Learning From Bush's Mistakes
How a prewar conversation can help us pick the next president.
The Spanish newspaper El País recently published the transcript of a conversation between President George W. Bush and then-Prime Minister José María Aznar on Feb. 22, 2003—a few weeks before the invasion of Iraq—and it confirms some (though not all) of the most dreadful accounts and suspicions about Bush's intentions and nature.
It may be a bit late in the day for another round in the debate over how the war in Iraq began. But the time is ripe for a discussion of what qualities the next president should possess—and the transcript reveals that, in many aspects, they should be the opposite of President Bush's qualities.
The crucial exchange, in this respect, comes toward the end of the conversation, when the two leaders are discussing the magnitude of changing Saddam Hussein's regime by force.
AZNAR: The only thing that worries me about you is your optimism.
BUSH: I'm an optimist because I believe that I'm right. I'm a person at peace with myself. It was our turn to face a serious threat to peace.
Here, in three sentences, is the first lesson on how to assess the current crop of presidential candidates: Don't pick anyone who utters, or seems capable of believing, those three sentences.
"I'm an optimist because I believe that I'm right." There's a delusional tautology to this sentence. (Bush is quoted as making similar remarks in Robert Draper's book Dead Certain.) To the extent that sensible people are optimistic about something, it's not because of a belief, much less a belief in their own wisdom; it's because the facts at hand—or perhaps their experiences with similar situations—suggest that a positive outcome is likely. Bush had no experiences, on any level, with anything like war or Iraq. Nobody would give money to a stockbroker who says that he's optimistic about his investments because he believes he's right (not even that he generally is right, just that he believes he's right). Nobody should vote for a would-be president who talks like this, either.
"I'm a person at peace with myself." Taken by itself, this can be a reassuring sentiment. A leader should be comfortable with power, assured at making decisions. But combined with the first sentence, it's the sort of thing that might be uttered by … well, by George W. Bush.
"It was our turn to face a serious threat to peace." Beware the politician who sees his life as an appointment with destiny. Ditto a president who thinks it's his "turn" to do anything, much less to go to war and save civilization. Elsewhere in the transcript, Bush talks of being "guided by a historic sense of responsibility," of looking ahead "some years from now," when "History judges us." History walks on two feet, as Karl Marx wrote (in one of his least Marxist pronouncements). All that anyone, including a president, can do is make the best judgments and take the wisest actions, given the circumstances, resources, and options at hand. History can be a useful guide, but it's neither a force nor a judge. (Or if it is, its rulings are hardly definitive. Debates still rage, after all these centuries, over the relative merits of Hamilton, Adams, and Jefferson.)
Another lesson that a president-wannabe, and those of us deciding which one to vote for, could take from this transcript: Never overestimate your own power.
Prime Minister Aznar—who, it is worth noting, favored going to war—keeps urging Bush to wait a little longer before invading, in order to assemble a broader coalition. "I agree," he says after Bush tells him it's time to put a stop to Saddam's dithering, "but it would be good to be able to count on as many people as possible. Be a little bit patient."
"My patience is over," Bush replies. "I don't even think about [waiting] beyond mid-March." The other members of the U.N. Security Council, he says, "have to know" that friendship with the United States is at stake. If Chile doesn't go along with a war resolution, the Free Trade Agreement is in trouble. If Angola falters, its leaders should forget about receiving funds from the Millennium Account. Vladimir Putin should know "that his attitude is jeopardizing" U.S.-Russian relations.
Bush didn't realize—nor did most of his top advisers—that the United States, while still powerful, no longer had the leverage to play this kind of hardball. He was in no position to offer, or therefore to withhold, security guarantees. These countries could go, and have gone, elsewhere for trade deals. And as for Russia, skyrocketing oil prices and the resurgence of national industries allowed Putin to behave without much fear of Washington's wrath.
An additional lesson that one could glean from these transcripts: Never let timetables for mobilization determine decisions about war.
At the beginning of the transcript, Bush says of Saddam, "We have to get him right now. … There are two weeks left. In two weeks, we'll be militarily ready." This seems to be at least one reason Bush doesn't "even think about" postponing the invasion past mid-March. His attitude is: Unleash the dogs of war when they're ready; and "in two weeks," by mid-March, they'll be ready.
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 email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar by Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images. Photograph of President George Bush on Slate's home page by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images.