Monday, May 01, 2006

April 21, 2006

The Tragedy of George W. Bush

"Mr. Bush is in the hands of a fortune that will be unremitting on the point of Iraq...If he'd invented the Bill of Rights it wouldn't get him out of his jam."

William F. Buckley, in an interview with Judy Woodruff for Bloomberg several weeks back.

Mr. Bush's Presidency has now mostly run aground amidst the harsh wilds of Mesopotamia. Iraq will likely be viewed by historians as a foolhardy over-reaching that put the lie to Bush's forward democratization strategy (and perhaps the Bush doctrine too, of which more below), indeed left it largely eviscerated, cast brutally against the rocky shoals of too grim realities. No, the war is not lost, and perhaps, just, some 'peace with honor' style settlement might still be salvaged from the wreckage. But the time has come for deep sobriety indeed about the state of the so-called global war on terror. Now, almost five years since approximately 3,000 Americans were brutally killed literally inside the very symbols of our national power, it is time for some serious reckonings.

The main perpetrator of these ghastly attacks, Osama bin Laden, remains at large. This in itself bespeaks a massive failure (albeit many key al-Qaeda figures have been brought to justice despite this woeful shortcoming, and al-Qaeda has not been able to strike the American homeland since 9/11, worth noting). America remains immensely distrusted through vast swaths of the Islamic world, so that it continues to serve as ready incubator for fanatical terrorists hell-bent on conjuring ways to maim and kill millions of Americans, if and when they can find their window of opportunity. Parts of Afghanistan and, increasingly, Pakistan, are serving as reconstituted safe-haven for neo-Talibs and other assorted al-Qaeda sympathizers that are stealthfully regrouping every day. And, in Iraq, we struggle to form even the semblance of a unitary government, an insurgency rages through Anbar Province (alone the size of Belgium), militias are multiplying, and American soldiers and Iraqis continue to bleed amidst a veritable epidemic of continuing violence. The capital and geographical lodestone of establishing a successful democracy in Iraq, Baghdad, resembles the Beirut of the late '70s more and more every day, or at least it seems so to this far-away observer.

But there is more. The global war on terror, after all, is nothing if it is not a global counter-insurgency campaign. We are meant to win hearts and minds, to lessen the anti-American animus that, fairly or unfairly, animates large swaths of the globe, from Caracas to Jakarta; from Lagos to Ankara. But we've done a very poor job of this indeed. America has shunted aside bedrock civilizational values stemming from way back to the Magna Carta, such as the concept of habeus corpus, with the detainee facility at Guantanamo (Article 39 of the Magna Carta, written in 1215: "No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him nor will we send upon him except upon the lawful judgement of his peers or the law of the land.") In addition, the American military suffered its worse moral disgrace since My Lai with the revelations of torture and abuse from Bagram to Abu Ghraib.

America, very unfortunately, is no longer seen as undisptuted avatar and protector of human rights on the world stage. Putting aside hyperbole about gulags, putting aside the varied hypocrisies of UN Human Rights Commisions run by the Syrians or related manifest absurdities, the simple reality is that America no longer automatically stands for, say, preservation of a relatively magnanimous post-war Achesonian order. It is viewed too often as an overly militaristic, indulgent, brash power. (For instance, its chattering classes of late breezily speak of new adventures in neighboring Iran, whilst two major projects to its East and West remain in, respectively, alarming and crisis-ridden state). Put simply, America is no longer seen often enough, as it should be especially among our friends at least, as a responsible power that moves, strongly and with resolve when need be, but always deliberately, with maturity, with steadiness.

The Bush Doctrine posited that those who harbor terrorists would be held to account as much as the terrorist themselves. But, 'blog-swarms' ferreting out Iraq-al Qaeda links, rapt sophomoric communion with Iraqi intelligence files or, still, the Weekly Standards hyperbole aside, our first post-Afghanistan target was likely ill-chosen, as Saddam's ties to international terror were relatively de minimis. Yes, he was a monster, a genocidaire, a perilous presence in the neighborhood. But now disabused of the erroneous information about WMD, in hindsight, mightn't we have preferred to contain this beast rather than expend the lives of now almost as many Americans who died on 9/11 to unseat him, not to mention the almost 20,000 wounded, likely 35,000 and up Iraqis killed, coalition forces felled, hundreds of billions of dollars spent (though we forget containment was not cost-free either, not by a long shot), and other assorted gruesome pain and expenditure?

We Americans are meant to be pragmatists, after all, and so we look at things through a prism of cost and benefits. And so now as the Iraq war languishes along and begins to approach WWII in duration, we wonder, was it worth it? Was it worth this blood and treasure to put into power Shi'a political parties, to varying degrees close to Iran, that will likely visit, some day, crude Shi'a majoritarian revanchism on Sunnis in their midst, setting off a cycle of violence that will go on for years until the parties exhaust themselves, while meantime the Kurds will perhaps, someday, precipitate some crisis with Turkey if they over-play their hand with their new quasi-state in the north? As I said above, the war isn't lost, and rosier outcomes remain possible. But still, but still.

George Ball, during another war, once famously advised LBJ: "You know, once on the tiger's back, we can't pick the time to dismount. You're going to lose control of this situation, and this could be very serious." Once again, we are at a very serious juncture indeed. Unlike Vietnam, we are not escalating in Iraq, and it seems all but pre-ordained that troop levels will go down, not up. The question remains, however, is the team currently in office even capable of disengaging competently, or will they make a hash of that too? Will they be too confident of the Iraqi Armies capabilities? Will it be too little too late to restore order in Baghdad? Will Anbar remain so problematic because we still don't have convincing amounts of troops, whether American or truly trained Iraqi ones, to provide order so as to win hearts and minds and then clear, build and hold? And do we have a convincing diplomatic strategy, in terms of intelligently ensuring Iraq's neighbors minimize their nefarious meddling, or will we continue, as is our wont too often, to hyper-ventilate and issue empty diktats hither dither to assorted 'bad guys'? Do we have the sleeper issue of Kurdish federalism fully gauged? Have we planned for contingencies like a serious resumption of the Shi'a insurgency, or an Iranian land-grab in the south, near Basra?

As I said, it is time for some reckonings. So here are some, in no particular order. Mr. Bush never understood the complex history of Iraq (particularly the epic ethnic tensions he was walking into), the massive nation-building task that would be necessary, or, put simply, that democracy in pre-Enlightenment societies in regions convulsed with geopolitical tension are not created on the breezy fly. Saddam was so demonized as the new Adolf Hitler, that policy-makers apparently believed he was so loathed (true) that his unseating would lead to petals being thrown at the feet of the conquering heroes (untrue). Mr. Bush, unfortunately, was ill-served by his instincts. He appeared to gravitate towards what he saw as the no-nonsense machismo of the Rumsfelds and Cheneys, and poo-pooed the cautionary notes of men who had seen war up close and personal, like Colin Powell and Richard Armitage. Rumsfeld and Cheney, in turn, were advised by men like Paul Wolfowitz and Doug Feith and Scooter Libby, men who, whatever their intellectual bona fides, displayed an appalling lack of judgment in thinking that an Ahmad Chalabi, say, a man with no grass-roots support among the Shi'a, and wanted by Jordan for alleged financial chicanery, could be somehow airdropped into Nasariya to spark the Great Iraqi Revolution, allowing for troops to be drawn down with utmost speed, and that this liberationist love-fest would then (voila!) all be paid for by Iraqi oil revenues. No one apparently gave sustained thought to how quickly the ostensibly 'liberated' become ingrates to their heretofore saviors, to the specter of a resilient insurgency (sorry, 'dead-enders'), to the worrisome prospects of ethnic conflagration and the dissolution of the country into three sectarian or ethnically homogenous para-states. These were errors born of utopic over-enthusiams, of hubris, of short-sightedness. Tragic ones. (Yes, this is all well covered ground, and not the real tragedy in all this, finally. Yet it bears remembering, not because it is fun to beat up on anyone, as many of us including this blogger supported this war knowing the above-described team was at the helm, but rather as cautionary note to attempt to at least tone down some in this very same crowd who today, not yet appropriately chastened apparently, tell us Iran, say, wouldn't be too hard either. How soon we forget, how the hubris and faith-based confidence and arrogance are so pervasive, how memories are so short!)

But the more painful tragedy is that Bush could have changed course, really changed course (more than small-scale tactical adjustments), at various junctures. Mr. Bush could have held his failed Defense Secretary to account after the Abu Ghraib debacle or, more recently, after two of the key generals leading the Iraq War on the ground (Swannack and Batiste) fingered him for a spent, discredited force that rendered even harder the prosecution of the Iraq war effort. He could have finally surmised the critical importance of establishing order in Iraq, rather than allowing his advisors to breezily contend the 'battlespace' was increasingly under control, and that hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Forces were at the ready to protect the nation from all nefarious comers. He could have recognized that 'whack-a-mole' needed to be replaced by 'ink-spotting' and 'clear, build, hold' much earlier. He could have realized that the dangers of appearing too much the 'foreign occupier', or of fostering Iraqi 'dependency,' were necessarily high class problems, if you will, concerns to be given more weight once the country was at least better stabilized. He could have realized that no serious war leader says "stuff happens" or "freedom is messy" about massive looting that convinced the majority of Iraqis that the Americans were not serious about protecting their security, at least apart from the Oil Ministry, thus losing the Coalition reservoirs of good will at a critical juncture. He could have realized that the approach of a CEO hell-bent on boosting shareholder value, looking to cut inventory and boost profits wherever possible (off-ramp the First Cavalry prematurely, based on erroneous assumptions and ignorance about troop to population ratios need for effective nation-building, so as to minimize resource-spend in Iraq, the better to prove that troop-lite worked so more funds could be budgeted for modernization rather than expanding the size of the Army). Mr. Bush could have muted his Defense Secretary who free-lanced as a Secretary of State too, with talk of "Old Europe", or the "so-called Occupied Territories", or that the British weren't really needed either push come to shove. As Chuck Hagel has noted, "we need friends". So why did we so purposefully allow major Cabinet officers to needlessly alienate many of them, even those we rightly considered rather frequently perfidious or otherwise nettlesome? We were in a position of strength, the better to rise above the fray and not get nasty in the sand-box.

But, no. No major course corrections appear afoot. This would be interpreted as a sign of weakness, you see, and this is not the way of the Bush White House. So no top down truly independent investigation, say, with Congressional involvement, of the scandals surrounding detainee policy are in the offing. No true recognition of how perilous Iraq remains, as Michael Yon passionately explains in the immediately preceding post. No thought to whether all the resources diverted from the Afghan effort are materially impacting our effort there, including the capture of Zawahiri and UBL. Instead, continuing easy bromides that 'freedom is on the march', as chaos reigns in Iraq, as Egypt and Russia and Pakistan and Uzbekistan remain mightily authoritarian (who lost Russia, the seemingly perennial question for foreign policy groupies, appears to loom large again). At the same time, our diplomats prattle on endlessly about terror and freedom to East Asian and other audiences, who in turn are more interested in sketching out a new security infrastructure in that neighborhood, or are busily attempting to outflank us via localized trading and other arrangements, with less hands-on U.S. involvement than is advisable. As for South America, our influence is on the wane, with populists gaining power in Bolivia, and demagogues in Venezuela and Cuba continuing to gain marketshare in the battleplace of ideas about what should lie in store for the future of the South American continent.

In the Holy Land, we seem to have abdicated any real role as the proverbial 'honest broker' in the Arab-Israeli dispute, pretty much agreeing to allow the Israelis (somewhat understandably, of course) to pursue a strategy of unilateral disengagement so as to present the Palestinians with something of a fait accompli on the shape of going forward borders and status of Jerusalem. No adult supervision there, but rather a sense that our policy has run adrift and that the roadmap, while still ostensibly official American policy, is something of a dead plan walking. And while commentators vacuously cheerlead a too infantile version of democracy (presto, elections!), when the results seem to run against the grain of our national interest (or that of important allies), as with the Hamas victory, we do not really follow through with the courage of our convictions. A major experiment in democracy in Palestine is greeted with, well, cutting off aid to the democratically elected victors. Meantime, the Muslim Brotherhood gains in Egypt (and reportedly more than we realize, covertly, in Jordan and Syria), and religious parties are still strong in Lebanon.

What has our democratization strategy really wrought in the Middle East, especially with Iraq still in chaos? At least arguably, it has made us look more hypocritical (Palestine), or very sloppy (Iraq), or increased Islamist influence (Egypt). Does this mean this policy makes no sense, at all? No, of course not. Creating political space in an atrophying political environment like the Middle East is critical, but it must be pursued with much greater caution. If securing a Middle East peace settlement is critical to our national interest, two states living side by side, why would we allow for conditions whereby an irredentist terror group would take power? Wouldn't it make sense to let progress on the peace process moderate Palestinian behavior, rather than rush to elections whatever the consequences, and then alienate them even further by denying them the same quantum of aid as had previously been bestowed? Is this intelligent policy?

A man with a deeper world-view would sense this veritable maelstrom of contradictions, and shades of gray, and pitfalls and perils--and perhaps challenge original assumptions, adapt policies to changing circumstances in more fundamental fashion, inject new blood into policymaking circles, not at the press secretary level in some pitiably irrelevant re-juggle, but among the very highest players of his national security team. Rather than bovine loyalty, even to proven incompetents, a man of strength and conviction and high intelligence would seek to make a new start of it, to improve our posture on the international stage, one so problematic in so many respects as sketched above. But such a man is not in power. George Bush is not that man. Mr. Bush is a man who mistakes stubborness for resolve, absolutist aims for high moral bearing, blindly staying an erroneously charted course for rock-ribbed Crawford fortitude. Thus, we stumble along and continue to endanger the national interest.

Like his father, Bush wished to put to bed forever the Vietnam syndrome, and restore a warrior ethos to our armed forces that, as some experts believed, were suffering under the effete obligations to perform such tasks as building kindergartens in Kosovo. Like a parody of some ennobled timarchic leader, Mr. Bush strode onto the Abraham Lincoln, festooned in martial, cock-sure gear, and declared Mission Accomplished, surely a moment that showcased imperial decadence and delusion if there ever was one. Instead, without realizing it, Mr. Bush created even larger peacemaking obligations for the armed forces, by never establishing order in Iraq because of trying to wage war there on the cheap. His Army is under real pressure in Iraq, and it is hurting, with some soldiers on their third or even fourth tours. Still, there is no serious talk of expanding the Army and Marines, still we err more towards transformation than established military doctrine and the manpower and troop mix requirements necessary for successful counter-insurgency, still it's heckuva job Rummie.

No, the tragedy of George Bush is ultimately one of his own making, and one that he cannot readily extricate himself from, because rigid absolutism and an overly simplistic worldview seem deeply embedded in his character. It is meant to be tough. It is meant to show resolve. It is meant to project national strength and purpose. But, no, the too often utopic aspirations instead lead to myopia. It is actually stubborn, actually short-sighted, actually too often negatively impacting the American national interest. So he (and we) are in a jam, all right, as Bill Buckley said. Yes, even if he invented the Bill of Rights, let alone went a good way towards sullying our human rights record instead. Iraq, and the continuing real risk of failure there, are tragic, of course. But it is perhaps an even more painful tragedy that, per chance, it might have been very different, were it not for profound shortcomings of Mr. Bush's character, the advisors he chose to place his trust in and rely on, and the resulting strategic and tactical blunders that were the result of the interplay of these factors, among others.

Posted by Gregory at April 21, 2006 04:29 AM | TrackBack (0)