Bushs 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 Bushs 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 Bushs 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 whos
made bad decisions. His fathers 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
fathers 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
ner-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 didnt dare take any risks. He
preferred the sure thing of a fix by his fathers 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.
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
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 didnt 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 didnt 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. "Im 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 Bushs 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.
Bushs 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 harms 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, its also true that no one knows what thoughts go
through another persons head or how a person draws that hazy line between prudence
and fear. Its clear, too, that no one serving as president is ever out of danger
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.
The larger question is whether Bushs life experiences do
make him "the right man" for this moment in American history. Does a lifetime of
avoiding consequences for ones 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 Iraqs weapons of mass
destruction, but he underestimated the task of pacifying Iraq after the initial assault by
Bush appears to have bought into his administrations 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 Husseins 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
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 Husseins 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 daughters torso and then her
severed head. But U.S. intelligence now believes that Hussein wasnt 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 Husseins
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
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
Bushs Iraq policy has come under greater scrutiny. It is now clear that the
war didnt end with the toppled statue or with Bushs 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
"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 dont understand
what theyre talking about, if thats 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 Bushs defenders, this determination is another sign that he is "the right
man" to destroy Americas enemies. Hes 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 Bushs 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.