The Republican Party is determined to sell George W. Bush as the indispensable commander-in-chief, the one political leader bold enough to win the war against terror.
He’s another Winston Churchill, Rudy Giuliani gushed in his speech at the Republican National Convention. Bush has taken the fight to the terrorists and is going to destroy them, Giuliani promised. Wimpy Europeans and waffling Democrats, by contrast, show weakness preferring diplomacy, he argued. Keynote speaker Zell Miller even suggested that Bush was more than just a mere President. As Commander-in-Chief, Bush stands above criticism, Miller implied. Democrats who dare to denigrate his leadership are unpatriotic.
But the rhetoric of the Republican National Convention doesn’t mesh with observable reality. One could argue, and the Democrats should argue, that George W. Bush has been spectacularly inept as commander-in-chief of the war against terrorism.
The United States had the sympathy and support of the world after the terrorist attacks of 9-11. The initial decision to go after Al Qaida in the mountains of Afghanistan had the support of the international community and the endorsement of the United Nations. Giuliani scored some cheap points by bashing the Europeans before the jingoist Republican delegates. But terrorism is an international problem. The Bush administration doesn’t make the world safer slandering allies with whom we need cooperation. NATO troops on the ground in Afghanistan keep the Taliban at bay, for example.
Our commander-in-chief supposedly showed bold leadership when he promised to root out terrorism and destroy those who support it everywhere in the world. But facts are facts and the truth is 1) there were no Iraqis involved in either planning or carrying out the 9/11 atrocities and 2) there were no operational or ideological links connecting bin Laden’s Islamic fundamentalism to Saddam Hussein’s secular dictatorship. Abandoning the fight against Al Qaida for a war in Iraq was the first of Bush’s many mistake.
Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction just as it had no Al Qaida ties. Bush didn’t just say that Saddam had nuclear, chemical and biological weapons; he repeatedly claimed to have concrete evidence to support his charge. Great leaders inspire people to support their policies. Commander-in-Chief Bush won support by spreading fear with lies.
There were experts, like former weapons inspector Scott Ritter, who presented evidence that Iraq’s weapons program had been destroyed, but the Bush administration didn’t solicit their advice. Indeed, those who correctly predicted what would happen in Iraq continue to be disparaged and ignored while those who were wrong in planning the war remain in power and are still giving advice. That doesn’t bode well for future success.
It’s now accepted that the planning for the war, like the reasons for going to war, was based on misinformation, wrong assumptions, and bad advice. Presidents need not be international experts to conduct effective foreign affairs. But at a minimum, they need to understand human dynamics and how history works. Republicans often argue that a strong business background is a prerequisite for wise political leadership. In at least one way this is true. Just as business leaders must understand their competition, political leaders must understand their international adversaries. It is precisely in this that George W. Bush, in business as in politics, has spectacularly failed.
State Department experts prepared a paper describing the difficulties the United States would face in occupying Iraq. Bush ignored it. Though analysts warned of the importance of Iraqi nationalism as well as the potential for civil strife as Iraqi factions vied for power, Bush listened only to those who promised him a quick and easy victory.
When Army Chief of Staff General Eric K. Shinseki advised that several hundred thousand troops would be needed in Iraq, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz called his estimate “wildly off the mark.” An advocate of a war against Iraq even before the 9/11 attacks, Wolfowitz insisted that 100,000 troops would suffice. Again, Bush ignored the dispassionate advice of government experts and listened, instead, to the self-interested opinions of neo-conservative ideologues.
Neo-conservatives got their advice from Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi exile who wanted American support to overthrow Saddam Hussein. It was Chalabi who told the Bush administration that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and was bent on using them. And it was Chalabi who assured the administration that Iraqis would welcome American troops as liberators.
Chalabi had an unsavory reputation for financial wheeling and dealing and an obvious motive to give false testimony: he wanted the U.S. to spill blood and spend money so he could take power. Good leaders should be able to judge the veracity of their ardent lobbyists. Bush and his administration now consider Chalabi to be a self-promoting charlatan. Too late! Our troops, not to mention Iraqi civilians, are dying in Iraq because the Bush administration misjudged Chalabi’s character.
Rudy Giuliani is not the only Republican to compare Bush to Churchill and also to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, using the successful occupation and reconstruction of Japan and German as evidence that, under U.S. tutelage, Iraq can become a Middle East beacon of freedom and democracy. But allied planning for the occupation of Germany and Japan began well before the war ended. In forging their plans, Roosevelt and Churchill solicited the advice of military, political, business and academic experts from all across the ideological spectrum. The advice of anthropologist Ruth Benedict, an expert on Japanese culture, was especially influential in the success of Japan’s postwar reconstruction. But Bush doesn’t respect scholarship; nor does he “do” sensitivity, nuance, and political complexity. That’s for “girly-boy” Democrats, as movie tough guy Arnold Schwarznegger so delicately puts it. Red-blooded Republicans drop bombs first and ask questions later.
George W. Bush is no Franklin Roosevelt; nor can he be likened to Winston Churchill no matter how many times Republican stalwarts state that comparison. Except, perhaps, in this one regard: In 1945, before World War II had ended, Churchill’s Conservative Party lost Great Britain’s national election and Churchill was replaced by left-wing Labour Party leader Clement Atlee.
Marty Jezer's books include The Dark Ages: 1945-1960 and Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel. He writes from Brattleboro, Vermont and welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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