democracy. They are going to be the catalyst to change the Middle East and the world.”

Saddam was a “brutal, ugly, repugnant man who needs to go. He is also paranoid. This is a guy who killed his own security guards recently. I would like to see him gone peacefully, but if I unleash the military, I promise you it will be swift and decisive”.

When asked about building public support for war, Bush said: “There is a case to be made and I have to make it. Iraq is a threat we will deal with in a logical way. If we have to act, my choices are really three. One, someone kills. Two, the population rises up and overthrows him. Three, military action.” He emphasised the need to press ahead urgently. He also noted that the mission would be to topple Saddam and change the regime, stating that his two sons and top generals would be removed as well.

“There is nothing more risky than letting Saddam Hussein develop weapons of mass destruction,” Bush commented. “We will deal with him. This is not about inspections. It is about weapons of mass destruction and disarming the regime of them. The inspections are a means to an end. He is an evil man. I have seen a video of Saddam Hussein himself pulling the trigger on a man who didn’t like his policies.”

He stated that “it is a tough decision to commit troops. I assure you, though, if we have to go, we will be tough and swift and it will be violent so troops can move very quickly”.

When Bush was making up his mind to pursue regime change in Iraq, it is clear that his national security team did little to slow him down, to help him fully understand the tinderbox he was opening and the potential risks in doing so. If he had been given a crystal ball in which he could have foreseen the costs of war — more than 4,000 American troops killed, 30,000 injured and tens of thousands of Iraqi citizens dead — he would never have made the decision to invade, despite what he might say or feel he has to say publicly today.

A well considered understanding of the circumstances and history of Iraq and the Middle East should have been brought into the decision-making process. The responsibility to provide this understanding belonged to the president’s advisers and they failed to fulfil it. Powell was apparently the only adviser who even tried to raise doubts about the wisdom of war. The rest of the foreign policy team seemed to be preoccupied with regime change or, in the case of Condi Rice, seemingly more interested in accommodating the president’s instincts and ideas than in questioning them or educating him.

A pro-war campaign might have been more acceptable had it been accompanied by a high level of candour and honesty, but it was not. As the campaign accelerated, caveats and qualifications were downplayed or dropped altogether. Contradictory intelligence was largely ignored or disregarded. Evidence based on high confidence from the intelligence community was lumped together with intelligence of lesser confidence. A nuclear threat was added to the biological and chemical threats to create a sense of gravity and urgency. Support for terrorism was given greater weight by playing up a dubious Al-Qaeda connection to Iraq.

As the president’s top foreign policy adviser, Rice should have stood up to more experienced, strong-viewed advisers such as Cheney and Rumsfeld rather than deferring to them. However, my later experiences with Rice led me to believe that she was more interested in figuring out where the president stood and carrying out his wishes while expending only cursory effort on helping him understand the considerations and potential consequences.

It goes to an important question that critics have raised about the president. Is Bush intellectually incurious or, as some assert, actually stupid? Bush is plenty smart enough to be president, but, as I’ve noted, his leadership style is based more on instinct than deep intellectual debate.

His intellectual curiosity tends to be centred on knowing what he needs in order to articulate, advocate and defend his policies effectively. He keenly recognises the role of marketing and selling policy in today’s governance, so such an approach is understandable to some degree, but his advisers needed to recognise how potentially harmful his instinctual leadership and limited intellectual curiosity can be when it comes to crucial decisions. The fact that he has been portrayed as not bright is unfortunate, but it’s a result of his own mistakes — which could have been prevented had his beliefs been properly vetted and challenged by his top advisers. Instead, his credibility has been shattered and his public standing seemingly irreparably damaged.

In the end, of course, Bush bears ultimate responsibility for the invasion of Iraq. He made the decision to invade and he signed off on a strategy for selling the war that was less than candid and honest. An issue as grave as war must be dealt with openly, forthrightly and honestly. The American people, and especially our troops and their families, deserve nothing less.

[Via What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception]

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