Bush's Second-Term Test
Now that the election's over, can the president admit his mistakes?
Soon we will learn what President Bush really thinks about the way things have gone in Iraq. During the campaign, he had to appear optimistic (all is well, we're turning the corner, freedom is on the march …). Karl Rove had counseled him (correctly, it seems) that admitting mistakes is a sign of weakness and that, for instance, firing the advisers who'd given him a falsely rosy picture of "postwar" Iraq would be tantamount to admitting mistakes.
But now Bush has won his final election. He doesn't need to put on a happy face anymore. If he's so inclined, he can shake himself out of permanent campaign mode, furrow his brow, take a serious look at the world that faces him, and do what he thinks he should do, strictly on what he sees as the merits.
The question: Is he so inclined? And how does he see the world? To state the matter concretely: Will he give the boot to those who gave him such bad advice so glibly? Will he, at a minimum, fire Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his neocon entourage, most notably Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and the undersecretary for policy, Douglas Feith?
Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Feith—their fingerprints are all over every smudge of this mess:
- Two years ago, they set up their own intelligence operation, which pored over raw CIA data and "stove-piped" straight to the White House any tidbit that might remotely suggest that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction or a link to al-Qaida, even when the professionals concluded otherwise.
- In the preparations for invading Iraq, Rumsfeld whittled down the military's war plans to the barest minimum necessary to win on the battlefield, leaving nothing for securing the country afterward. Not even after the 3rd Infantry Division captured Baghdad International Airport did Rumsfeld fly in additional troops, military police, or materiel.
- When Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, testified that "several hundred thousand troops" would be needed for post-combat security and stabilization, Wolfowitz publicly upbraided him, telling the same congressional committee that it was "hard to imagine" we'd need more troops to stabilize post-Saddam Iraq than we'd needed to topple Saddam's army.
- All three (along with Vice President Dick Cheney, their abettor in the White House) torpedoed the State Department's elaborate plans for "postwar" operations, thinking they wouldn't be necessary because their man, Ahmad Chalabi, would be the exile on a white horse who would succeed Saddam on the throne, rally his millions of supporters, and lead Iraq toward Western-style democracy.
- Meanwhile, before, during, and after the war, Rumsfeld gratuitously antagonized America's traditional allies who had opposed the Iraqi venture, deriding them as "Old Europe"—irrelevant remnants of an earlier era—and thus hardened their opposition to help us later, when Bush began to realize that he needed them after all.
- Finally, Rumsfeld set in motion, covered up, and in the end did nothing to rectify the systems and procedures that led to the Abu Ghraib prison tortures, which probably inspired al-Qaida's single greatest recruitment drive of the year.
In sum, from start to (alas, not quite) finish, these three guys have been wrong, at times perniciously so, on nearly every major aspect of this war. Nor do their recent statements or activities reveal any sign that they're aware of past mistakes or that they detect a need for changes in strategy or tactics.
So what is the second-term Bush going to do with this troika? If he gets rid of them (i.e., if they resign for reasons of health, business opportunities, or the sudden desire to spend more time with their families), it may be a sign the president really does know that things aren't going well, that his top aides have given him terrible advice, and that he wants to set a different course or at least—to put it in terms that a Harvard Business School grad, like Bush, should understand—hire a more competent executive board.
If the president doesn't show them the door, then we can only conclude that he believes what he's been saying, that his pronouncements on staying the course are not mere campaign slogans, that he truly has shuffled off the coil of a reality-based world.
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 Bush by Jason Reed/Reuters.