Who's in Charge? | The Nation


Who's in Charge?

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In scene after scene, Bush establishes control. While he was prepping for a September 20 address before Congress, Rumsfeld urged him to raise the possibility that weapons of mass destruction might be used against the United States. "It's an energizer for the American people," he argued. (It also was a reason to place Iraq on the immediate target list.) Bush said no. He feared that such a reference would end up dominating his entire speech. "We have to be patient about Iraq," he said. (Bush was hardly soft on Saddam. He told his crew, "I believe Iraq was involved [in the 9/11 attacks], but I'm not going to strike them now. I don't have the evidence at this point.") In another decisive step, Bush told his National Security Council comrades, "We'll just have to put some of the most sensitive stuff not on paper." And before the NSC principals had turned to the issue, Bush was pressing for a humanitarian aid drop in Afghanistan. "Can we have the first bombs we drop be food?" he asked. As Kabul fell--almost unexpectedly to the Bush crowd, which had been keeping some of the less encouraging military reports from the public--Bush was focusing on a fertilizer plant that might be a weapons lab and issuing orders to inspect every SUV in the northeast.

About the Author

David Corn
David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. Until 2007, he was Washington editor of The Nation. He has written...

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In Woodward's telling, the members of Bush's posse were deferential to him. They looked to him to lead--them and the country. They might not always agree with his decision, but they respected it. A running subplot is Powell's occasional discomfort with Bush and the others. Powell, according to Woodward, "believed" the President made harsh, we'll-do-it-ourselves statements, "knowing they might not withstand a second analysis. Tough talk might be necessary, but it shouldn't be confused with policy." Wishful thinking? Cheney, though, "took Bush at his word. He was convinced the president was serious when he said the United States would go it alone." (Powell has since come around. With his recent presentation to the United Nations, he signaled war was the only option, with or without the UN. Poof! One of Washington's favorite dramas--Powell and the striped-pants set versus Rumsfeld and his warriors in suits--was gone.)

Is this a believable portrait of Bush? Political handlers always endeavor to show their client as the conductor swinging the baton. That may well be true in this case. But Bush's leadership is not the only point worthy of consideration. What does it say of Bush that he was predisposed to believe--without evidence--that Saddam was a 9/11 mastermind? Woodward, embracing access over analysis, doesn't explore such terrain. He engages in minimal evaluation of what he reports. But his on-the-surface account prompts important questions. "Bush's leadership style," he writes,

bordered on the hurried. He wanted action, solutions. Once on a course, he directed his energy at forging on, rarely looking back, scoffing at--even ridiculing--doubt and anything less than 100 percent commitment. He seemed to harbor few, if any, regrets. His short declarations could seem impulsive.

What might it mean for a nation to be guided into war by such a fella? Woodward leaves that to you to decide. He shows that Bush and his colleagues agreed on a go-get-'em strategy without looking too far down the road to imagine what might be wrought by their actions. Striking back at Al Qaeda and the Taliban was justified. But it would be reassuring to see Bush and the others pondering possible consequences (good and bad).

Are there clues in Woodward's book as to what will happen next (as if we need any)? He observes that "the president and his team had found that protecting and sealing the U.S. homeland was basically impossible." Consequently, "Bush believed a preemption strategy might be the only alternative if he were serious about not waiting for events." Bush at war is clearly not a person burdened by nuance. ("Either you believe in freedom, and want to--and worry about the human condition, or you don't," he tells Woodward.) To pre-empt or not to pre-empt is not a question for Bush. If you have to ask it, you already have your answer. His view is that of a sheriff who feels obligated to prevent all possible threats from reaching his town. That urge just so happens to jibe nicely with the desires of the geostrategists--Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice and various outside-the-government neocon crusaders led by Bill Kristol--who see an Iraq invasion as part of an overall campaign to project American influence and power into the Middle East either for messianic purposes (spreading democracy) or reasons of security (neutralizing a supposed regional threat), or both. In his recent State of the Union speech, Bush implicitly conceded that Saddam does not pose an immediate danger when he said, "If this threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge, all actions...would come too late." Yet, from where he sits, the absence of a discernible imminent threat is no reason not to go to war. A conceivable threat is sufficient.

And he is the one who has to make the call. In his interview with Woodward, Bush, perhaps summing up the lesson he learned from his first serious foray into foreign policy (the campaign in Afghanistan), says that UN and international coalitions might not be the best way to deal with rogue states. "Confident action," he remarked, would create "kind of a slipstream into which reluctant nations and leaders can get behind." In other words, if I go to war, others will follow (rather than howl). "His vision," Woodward writes, "clearly includes an ambitious reordering of the world through preemptive, and, if necessary, unilateral action to reduce suffering and bring peace." The White House can't be too upset with such a cursory conclusion.

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