The Buck Stops … Where?
Stop blaming your henchmen, Mr. President.
And so it seems I, too, have misunderestimated the president. This past Wednesday, I wrote a column holding George W. Bush responsible for our recent disasters—the torture at Abu Ghraib and the whole plethora of strategic errors in Iraq. My main argument was that Bush has placed too much trust, for far too long, in the judgment of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, despite his ceaseless string of bad judgments.
However, two news stories that have since come to my attention—one that appeared on the same day, the other more than two months ago—suggest not merely that Bush is guilty of "failing to recognize failure" (as my headline put it) but that he is directly culpable for the sins in question, no less so than his properly beleaguered defense chief.
The first story, written by Mark Matthews in the May 12 Baltimore Sun, quotes Secretary of State Colin Powell—on the record—as saying Bush knew about the International Committee of the Red Cross reports that were filed many months ago about the savagery at the prison. Powell is quoted as saying:
We kept the president informed of the concerns that were raised by the ICRC and other international organizations as part of my regular briefings of the president, and advised him that we had to follow these issues, and when we got notes sent to us or reports sent to us … we had to respond to them.
Powell adds that he, Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice kept Bush "fully informed of the concerns that were being expressed, not in specific details but in general terms." (Thanks to Joshua Micah Marshall, whose blog alerted me to the Sun story.)
So much for Rumsfeld's protective claim, at last week's hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, that he had failed to bring the matter to the president's attention. No wonder Bush, in turn, rode out to the Pentagon and praised his servant-secretary for doing a "superb" job.
It's amazing, by the way, how Colin Powell seems to have scuttled his good-soldier routine altogether, criticizing his president at first quasi-anonymously (through Bob Woodward's new book), then through close aides (Wil Hylton's GQ article), and now straight up in the Baltimore Sun. One wonders when he'll go all the way and start making campaign appearances for John Kerry.
The second news story that heaves more burdens on the president comes from an NBC News broadcast by Jim Miklaszewski on March 2. Apparently, Bush had three opportunities, long before the war, to destroy a terrorist camp in northern Iraq run by Abu Musab Zarqawi, the al-Qaida associate who recently cut off the head of Nicholas Berg. But the White House decided not to carry out the attack because, as the story puts it:
[T]he administration feared [that] destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq could undercut its case for war against Saddam.
The implications of this are more shocking, in their way, than the news from Abu Ghraib. Bush promoted the invasion of Iraq as a vital battle in the war on terrorism, a continuation of our response to 9/11. Here was a chance to wipe out a high-ranking terrorist. And Bush didn't take advantage of it because doing so might also wipe out a rationale for invasion.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of George W. Bush by Luke Frazza/Agence France-Presse.