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Bush: 'The Wrong Man?'

By Robert Parry
July 9, 2003

George W. Bush’s combative exhortation to Iraqi resistance fighters to "bring ‘em on" by launching more attacks against U.S. troops reminded his supporters why they see him as a war-hero president, what former aide and author David Frum dubbed "The Right Man" to lead the nation through post-Sept. 11 hostilities.

But Bush’s tough-guy rhetoric may instead be leading the nation into a maze of dark alleys from which many Americans, especially young soldiers dispatched to a string of conflicts, will never emerge. There is a growing sense that Bush’s life experience of underachieving privilege might make him entirely the wrong man for addressing the complex challenges the nation now faces.

Because of his family connections, Bush has never confronted the physical dangers that come with war, nor even the consequences of personal failure as an executive who’s made bad decisions. His father’s powerful friends have always been there to help, whether keeping Bush out of Vietnam or bailing out his sinking businesses or sparing him from a full vote count in Florida.

Even as a young man, Bush could say one thing and do another. He said he was for the Vietnam War, but accepted a home-side slot in the Texas Air National Guard arranged by his father’s friends. He then appears to have shirked even that duty with still-unanswered questions about why he failed a flight physical and whether he went AWOL for a year.

According to the Boston Globe, "In his final 18 months of military service in 1972 and 1973, Bush did not fly at all. And … for a full year, there is no record that he showed up for the periodic drills required of part-time guardsmen." [Boston Globe, May, 23, 2000]

In his early-to-mid adulthood, Bush continued to live a kind of risk-free life, benefiting from the generosity of his fathers’ friends who bankrolled his failed business ventures and then set him up with sinecure positions on corporate boards. While other businessmen faced genuine risks of failure, Bush lived the charmed life of a n’er-do-well who could only fail up.

When it came to democracy and the fundamental right of American citizens to have their votes count – and be counted – Bush again didn’t dare take any risks. He preferred the sure thing of a fix by his father’s friends than winning or losing based on the actual ballots cast by voters.

After Election 2000, when the Florida Supreme Court ordered a statewide recount, Bush sent his lawyers to the U.S. Supreme Court to get five Republican justices to stop the counting of votes and hand him the White House. Though the U.S. news media largely spared Bush any political damage for this unprecedented act, many world leaders now roll their eyes when Bush proclaims his commitment to democracy around the globe.

Avoiding Risk

This pattern of avoiding personal risk has carried into his presidency. On Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists crashed two planes into the World Trade Center in New York and another into the Pentagon outside Washington, Bush was on a political trip to northern Florida. With administration officials claiming that Air Force One might be another target, Bush and his entourage fled west, first to Louisiana and then to Nebraska.

Meanwhile, other Americans held their ground in Washington, showing almost no panic even with the knowledge that a fourth hijacked plane was headed toward the capital. That plane never reached its destination because Americans onboard battled the hijackers for control and the plane crashed in Pennsylvania. Hours after the danger had passed, Bush returned to Washington.

Bush didn’t take chances either on his victory lap through the Middle East in June. Instead of following the example of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who visited British troops in the Iraqi city of Basra, Bush didn’t make even a brief stop inside Iraq, as some political observers believed he would.

Instead Bush chose the much safer environs of a U.S. military base in Qatar, where he spoke in front of cheering U.S. soldiers far from the front lines. "I’m happy to see you and so are the long-suffering people of Iraq," Bush told the soldiers, who were about 500 miles out of eye-shot from Iraq.

After leaving Qatar on June 5, Air Force One flew over Iraq, tilting at 31,000 feet so Bush could look down on the sweltering city of Baghdad. Though far out of range of Iraqi weapons, Bush was surrounded by four F-18 fighter jets.

While Bush’s decision to stay out of Iraq may have been justified by the continuing violence, there was an unsettling contrast between Bush taking a peak at Baghdad from 31,000 feet and American soldiers stuck patrolling its baking-hot streets day and night, possibly for the next several years.

Necessary Prudence

Bush’s supporters naturally bristle at the suggestion that Bush is anything but a hero. In his defense, they argue that it makes no sense for Bush to put himself in harm’s way when he has the larger responsibility as the U.S. head of state and when his Secret Service protectors are demanding that he avoid danger.

In a somewhat contradictory vein, Bush backers also cite his derring-do jet flight in full pilot gear onto the aircraft carrier, U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln on May 1, as a sign of his personal bravery. The White House has since acknowledged that the carrier was within range of the presidential helicopter, but that Bush wanted to do the jet landing and even took water survival classes in case the jet crashed in the Pacific Ocean.

When judging personal courage, it’s also true that no one knows what thoughts go through another person’s head or how a person draws that hazy line between prudence and fear. It’s clear, too, that no one serving as president is ever out of danger from assassination.

Even as conservatives mocked President Bill Clinton as a cowardly draft dodger and some right-wing extremists fantasized about killing him, Clinton dove into crowds, giving his Secret Service detail fits. Living daily with the knowledge that dangerous people – whether the likes of Tim McVeigh or Osama bin Laden – want you dead is not the choice of a coward.

Right Man?

The larger question is whether Bush’s life experiences do make him "the right man" for this moment in American history. Does a lifetime of avoiding consequences for one’s decisions and actions make a person better qualified for the complex judgments of war and peace?

There is an argument to be made for that position. One could say that a person who has been insulated from the everyday experiences of the common man is less burdened with second thoughts. Also, lacking a personal sense of the human costs of war may make a leader less hesitant to commit troops to battle than someone who has been in war and has seen friends die.

But the counter-argument is that an incurious individual who has had limited contact with the world may well make judgments that are artificial and dangerous, perhaps driven more by ideology or wishful thinking than by practical assessments of what power can achieve and what reality looks like.

It is increasingly clear, for example, that Bush grossly miscalculated the situation in Iraq. Not only did Bush overstate the dangers from Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, but he underestimated the task of pacifying Iraq after the initial assault by U.S. forces.

Bush appears to have bought into his administration’s own propaganda about how easy the war would be. Initially, the thought was that the "shock and awe" bombing of some government buildings in Baghdad would lead to Saddam Hussein’s ouster followed by a rose-petal welcome for U.S. troops and a cooperative transition to a pro-U.S. government in Iraq. Next would come the neo-conservative dream of remaking the Arab world.

Looming Dangers

But the facts soon got in the way of a good story. "Shock and awe" failed to dislodge dictator Hussein. There was no popular uprising even in southern Iraq where the Shiite majority was considered hostile to Hussein’s brutal regime. As U.S. troops advanced into Iraq, they encountered no WMD but found the Iraqi resistance stiffer than expected.

Some military analysts saw these developments as warning signs that the United States was heading toward a bloody debacle in Iraq. I cited some of these analysts in an article "Bay of Pigs Meets Black Hawk Down," which observed that Bush seemed to be mixing Bay of Pigs-style wishful thinking about popular uprisings with a Black Hawk Down risk of putting U.S. forces in cultures that are both hostile and foreign.

Instead of reconsidering his course for the war, however, Bush ordered the invasion to proceed with greater ferocity and less concern about civilian casualties.

Desperate to kill Hussein, Bush ordered the bombing of an Iraqi residential restaurant on the faulty intelligence that Hussein might be eating there. Diners, including children, were ripped apart by the bombs. One mother found her daughter’s torso and then her severed head. But U.S. intelligence now believes that Hussein wasn’t there. All told, at least several thousand Iraqi civilians died in the U.S.-led invasion.

But victory supposedly cleansed all sins. When U.S. forces toppled Hussein’s statue in Baghdad on April 9, triumphant Bush supporters lashed out at the skeptics for questioning his wisdom. Some war critics were accused of treason and became the targets of blacklists aimed at denying them work. This Web site received e-mail demands for retractions and apologies for articles that had contained warnings about the looming dangers.

New Scrutiny

Yet in the weeks that have followed – with first the failure to find any trigger-ready WMD and then the expanding Iraqi attacks on isolated U.S. forces – Bush’s Iraq policy has come under greater scrutiny. It is now clear that the war didn’t end with the toppled statue or with Bush’s May 1 declaration of "Mission Accomplished." The war was just entering a new guerrilla phase.

Some war skeptics, such as former U.S. Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, had predicted as much. Before Baghdad fell, Wilson wrote that Hussein "is preparing to go underground to fight a guerrilla campaign. ….If our presence is seen as an occupation, rather than a liberation, it is entirely possible that Saddam thinks he can rebound."

Wilson, who served in posts in Africa and Iraq, earlier had played a role in debunking claims – in February 2002 – that Iraq was trying to buy uranium from Niger to build nuclear weapons. Wilson said U.S. and British officials ignored his information as they chose to make the bogus Niger uranium claim a centerpiece in their warnings about Iraq’s WMD.

"It really comes down to the administration misrepresenting the facts on an issue that was a fundamental justification for going to war," Wilson said. "It begs the question, what else are they lying about?" [Washington Post, July 6, 2003]

But Bush continues to show no doubt about his course of action. Rather than rethink the premises of the war in Iraq, Bush says he is determined to prevail. Indeed, that was the context of his "bring ‘em on" remark. He was drawing new lines in the sand for American troops to defend.

"There are some who feel like that if they attack us that we may decide to leave prematurely," Bush said on July 2 in Washington. "They don’t understand what they’re talking about, if that’s the case. …There are some who feel like that, you know, the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is bring ‘em on. We got the force necessary to deal with the security situation."

To Bush’s defenders, this determination is another sign that he is "the right man" to destroy America’s enemies. He’s not someone who will cut and run.

But to his critics, and increasingly to the U.S. soldiers in Iraq calling for the Pentagon to "get our sorry asses out of here," a different conclusion is emerging. As conditions in Iraq degenerate into violent chaos, this critical view holds that Bush’s mix of arrogance about his "gut" judgments and his lack of experience with real-world conditions is elevating – not lowering – the danger that the United States faces.

In this view, the continuing dangers to U.S. troops in Iraq have highlighted that George W. Bush may be "the wrong man" in the wrong place at a very wrong time.

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