THE NAKED EMPEROR “DECIDER” RETIRES TO HIS RANCH
By Nick Gier, Professor Emeritus, University of Idaho
I keep going back to that intelligence memo of August, 2001, that said that terrorists had plans to hijack planes and crash them into buildings. The president read it, and he didn't even call a staff meeting to discuss it. That is lack of attention of a high order.
--Unnamed Republican official
“I was not in those meetings [about Iraq strategy]. I had other things to do.”
--George W. Bush to Bob Woodward
The self-styled decider was also singularly lacking in decisiveness.
Lexington, The Economist, October 4, 2008
One of the hardest parts of my job is to connect Iraq to the war on terror.
--George W. Bush, September 6, 2006
What does it mean “outrages upon human dignity”?
That is a statement wide open to interpretation.
--George W. Bush
Bush is not a memorable villain so much as an affable second banana.
He’s the reckless Yalie Tom Buchanan, not Gatsby. He is smaller than life.
--Frank Rich, The New York Times, January 4, 2009
The real muscle and brains of the last eight years has been [Cheney] and I think the president has been a hapless cheerleader. That was his reputation back in school—a rah-rah guy, a cheerleader. Ducking the shoe—that’s his strength.
--Lincoln Chafee, former GOP senator from Rhode Island
There is still this certain measure of disbelief that things could have turned
out as poorly as they did.
--David Kuo, Deputy Director of Faith Based Initiatives
Bush has seemed to be comfortable only when he could make quick and firm decisions, however complicated the issue, and then move on. Admitting mistakes or changing course seems almost contrary to his nature.
--Alan Brinkley, “Worse Than Hoover,” The New Republic, Jan. 13, 2009
Bush was intolerant of confrontations and in-depth debate. The President was engaged in the war rhetorically but maintained an odd detachment from its management.
--Bob Woodward, The War Within
[The terrorists] misunderestimated the compassion of our country. I think they misunderestimated the will and the determination of the commander in chief, too.
--George W. Bush, September 26, 2001
Some of the most exciting classes in the George W. Bush School of Leadership will be Pursing the Lips and Power Smirking; Democracy for Nations Unprepared for It; Looking into the Souls of World Leaders; and Shoulder Rubs for Female Heads of State. Donald Rumsfeld is scheduled for three courses: “Stuff Happens” Democracy; Stress Positions for Defense Secretaries; and an archaeology class that will focus on the fraudulent over count of Mesopotamian vases. The ex-president will teach the capstone course: How to be Tough and Decisive without Doing Any Homework.
But let’s get serious. George W. Bush held the fewest news conferences of any president, but when he did field questions, he rarely ever answered them properly. His recent response to a question about Iraq was downright juvenile. When asked about the fact that there were no Al Qaeda fighters in Iraq before the invasion, Bush said impudently “So, what of it?” “Impudent” was my mother’s favorite word when I acted up as a kid.
In answer to the charge that America’s good name in the world has been tarnished during his tenure, Bush said that was the sole opinion of “elites.” Polls across the world that show a catastrophic drop in American credibility are of course based on random surveys of everyone not just a liberal elite. A large number of not so liberal elites, however, spoke out dramatically against McCain’s extension of Bush’s foreign policy. In a world-wide presidential vote with electoral votes assigned in proportion to a nation’s population, readers of the prestigious The Economist, a journal supporting free trade and free markets, gave Obama 9,120 world electoral votes to 158 for McCain.
Although Iraqis are definitely happy that Saddam Hussein is gone, they have a very negative view of Bush and what he has done to their nation. The Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at Bush has become a national hero. A poll commissioned by the BBC in February 2008 showed that 40 percent of Iraqis want U.S. troops out immediately, and, even more disturbing, 42 percent said that attacks on coalition forces were permissible.
Bush’s naďve ideas about democracy and pushing for elections when people were not ready for them have had disastrous results. Both Israeli and Palestinian leaders wanted to postpone the 2006 elections in which Hamas was the big winner, but Bush insisted that they go ahead. Later Bush had to eat his words about the how “healthy” it was to oust the Palestinian “old guard,” which is now cooperating with Israel in the West Bank.
The Bush administration pushed for early elections in Iraq even though it was clear that the Sunnis were not ready, and even though experts said that the Iraqi Shi’ite majority would make friends with Iran. (The Iraqi government supports Iran’s nuclear program.) During the Surge in Baghdad, Iraqi security forces were successful in forcing one million Sunnis from their homes.
In an interview with Bob Woodward, Gen. George Casey, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq from 2004-2007, said that Bush “lacked a basic grasp of what the Iraq war was about.” Bush made the same mistake as Johnson in Vietnam. Both of them were focused on body count and not the subtleties and patience needed to fight an insurgency supported by the people.
In The War Within, his fourth and final book on the Bush presidency, Woodward states that “Bush was intolerant of confrontations and in-depth debate. The President was engaged in the war rhetorically but maintained an odd detachment from its management. He never got a full handle on it, and over these years of war, too often he failed to lead.” After logging hundreds of hours of interviews with Bush officials and 11 hours with the Bush himself, Bob Woodward paints a picture of a president who was actually removed and uninterested in the details of presidential decision-making. Regarding important meetings about Iraq war strategy, Bush admitted to Woodward that “I was not in those meetings. I had other things to do.”
Woodward’s conclusion is that Stephen Hadley, Bush’s national security advisor, made some of the most important decisions of the war. (The disastrous decision to disband the Saddam’s army was made in Baghdad, not in the White House.) Hadley confessed to Woodward that Bush “will talk with great authority and assertiveness. ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ And he won’t mean it. Because he will not have gone through the considered process.” From what we know about his student days, it shouldn’t be surprising that Bush attempted to run the country without doing his homework.
Once, when Bush was confronted with a questions about torture, he asked: “What does it mean ‘outrages upon human dignity’? That is a statement wide open to interpretation.” Susan Crawford, the head of Bush’s own detainee tribunal, has determined that the “enhanced” interrogation techniques Rumsfeld approved were indeed such outrages. As evidence gathered by torture is not admissible, this means that trials against 16 of the most dangerous detainees may not go forward.
In an exit interview Condoleezza Rice, grasping for straws, boasted that the Iraqi government had made Christmas a national holiday, but she failed to acknowledge that, because of widespread persecution, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians will be celebrating Christmas in Jordan, Syria, and Sweden. With a population of 8.5 million Sweden has taken in over 70,000 Iraqi refugees, an act of compassion that puts our acceptance of a mere 15,000 to shame.
Bush thought he could answer his critics of his handling of Katrina by citing the rescue of 30,000 off rooftops by the Coast Guard, but he ignored the fact that several hundred thousand were left to fend for themselves for weeks. The one lady who was personally assured by Bush that she would get help was far too generous in forgiving him when the aid did not come.
When Woodward read something that Tony Blair said about having suffered grave doubts during his time as British prime minister, he asked Bush if he also had doubts about some of his decisions. When Bush answered, “I haven’t suffered doubt,” Woodward was so shocked that he had to ask him again. “Is that right? Not at all.” Bush answered in the affirmative. Here is the president of the most powerful nation in the world making decisions by gut instinct with little or no preparation.
In a 2004 column for the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan, conservative pundit and former Reagan speechwriter, praised Bush as “the triumph of the seemingly average American man. He is not an intellectual. Intellectuals start all the trouble in the world.” Noonan obviously “misunderestimated” the trouble that this clueless, average man has brought to the U.S. and to the world.
Although he exaggerates as all humorists do, H. L. Mencken’s 1920 prophecy has been fulfilled: “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
I for one am glad that we now have an intellectual in the White House, one who reads widely, including newspapers, and speaks in elegant and complete sentences. And contrary to right-wing detractors, Obama is a pragmatist, not a left-wing ideologue.
Alan Brinkley sums up the promise of Obama without mentioning his name is this passage: “The American people would do well, in the aftermath of this disastrous presidency, to consider the value of what may be an uninspiring, but certainly essential, quality of leadership: the ability to experiment, to make changes, to reconsider ideas and principles that fail to work, and to embrace, at least in part, the philosophy of pragmatism that is, not surprisingly, one of the few truly American contributions to the history of ideas.” I disagree with Brinkley only in the choice of the word “uninspiring.” Obama has shown that he can and will be an inspiring pragmatist.