Bush can't learn from the past if he can't see it.

Politics and policy.
May 25 2004 2:57 AM

Magical History Tour

Bush can't learn from the past if he can't see it.

In press conferences, TV ads, and interviews this year, President Bush has manifested a series of psychopathologies: an abstract notion of reality, confidence unhinged from facts and circumstances, and a conception of credibility that requires no correspondence to the external world. Tonight, as he vowed to stay the course in Iraq, Bush demonstrated another mental defect: incomprehension of his role in history as a fallible human agent. Absent such comprehension, Bush can't fix his mistakes in Iraq because he can't see how—or even that—he screwed up.

Here's how Bush, in his speech this evening, described Iraq's place in history:

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

In the last 32 months, history has placed great demands on our country, and events have come quickly. Americans have seen the flames of Sept. 11, followed battles in the mountains of Afghanistan … We've seen killers at work on trains in Madrid, in a bank in Istanbul, in a synagogue in Tunis, and at a nightclub in Bali. And now the families of our soldiers and civilian workers pray for their sons and daughters in Mosul, in Karbala, in Baghdad. We did not seek this war on terror, but this is the world as we find it. We must keep our focus. We must do our duty. History is moving, and it will tend toward hope or tend toward tragedy.

The description is almost biblical. The narrative—"this war on terror"—is a moral test arranged by higher powers. Postwar Iraq, like 9/11, Madrid, and Bali, is "the world as we find it," not as we made it. "History," not Bush, has placed the demands of occupation on our country. "Events," not Bush's mistakes and their consequences, have come quickly. We must focus on the "duty" defined by our situation, not on how we got here.

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Bush's ignorance of his part in the tragedy infects everything he says. "The swift removal of Saddam Hussein's regime last spring had an unintended effect," he observed tonight. "Instead of being killed or captured on the battlefield, some of Saddam's elite guards shed their uniforms and melted into the civilian population. [They] have reorganized, rearmed and adopted sophisticated terrorist tactics." Note the passive construction. The mistake isn't that Bush failed to prepare for guerrilla tactics commonly adopted against occupiers. It isn't even a mistake; it's an "unintended effect." The cause of that effect is Saddam's "swift removal," not Bush or anyone in his administration who engineered the removal.

Is Bush embarrassed that a year of occupation has failed to substantiate his claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and links to global terrorism? No. He hasn't even noticed. "I sent American troops to Iraq to defend our security," he repeated tonight, adding, "Iraq is now the central front in the war on terror … This will be a decisive blow to terrorism at the heart of its power and a victory for the security of America and the civilized world." Never mind the emerging evidence that North Korea, not Iraq, was engaged in the kind of WMD proliferation that Bush attributed to Saddam. In his speech, Bush simply repeated that Iraq was the headquarters of terrorists who "seek weapons of mass destruction."

For a still more airbrushed version of history, consider Bush's account of his relationship with the United Nations. "At every stage, the United States has gone to the United Nations to confront Saddam Hussein, to promise serious consequences for his actions, and to begin Iraqi reconstruction," the president asserted. Forget the part where Bush reneged on his pledge to call a Security Council vote on the use of force. Forget the part where he invaded Iraq against the wishes of a majority of the council.

When the gap between reality and Bush's happy talk becomes too painful for his party to bear, he does try to close that gap. But he never faces up to the extent of his errors. "Our commanders had estimated that a troop level below 115,000 would be sufficient at this point in the conflict," he said tonight. "Given the recent increase in violence, we will maintain our troop level at the current 138,000 as long as necessary." 138,000? Everyone knows this is grossly inadequate, as evidenced by bombings, assassinations, and hostile takeovers of cities. We can't maintain order with current troop levels. Most analysts think then-Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki was right that hundreds of thousands of troops were needed to do the job. But all Bush concedes is that the number can't be less than 115,000. Meanwhile, Bush promises to have American officers "oversee the training of a force of 260,000 Iraqi soldiers, police and other security personnel."

In some recent battles against insurgents, "the early performance of Iraqi forces fell short," Bush conceded tonight. "Some refused orders to engage the enemy. We've learned from these failures, and we've taken steps to correct them. … Successful units need to know they are fighting for the future of their own country, not for any occupying power. So we are ensuring that Iraqi forces serve under an Iraqi chain of command." Well, sort of. According to testimony by administration officials, Iraqi troops will answer to an Iraqi general. But that general, in turn, will serve under an American general. The occupying power still holds the chain.

Bush further boasted, "At my direction … we are accelerating our program to help train Iraqis to defend their country." To a reflective person, "accelerate" means we could have done this faster but didn't. That's a crucial mistake, given that we're running out of time. But to Bush, acceleration just means things are getting better.

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