Saturday, December 02, 2006

Final Days? (The Hidden Rich)

It turns out we’ve been reading the wrong Bob Woodward book to understand what’s going on with President Bush. The text we should be consulting instead is “The Final Days,” the Woodward-Bernstein account of Richard Nixon talking to the portraits on the White House walls while Watergate demolished his presidency. As Mr. Bush has ricocheted from Vietnam to Latvia to Jordan in recent weeks, we’ve witnessed the troubling behavior of a president who isn’t merely in a state of denial but is completely untethered from reality. It’s not that he can’t handle the truth about Iraq. He doesn’t know what the truth is.
So begins Frank Rich's Sunday column--Has He Started Talking to the Walls? (fully available to Times Select subscribers).

The most startling example was his insistence that Al Qaeda is primarily responsible for the country’s spiraling violence. Only a week before Mr. Bush said this, the American military spokesman on the scene, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, called Al Qaeda “extremely disorganized” in Iraq, adding that “I would question at this point how effective they are at all at the state level.” Military intelligence estimates that Al Qaeda makes up only 2 percent to 3 percent of the enemy forces in Iraq, according to Jim Miklaszewski of NBC News. The bottom line: America has a commander in chief who can’t even identify some 97 percent to 98 percent of the combatants in a war that has gone on longer than our involvement in World War II.

But that’s not the half of it. Mr. Bush relentlessly refers to Iraq’s “unity government” though it is not unified and can only nominally govern. (In Henry Kissinger’s accurate recent formulation, Iraq is not even a nation “in the historic sense.”) After that pseudo-government’s prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, brushed him off in Amman, the president nonetheless declared him “the right guy for Iraq” the morning after. This came only a day after The Times’s revelation of a secret memo by Mr. Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, judging Mr. Maliki either “ignorant of what is going on” in his own country or disingenuous or insufficiently capable of running a government. Not that it matters what Mr. Hadley writes when his boss is impervious to facts.

In truth the president is so out of it he wasn’t even meeting with the right guy. No one doubts that the most powerful political leader in Iraq is the anti-American, pro-Hezbollah cleric Moktada al-Sadr, without whom Mr. Maliki would be on the scrap heap next to his short-lived predecessors, Ayad Allawi and Ibrahim al-Jaafari. Mr. Sadr’s militia is far more powerful than the official Iraqi army that we’ve been helping to “stand up” at hideous cost all these years. If we’re not going to take him out, as John McCain proposed this month, we might as well deal with him directly rather than with Mr. Maliki, his puppet. But our president shows few signs of recognizing Mr. Sadr’s existence.

[...]

I have not been one to buy into the arguments that Mr. Bush is stupid or is the sum of his “Bushisms” or is, as feverish Internet speculation periodically has it, secretly drinking again. I still don’t. But I have believed he is a cynic — that he could always distinguish between truth and fiction even as he and Karl Rove sold us their fictions. That’s why, when the president said that “absolutely, we’re winning” in Iraq before the midterms, I just figured it was more of the same: another expedient lie to further his partisan political ends.

But that election has come and gone, and Mr. Bush is more isolated from the real world than ever. That’s scary. Neither he nor his party has anything to gain politically by pretending that Iraq is not in crisis. Yet Mr. Bush clings to his delusions with a near-rage — watch him seethe in his press conference with Mr. Maliki — that can’t be explained away by sheer stubbornness or misguided principles or a pat psychological theory. Whatever the reason, he is slipping into the same zone as Woodrow Wilson did when refusing to face the rejection of the League of Nations, as a sleepless L.B.J. did when micromanaging bombing missions in Vietnam, as Ronald Reagan did when checking out during Iran-Contra. You can understand why Jim Webb, the Virginia senator-elect with a son in Iraq, was tempted to slug the president at a White House reception for newly elected members of Congress. Mr. Bush asked “How’s your boy?” But when Mr. Webb replied, “I’d like to get them out of Iraq,” the president refused to so much as acknowledge the subject. Maybe a timely slug would have woken him up.

Or at least sounded an alarm. Some two years ago, I wrote that Iraq was Vietnam on speed, a quagmire for the MTV generation. Those jump cuts are accelerating now. The illusion that America can control events on the ground is just that: an illusion. As the list of theoretical silver bullets for Iraq grows longer (and more theoretical) by the day — special envoy, embedded military advisers, partition, outreach to Iran and Syria, Holbrooke, international conference, NATO — urgent decisions have to be made by a chief executive who is in touch with reality (or such is the minimal job description). Otherwise the events in Iraq will make the Decider’s decisions for him, as indeed they are doing already.

The joke, history may note, is that even as Mr. Bush deludes himself that he is bringing “democracy” to Iraq, he is flouting democracy at home. American voters could not have delivered a clearer mandate on the war than they did on Nov. 7, but apparently elections don’t register at the White House unless the voters dip their fingers in purple ink. Mr. Bush seems to think that the only decision he had to make was replacing Donald Rumsfeld and the mission of changing course would be accomplished.

Tell that to the Americans in Anbar Province. Back in August the chief of intelligence for the Marines filed a secret report — uncovered by Thomas Ricks of The Washington Post — concluding that American troops “are no longer capable of militarily defeating the insurgency in al-Anbar.” That finding was confirmed in an intelligence update last month. Yet American troops are still being tossed into that maw, and at least 90 have been killed there since Labor Day, including five marines, ages 19 to 24, around Thanksgiving.

Speaking of Jim Webb and his near confrontation with Dear Leader, Eleanor Clift in Newsweek offers a rather dramatic backstory:
A quirky individualist who wants no part of the phony collegiality of Washington, Webb was rightly insulted when Bush pressed him in that bullying way—“That’s not what I asked you”—trying to force the conversation back to Webb’s son. Webb could have asked how the Bush girls are doing, partying their way across Argentina. He could have told Bush he was worried about his son; the vehicle next to him was blown up recently, killing three Marines. Given the contrast between their respective offspring, Webb showed restraint.
That's right. Webb's son was nearly killed, and the President might well have known that fact since the incident killed three Marines because, as he's told us many times, he grieves over those who have fallen in the Iraq conflict.

Some more tidbits from Clift:
Webb told The Washington Post that his intention was not to offend Bush or the institution of the presidency but that “leaders do some symbolic things to try to convey who they are and what the message is.” By standing up to Bush, Webb became a hero to a lot of people who voted against this president and this war, and whose views have been sidelined for six years. Symbols matter. Bush certainly understands their importance, or he wouldn’t have jetted onto that carrier in a flight suit and stood in front of a banner that proclaimed MISSION ACCOMPLISHED more than a thousand days and thousands more deaths ago. A president snubbed by a junior senator-elect and then, more tellingly by the puppet prime minister in Iraq, should be wondering where he went wrong, not the other way around.

[...]

The lords of Washington will say that Webb got off to a rocky start, but so did Paul Wellstone, another iconoclastic citizen turned politician who dared to violate social protocol. It was another Bush and another gulf war, but Wellstone’s initial impropriety set the stage for what turned out to be a distinguished and even inspirational career that was tragically cut short by a plane crash four years ago. A professor of political science at Minnesota’s Carleton College, Wellstone was antiwar even then and had run on a progressive platform. At a White House reception in 1991 for newly elected members, Wellstone used his time in the receiving line with President George H.W. Bush to press his opposition to the first gulf war that loomed on the horizon and to urge more attention to education and health care. After he moved through the line, Bush was overheard saying, “Who is this chickens--t?” It's a sentiment the son surely shares.


0 Comments:

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home