Getting Bush Right

Who Will Be the Next George Bush?
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Oct. 25 2008 8:55 AM

Getting Bush Right

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Bob, Ron, Jacob,

Forgive my tardiness in response. I'm working long hours over here in England and France getting W. open. It's tough to keep this pace up, and it's late here. But it's great to see how you're all fighting with one another. I love it.

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I'd add this to the issue of Ron's accusation that in the movie Bush is some kind of innocent "Candide." At times, certainly, Josh Brolin plays him with charm and goofy innocence—but Bush is hardly innocent. What could be clearer in this movie, coming after his supposed evangelical conversion, than the size of his ego? It seems to me in contradiction to the demands of the born-again faith, wherein you surrender your ego to Jesus Christ. "This is my war, not his! I will not renegotiate this," he yells at Condoleezza Rice in the Bush-Scowcroft-Wall Street Journal scene two-thirds of the way through the film. W also clearly tells the assemblage in the central Situation Room scene, "I'm a gut player, always have been, and I am just so bone tired of this Saddam. ... We have got to get this war going." And earlier in the same scene: "The working Joe's not thinking about oil. We're talking 9/11 terrorists and WMDs. We're talking freedom and democracy. We're talking about 'Axis of Evil.' "

In another scene, he clearly tells Dick Cheney that he is the "decider," and he tells Karl Rove that he makes up the ideas. All men serve him. And, as Jacob portrays so wonderfully in his book, he is a creature of outsized ego, resulting partly from the fact that up until the age of 40 he was a man brewing with frustration. Forty years is a long time to wait when your father is better at sports, politics, oil, money, diplomacy, and even academics than you are. I can see in Bush's press conferences, at the very least, a seething anger and impatience with any kind of criticism that seems to affect every aspect of his life. Jacob, in his book, goes into detail about the idea that as a first-born, black-sheep son who has been criticized for so much of his life, Bush reacted by hardening his willpower to the point at which any criticism would only encourage him in the opposite direction. There are many examples of this: his reactions to the vast 12 million-to-15-million-person protest throughout the planet against his policies in Iraq, his reaction to his father's and Brent Scowcroft's criticisms of the war, and his contemptuous indifference to questions about his judgment from the press, among many other instances.

It is Bush's unchecked ego that drives him to willfully disregard facts and rely on so-called instincts, as well as his naive belief this was a just and winnable war simply because good is supposed to triumph over evil. Saddam and terrorists are clearly evil, and America is clearly for freedom and democracy; what could possibly go wrong?

Add to the mix the Project for the New American Century—whose statement of principle is "American leadership is both good for America and good for the world." The PNAC had a sense of supreme purpose: It had been advocating regime change in Iraq since 1998—and counted among its chief advocates Wolfowitz, Cheney, and Rumsfeld, who were strategically placed in the White House. There you have it: a combustible mix of ambition and faith. A perfect storm wherein Bush's ego blends with the collective desire for revenge after 9/11, the Darwinian global-domination instincts of Cheney, and the needs for re-election of Karl Rove.

And not to overlook this: We have not talked much about Richard Clarke, the White House counterterrorism expert, who writes of W.'s immediate impulse after 9/11:

The president dragged me into a room with a couple of other people, shut the door, and said, "I want you to find whether Iraq did this."

I said, "Mr. President. We've done this before. We have been looking at this. We looked at it with an open mind. There's no connection."

He came back at me and said, "Iraq! Saddam! Find out if there's a connection." And in a very intimidating way.

As Bob points out in Plan of Attack, by the Camp David meeting on Sunday, Sept. 16, Bush had decided, "We won't do Iraq now. ... We're putting Iraq off. But eventually we'll have to return to that question."

However, it wasn't long before Bush returned to that question: "By that November 21 [2001], when he took Rumsfeld aside, Bush had decided it was time to turn to Iraq. 'I want to know what the options are.' "

While Tommy Franks and Rumsfeld went full speed ahead on their war plans for Iraq from November 2001 on, Franks was telling his commanders: "This is fucking serious. You know, if you guys think this is not going to happen, you're wrong."

In April 2002, again according to Bob, when Bush hosted Tony Blair and his family at his ranch at Crawford, a British television reporter interviewed the president about Iraq.

"I made up my mind that Saddam needs to go," Bush said, announcing his explicit intentions almost a year before he launched his pre-emptive strike on Iraq.

In the fascinating discussion the three of you had setting different timelines for the actual origin of the war, I would only point out the one thing that stood out in my mind at the time: As an infantry veteran, I was struck by the commitment of Bush to send 100,000 soldiers to the Gulf in December 2002. This was the typical kind of "hide in plain sight" deployment often used in cases such as Central America in the 1980s and in previous Middle Eastern conflicts. Nevertheless, you don't send 100,000 soldiers, plus a fleet of naval ships, to a region with the idea of their coming back without having used the power. It would've cost a fortune, and it was a policy from which George Bush could not have retreated without great embarrassment and cost. It smelled clearly of war. So I think by December it was more or less decided.

I think there is a larger implication, however. I think we make too much of Iraq specifically. I think Bush's anger needed a larger pasture in which to graze. If it had not been Iraq, I think he would just as easily have turned us against Iran or, for that matter, Venezuela or Cuba or North Korea, another co-star in his "Axis of Evil" speech. The mindset is there from the beginning—of "us vs. them," the "evil-doers," the "terrorists" (which is really an undefinable term in the perspective of history). This is the essence of the Bush Doctrine, which allows the chief executive to tell us, Orwellian-style, who our enemy of the moment is.

The bigger issue is the mindset that exists in such thinking, that it's going to occur again in the cycle of our foreign policies. Even should Obama win, I can foresee these hostile situations arising over and over from such flammable policies as our expansion of NATO and our recent Russian/Georgian conflict. Bush and his ilk, in opposition, will continue to raise their voices in dissent at any kind of "soft power" response coming from the United States. We will be expected to answer perceived threats in a partial military manner because of the fierceness of our opposition party. Already Obama seems to be going in that direction in Afghanistan; it's beginning to look to me like another version of Iraq/Vietnam. We seem incapable as a system of reforming the military-industrial complex.

Finally, I just want to reiterate that the compassion this film displays toward the feelings of George Bush has not changed my sensibilities about the clear path of destruction and diminishment to which he has led our nation; yet I don't think Bush wakes up in the morning thinking about the bad things he does or could do. He believes he's a good guy; he's with the angels. In fact, I don't think he has had a moment of uncertainty about his virtue. He believes it to his core, and clearly a part of America, to a degree, believed in this, too.

Our next terrible president will not come wearing wolf's clothing or twisting a mustache. He—or she—will seem benign, friendly, and patriotic; someone who can convince us that the nuance of international relations is actually quite simple; someone with whom we'd want to have a beer. This is one of the main lessons I hope the film conveys: Will we recognize the next George W. Bush who enters national politics? Will we see the train wreck coming before we are in it?

Jacob, as I am finishing this post, I see your recent one questioning two big scenes in the film.  I would like to respond to this in my next post.

Oliver Stone is an Academy Award-winning screenwriter and the director, most recently, of W.

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