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The President Alone in the Dark | The Nation

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The President Alone in the Dark

On January 2, there was a strange piece of news buried in a back paragraph of a front-page New York Times story by the reportorial team of David E. Sanger, Michael R. Gordon, and John F. Burns. It had the wonderful headline, "Chaos Overran Iraq Plan in '06, Bush Team Says" (as if they were just standing around, when the tsunami of chaos happened to hit…) and here was the passage:

"By May 2006, uneasy officials at the State Department and the National Security Council argued for a review of Iraq strategy. A meeting was convened at Camp David to consider those approaches, according to participants in the session, but Mr. Bush left early for a secret visit to Baghdad, where he reviewed the war plans with General Casey and Mr. Maliki, and met with the American pilot whose plane's missiles killed Iraq's Al Qaeda leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He returned to Washington in a buoyant mood."

The italics are mine. And yes, the week after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi took an American missile in the teeth, the President made a visit to Baghdad, so quick and secret that even he hardly knew he was there. At the time, the American death toll had just hit 2,500. As a signal of trust, the new Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, was given a full five-minutes notice that he was about to have the President of the United States look him "in the eye."

All of this was covered in our news, including a presidential meeting with cheering American troops and Bush's comments on his return flight--that seem as up-to-date as last night's surge speech--"I assured [the Iraqis] that we'll keep our commitment. I also made it clear to them that in order for us to keep our commitment and be successful, they themselves have to do some hard things. They themselves have to set an agenda. They themselves have to get some things accomplished." This is the sort of thing that, almost seven months later, gives you confidence that the "new way forward" is, in fact, the traditional way backward.

At a moment when the Iraqi situation was already visibly devolving into chaos, civil war, and catastrophe, that the President came home "buoyant" remains a striking detail, more so perhaps because of the fervor with which he described his own mood at the time. "I was," he claimed, "inspired."

But what was it that actually "inspired" him that week in June 2006? The death of Zarqawi certainly. The President, whose approach to his war is unnervingly personal, had built up Zarqawi's importance not just to the American public but evidently in his own mind until the man stood practically co-equal with the ever-missing Osama bin Laden. So, it may not be surprising that he would have wanted to meet the pilot whose plane's missiles killed Zarqawi--but it's still news, all these months later, and revealing news at that.

You can search the coverage of that June moment from MSNBC and the Washington Post to Fox News in vain for mention of it. All I found was this oblique reference in a presidential radio address: "…And I was honored to meet with some of our troops, including those responsible for bringing justice to the terrorist Zarqawi."

At the time, no one in the media seems to have picked up on the meeting with the pilot, although presidential doings of any sort are usually closely scrutinized. Even the White House, it appears, chose not to publicize it. So I think we have to assume that the meeting may actually have represented a private presidential desire (or, at least, the decision of someone who knew that this would give Bush special satisfaction). If so, it catches something of the character of the man who is now so ready to surge other people's sons and daughters onto the streets of Baghdad.

It's reasonable to assume that, in his heart of hearts, George Bush never really wanted to be President and, before the 9/11 attacks woke him up, many observers noted that he acted that way. On the eve of the 2001 attacks, even Republicans were griping that he wasn't into the nation's business, just the business of vacationing at the "ranch" in Crawford, Texas. One Republican congressman complained that "it was hard for Mr. Bush to get his message out if the White House lectern had a ‘Gone Fishing' sign on it."

What 9/11 seems to have awoken in him was a desire not so much to be President as to be Commander-in-Chief (or maybe sheriff). It's an urge that anyone who grew up in the darkened movie theaters of the 1950s, watching American war films and Westerns, might understand. Sooner or later, most of us, of course, left behind those thrilling screen moments in which Americans gloriously advanced to victory and the good guys did what was necessary to put the bad guys down, but my own suspicion has long been that George W. Bush did not -- and that avoiding the conflicts of the Vietnam-era helped him remain a silver-screen warrior.

In launching his Global War on Terror and the "hunt" for Osama bin Laden, the President famously said, "I want justice. And there's an old poster out West... I recall, that said, 'Wanted, Dead or Alive.'" That "old poster" was, of course, "recalled" from childhood cowboy movies, not from any West he ever experienced. Similarly, from his "Top Gun," Mission-Accomplished moment landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln to the way he kept his own "personal scorecard of the war" (little bios with accompanying photos of leading al-Qaeda figures, which he crossed out as US forces took them down), from his visible pleasure in appearing before hoo-aahing American troops wearing G.I. Joe doll-style dress-up jackets (often with "commander-in-chief" stitched across his heart) to his petulant "bring ‘em on" comment of game-playing frustration when the Iraqi insurgency wouldn't go away, it's hard not to register his childish urge for role-playing.

Every signal we have indicates that he experienced himself as, and savored finding himself in, the specific role of Commander-in-Chief, and that he has been genuinely thrilled to do commander-in-chief-like things and act in commander-in-chief-like ways, at least as once pictured in the on-screen fantasy world of his youth. Being the man who met (and congratulated) the man who shot Abu Musab al-Zarqawi certainly qualifies, even if the antiseptic act of missiling a house from a jet isn't quite the equivalent of the showdown at the OK Corral, six-gun in hand. In other words, George Bush dreams of himself in High Noon, while, in reality, he's directing a horror movie or a snuff film.

This is all so woefully infantile for the leader of the globe's last superpower. Take his response to being presented with the pistol found near Saddam Hussein when he was finally captured in his "spiderhole" in 2004. According to Time Magazine's Matthew Cooper that same year:

"Sources say that the military had the pistol mounted after the soldiers seized it from Saddam and that it was then presented to the President privately by some of the troops who played a key role in ferreting out the old tyrant. Though it was widely reported at the time that the pistol was loaded when they grabbed Saddam, Bush has told visitors that the gun was empty--and that it is still empty and safe to touch. ‘He really liked showing it off,' says a recent visitor to the White House who has seen the gun. ‘He was really proud of it.' The pistol's new place of residence is in the small study next to the Oval Office where Bush takes select visitors…"

The military knew their man--or perhaps boy; someone deeply involved not in the actual bloody carnage of Iraq, but in a fantasy Iraq War of his own imagining, a man who could still tell us last night: "We can and we will prevail" and predict "victory." This is the man who is now going to launch an "aggressive effort" to sell Congress and the American people on further madness and bloody carnage in Iraq. And this is the plan after which, according to Neil King Jr. and Greg Jaffe of the Wall Street Journal, may come the already named "nightmare scenario"--civil and regional war across the Middle East--according to some worried American officials and Arab diplomats. This is the man who holds in his hands the lives of countless Iraqis and tens of thousands of Americans about to be sent into Hell.

It's no news that George W. Bush has been living in a bubble world created by his handlers, but it's hard not to believe that his own personal "bubble" isn't far more longstanding than that. The problem, of course, is that only Mr. Bush and a few neocon stragglers are left inside the theater still showing his Iraq War movie. The Iraqis aren't there. The man who pushed the button to shoot that missile surely wasn't; nor were Zarqawi's Shiite victims; nor were the 120 or more Iraqis who died this Tuesday, including the 41 bodies found dumped throughout Baghdad and the five found scattered around Mosul; nor was Dustin Donica, the 3,000th American who died in the war; nor was Pfc. Alan R. Blohm from Kenai, Alaska. None of them could put up a "Wanted Dead or Alive" poster, cross-out the faces of the bad guys, land gloriously on an aircraft carrier, or dress up for war -- and then go home "inspired." They had the misfortune to be in a horrific reality into which a President, thoroughly in the dark, had sent them stumbling.

Now, George W. Bush is about to send even more young (and some not so young) Americans from hamlets, small towns, distant suburbs, and modest-sized cities all over America on yet another "last chance" mission. Perhaps he's even still dreaming of that moment when, in those movies of old, the Marine Corps Hymn suddenly welled up and, against all odds, our troops started forward and the enemy began to fall. But before we're done, if there's a commander he might bring to mind, it's not likely to be George Patton, but George Armstrong Custer.

What if that last chance comes to look more like a last stand? The least the President could do for the rest of us is step out of the dark of his brain, where those old films still flicker, and look around. If only…

[Note: This is the 3 part of a three-part blog. Part 1 was "Body Count"; part 2 was "Word Count."]

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