The war president

One year ago, dressed in a flight suit and striking the pose of a warrior, President George W. Bush landed in a jet on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. Addressing the ship’s assembled crew, Bush declared that “major combat” in Iraq had ended. Like the administration’s confident predictions that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and had terrorist ties to Al Qaeda, Bush’s remarks have proved false. As Americans are reminded every night before their television sets, April, 2004, in which more than 110 U.S. soldiers and thousands of Iraqis were killed, was the bloodiest month of combat since the United States launched its invasion and occupation.

The president’s frail grasp of the difficulties the United States would face in pacifying Iraq, let alone in bringing “freedom and democracy” to the larger Middle East, becomes clearer every day. In his April prime-time news conference, Bush repeatedly asserted that the United States is engaged in a “historic opportunity to change the world.” Making America more secure, he argued, requires that we seize “this historic moment” to do nothing less than remake the Middle East in our image.

Confidence in Bush’s ability to effect such change might be greater if his past descriptions of the world, and of the threats facing the United States, had been more reliable. The president, however, is undeterred by the colossal failures of intelligence and diplomacy surrounding the Iraq war. He is undaunted by the damning testimony of his former counterterrorism chief, Richard Clarke, concerning the administration’s sorry record with regard to Al Qaeda before 9/11, and unmoved by Clarke’s fear that the war in Iraq has not only weakened our fight against terrorism but drawn fresh recruits and given new impetus to the enemy. Indeed, at times the president seems perilously detached from reality. During his press conference, he even suggested that WMD might still be found in Iraq. Simply repeating a charge, Bush seems to think, makes it true. It is hard to decide what is more worrisome about the president’s attitude: his willingness to continue misrepresenting the facts to the American people or the possibility that he actually believes what he’s saying.

Even his strongest supporters are worried about the president’s ability to distinguish between reality and his own self-justifying rhetoric. William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and one of the most outspoken advocates of the Iraq war and the administration’s broader agenda for the Middle East, told the Los Angeles Times (April 14) he was “depressed” by the president’s news conference. “Among people who were doubtful or worried [about the war], I don’t think he made arguments that would convince them. He didn’t explain how we are going to win there.”

No, he didn’t. Bush appears to think that reiterating the phrases “stay the course” and “we must remain steadfast and strong” amounts to a plan of action. It does not. Presumably resistance in Falluja by Baathists and in the south by radical Shiite Islamists can be put down by the U.S. military, but the long-term prospect that Iraq’s three contending and mutually antagonistic groups-Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis-will agree on the form of a new democratic government remains dim. Getting the Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites to trust one another enough to trust a democratic process, let alone to disband their well-armed militias, is the challenge of a decade, not a few months or even years.

It is clear that the administration had only the vaguest idea of how the occupation of Iraq should proceed. It is notorious for vastly underestimating the number of troops needed to maintain peace. From that initial failure, widely predicted by those of every political persuasion, a host of missteps ensued. Ruling a country of 25 million is no cakewalk even in the best of circumstances; when contending religious and ethnic groups start maneuvering for influence and power, everything is soon up for grabs. Is it really such a surprise that poorly trained Iraqi police and army units would not stand up to highly motivated insurgents? Or that Iraqis would resent occupation and distrust American efforts to arbitrate disputes among competing groups? Apparently it came as a surprise in the Pentagon and at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Bush boasts that he is a decisive leader who has the conviction and character to stand up to terrorists. “In this conflict there is no safe alternative to resolute action,” he says. Decisiveness is, of course, a necessary attribute in any leader, but decisiveness alone is not leadership, nor is decisiveness alone a solution to the security problems facing the United States. Few Americans dispute the need to destroy Al Qaeda, but many rightly question how Bush has prosecuted his “war on terrorism,” especially his decision to invade Iraq. The threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism is profound, but leading a nation decisively into a war whose consequences were unplanned for is a mark of hubris, not of resoluteness.

Waging war is the gravest decision a president can make and the heaviest moral burden he can assume. It is not enough for President Bush to be convinced of the purity of his own motives; he must also get the facts right and be honest with the American people about the costs, both in lives and treasure. George W. Bush’s record in this regard is one of astonishing miscalculation and poor judgment; some would argue it is a record of deceit as well. Whether Bush is reelected this November depends, of course, on whether Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) can convince voters that he offers a plausible alternative to the president’s deceptively simple vision of how to combat the terrorist dangers we face. So far Kerry has failed to do so. At the same time, the fact that Bush has gotten the nation and the world into this terrible mess suggests strongly that he does not possess the skills or the temperament to get us out, let alone to win the war against such a fanatical foe.

Published in the 2004-05-07 issue: 
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