Archive for January 23rd, 2009

Bush’s Fatal Error

President Bush’s Presidency will be remembered as a failure.  It was a failure in terms of economics, as he did not undertake policies earlier to prevent a catastrophic meltdown in credit markets and the economy in general.  But it was a failure primarily due to Iraq, and what was arguably one of the most incompetently engineered foreign policy fiascos in recent history.

In 2003 the US invaded and conquered Iraq easily.  President Bush had at his disposal advice and plans that could have possibly allowed Iraq to recover and rebuild quickly.   This advice included allowing the Iraqi military to reconstitute itself, now as a loyal servant of a new Iraqi state, led by an interim government put together quickly so as to regain Iraqi sovereignty.  US military leaders had suggested a much larger force in order to provide post-invasion security, and prevent the looting and unrest that convinced Iraqis that the US cared not a whit for them.  Even the original occupation authority under Gen. Jay Garner had rational plans on how to get Iraq on the right track.   President Bush ultimately ignored all that and trusted the advice of the inner circle at the Pentagon and White House: Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and Douglas Feith.

This failure is inexcusable for a President.  No decision puts the country’s citizens more at risk, causes so much death and destruction, and can damage both the country and the international system than the choice to wage war, especially a war of aggression.   President Bush should have actively engaged and listened to people in the Pentagon, people on the ground in Iraq, and challenged the inner circle neo-conservatives.   By all accounts, including most memoirs and reporting on the conflict, this was not done.  President Bush was described as somewhat distant from the details, perhaps believing that Vice President Cheney and Secretary Rumsfeld simply understood these issues so well that he should trust them.  That faith in subordinates would undermine Bush at many turns.

This essential error — to trust subordinates — is tricky.  A President that gets too involved, and tries to micromanage, can end up not being able to stick to a decision or take bold action when necessary.   One criticism of President Carter is that he wavered between the advice of his hawkish National Security Advisor (Zbigniew Brezezinski) and the dovish Secretary of State (Cyrus Vance).   The best Presidents listen to diverse advice, don’t micromanage, but don’t simply trust major decisions to a small cadre of trusted advisors, especially when he must have known there were alternate opinions out there.

So why did Bush trust Cheney and Rumsfeld so completely, and why were these two experts with a long history of bureaucratic government service so fundamentally wrong about the nature of the challenge in Iraq?   How could the US government mess up so wholly and completely?

In Iraq the small cadre of “neo-conservatives” assumed that American power and money would be enough to easily make Iraq a stable pro-American democracy.  They did little planning for the post-war, and in a display of absurdity brought in a cadre of 20-somethings after the war to essentially run the country.   America would come in, set Iraq right, find politicians that could be manipulated, and use this as a base for re-casting the entire region into a more pro-American pro-western pro-capitalist bastion.   President Bush apparently went along with this because, as he said, “everyone wants freedom,” and it was assumed that the American way was the path to freedom everyone wants.

That kind of ethno-centric view of another society is the essence of hubris (an over-exaggerated pride and belief ones’ own power), and set up the failure in Iraq.  They didn’t understand the Sunni-Shi’ite split, the importance of having Iraqis control their own destiny, or the need to keep the Iraq military in tact rather than being angry, armed and unemployed.  They failed to recognize that democracy is very difficult to construct, and individual freedoms always sound good in the abstract, but without economic security and social order, it’s nothing but vague rhetoric.

Moreover, they had people who understood the problems, people in the State Department, the Department of Defense, high officers in the Pentagon, even on the ground in Iraq, who realized that the ideology-driven approach of Cheney, Rumsfeld, Bremer, Wolfowitz and others was way out of touch with reality.  Like the “best and the brightest” in Vietnam, the neo-conservatives were brimming with confidence, even arrogance.  Rumsfeld fired generals who disagreed (hence the blowback when he and the President received unprecedented criticism from ex-Generals when the errors were made apparent by the course of history), and remained aloof from the day to day problems, denying them in press conferences which now are routinely used to mock and embarrass Rumsfeld, who not only was wrong, but was mocking and belittling those who have been proven correct.

President Bush should not have allowed this to happen.  He should have recognized that the neo-conservatives were not supported by most of the top Pentagon brass, the state department or the CIA.   He should have realized Cheney and John Bolton’s claims that the CIA was against them for political reasons was a dubious claim, and dug for more perspectives.  He should have been very cynical about the story being given to him.

Instead, he trusted his inner circle.  They played to his sense of wanting to ‘spread freedom’ and ‘help end tyranny.’  Theirs was not conservatism or realism, but a militaristic idealism, believing America could use its power to save the world.  Many of us recognized the ridiculous nature of these claims early on.  If I could notice this from a campus in rural Maine, President Bush surely should have recognized the dangers.

Was he lazy?  Did he simply decide that the VP and Secretary of Defense were better informed and understood these issues better?   Did they master the bureaucratic game and access to the President in a way that kept the President oblivious to the myriad of problems in the American approach?  Was Bush’s flaw his loyalty to these people, or was he caught up in post-9-11 bravado?

Whatever the case, he was responsible, and his errors on Iraq were grave.  Perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are dead because of them, and those still there live in a society where much of the country is governed by Islamic extremists and militias.   I believe the same kind of errors were made on the economic front as well.   I think President Bush is a decent man, and I credit him for changing policy in his second term.  But this administration was a disaster at a time when the US needed visionary and skillful leadership.

From all accounts, Barack Obama is a very different kind of leader, one who seems to really take different perspectives seriously and intellectually engage.  It gives me hope that after eight years of having a ‘nice guy’ not quite up to the job making well intended mistakes with devastating consequences, we’ll finally have a leader who will do what a President is supposed to do.

Time will tell if that read on Obama is correct.

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