The world might be less stressful if the president of the most powerful nation didn't so frequently convey the impression that he has no idea what's going on.
Here are three recent examples of his bewildering remarks, plus one from his secretary of state.
1. "If we leave [Iraq] before the mission is complete, if we withdraw, the enemy will follow us home."
This was from a speech by George W. Bush in Lancaster, Pa., last Aug. 16. That's not so recent, but the comment was repeated just this month by Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and by Ohio Republican Rep. John Boehner; so someone up high still seems to think it's true or at least catchy.
In fact, it makes no sense whatever. First, it assumes that "the enemy" in Iraq consists entirely of al-Qaida terrorists, when they comprise only a small segment of the forces attacking U.S. troops. Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias are not likely to "follow us home."
Second, if terrorists wanted to attack American territory again (and maybe they do), their ability to do so is unaffected by whether we stay in or pull out of Iraq. It's not as if they're all holed up in Baghdad and Anbar province, just waiting for the fighting to stop so they can climb out of their foxholes and go blow up New York. If al-Qaida is a global network, its agents can fight in both places.
Third, this is a hell of a thing to say in front of the allies. It's a crudely selfish message, suggesting that we're getting a lot of people killed over there in order that nobody gets killed back here. What leader of a beleaguered nation, reading this remark, would seek America's protection?
2. "What we do know is that the Quds force was instrumental in providing these deadly IEDs to networks inside of Iraq. … And we also know that the Quds force is a part of the Iranian government. … What we don't know is whether or not the head leaders of Iran ordered the Quds force to do what they did. But here's my point: Either they knew or didn't know, and what matters is, is that they're there. What's worse—that the government knew or that the government didn't know?
There are two things worse—that the U.S. government doesn't know whether the Iranian government knew, and that the American president doesn't seem to care.
This may be unfair; he probably does care. So, what's really worse—judging from this passage from Bush's Feb. 14 press conference—is that he doesn't seem to be doing much to find out.
One way to find out might be to open up talks with Iran. Many former officials, of both parties, have urged the Bush administration to engage with Iran on a number of issues, for a number of reasons affecting national security. Here's one more. If these particularly lethal IEDs known as "explosively formed penetrators" are being supplied with the Iranian government's knowledge, maybe a deal can be struck to stop the flow; if they're being supplied without high officials' knowledge, maybe a deal can be struck to crack down jointly on the rogue agents.
One thing is clear from this: The Bush administration doesn't want to talk with the Iranians on principle. Maybe the Iranians don't want to talk with us, either. It wouldn't kill us to find out. (It didn't kill us to find out, finally, with the North Koreans.)
3.Speaking of not talking to nasty regimes, here's a remark by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at House hearings on Feb. 16:
"We don't have an ideological problem with talking to Syria. … [T]here just isn't any evidence that they're trying to change their behavior."
Rice was responding to a heartfelt plea from Republican Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia. "I beg of you," he said, "if we're going to ask a young man or woman in our military to go to Iraq three different times, it's not asking too much … to send somebody to engage with … the Syrians."
The secretary's response was a replay of Bush's response to a similar question at a press conference last August: "We've been in touch with Syria," he replied. "Colin Powell sent a message to Syria in person. Dick Armitage talked to Syria. … Syria knows what we think. … The problem is that their response hasn't been very positive."
He was referring to a trip that his former secretary of state took to the Middle East back in 2003—and, though Bush didn't mention this, Syria's response was positive. Ariel Sharon, then Israel's prime minister, had asked Powell to get Syrian President Bashar Assad to crack down on Hezbollah—and Assad did, for a little while, anyway.
Then, as now, a follow-up question might have been: How do you know what the Syrians are willing to do until you talk with them and offer them some incentives?
Again, maybe the Syrians don't want to talk with Bush. Maybe they figure that this lame-duck American president shows no sign of changing his behavior, that he has nothing useful to offer them.
4."George Washington's long struggle for freedom has also inspired generations of Americans to stand for freedom in their own time. Today, we're fighting a new war to defend our liberty and our people and our way of life."
On Feb. 19, to celebrate George Washington's birthday, President Bush gave a speech at Mount Vernon comparing himself to the father of our country and the Iraqi war to the Revolutionary War.
He should stay away from historical analogies. The crises and wars that he's invoked don't really correspond to his predicaments, or to the extent that they do, the comparisons tend not to flatter him. Washington is particularly ill-cast as a Bush stand-in.
"On the field of battle," Bush said at Mount Vernon, "Washington's forces were facing a mighty empire, and the odds against them were overwhelming. The ragged Continental Army lost more battles than it won" and "stood on the brink of disaster many times. Yet George Washington's calm hand and determination kept the cause of independence and the principles of our Declaration alive. … In the end, General Washington understood that the Revolutionary War was a test of wills, and his will was unbreakable."
Sound familiar? It's obviously meant to, but it shouldn't. Here's an awkward question: By Bush's own description, which side in the Iraq war most resembles the "ragged Continental Army" and which side the "mighty empire"? I don't mean to draw moral (or any other sort of) equivalences, because there is nothing at all equivalent about those two wars, or these two presidents, and it degrades the serious study of history to pretend there is.
But dragging Washington into Iraq is especially perverse because it's hard to imagine a war that he would have found more dreadful. Bush quotes him as having once said, "My best wishes are irresistibly excited whensoever in any country I see an oppressed nation unfurl the banners of freedom."
Yet Bush leaves out the context in which Washington made this remark. It was when the French foreign minister presented him with France's new tricolor flag. That is, it was in celebration of the French Revolution.
It was not, in any way, an endorsement of going to war to "spread freedom" around the world. To the contrary, in 1793, during France's subsequent war with much of Europe, Washington issued a Proclamation of Neutrality, forbidding American citizens from taking any action that would help one side or another.
Nor did Bush say anything about Washington's Farewell Address of 1796, in which the first president, stepping down from two terms, elaborated his views still further. Washington urged his fellow citizens to avoid "overgrown military establishments, which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty." He cautioned against "excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another." And he advised, "The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible."
At the conclusion of his Mount Vernon speech, Bush said of Washington, "His example guided us in his time; it guides us in our time; and it will guide us for all time."
Does Bush really believe that, or was he just yakking? And, as he might put it, what's worse?