President Unbound

by digby

Last week tristero approvingly linked to this exceptional essay in the NY Review of Books by Mark Danner in which he synthesizes certain aspects of recent books on the Bush administration and tells a very straighforward tale of what went wrong with the Iraq war.

Now, I have long agreed with the thesis that the chances of success were nil no matter how well the "plan" (whatever it was) was carried out. And I am fully prepared to wade through the many comments that will inevitably come stating that this is all part of a grand plan for oil or permanent bases or world domination or whatever, which will all be true to some extent or another. But as word finally begins to trickle out from this previously leak-proof administration, it's becoming clear that John DiUlio's early observations of the Mayberry Machiavellis was spot on. There was no "plan." There was just wishin' and hopin' and competing visions and magical thinking. It was as bad as any of us imagined in our craziest blog posts.

This was an unusually incompetent group at everything but domestic electoral politics (and it turns out that they weren't even all that good at that.) They may have had big plans and big ambitions, but they never had even the first clue about how to implement them. And they were led by a man of such shallow character and dim intellect that they could not learn.

This all proves that it really matters who the president is. It matters a lot. We will be electing a new administration in less than two years and it's important to try to learn from this, beyond ideology, beyond partisanship. The Bush administration debacle is not, after all, confined to Iraq. There was Katrina as well, along with untold numbers of domestic, economic and foreign policy crises that have been put into motion and haven't yet come to fruition. The malfeasance wasn't confined to Don Rumsfeld or Doug Feith.

Here's a rather long excerpt from Danner's piece that I think begins to explain just how important the choice of president is, no matter how many "grown-ups" you surround him with. (I urge you to read the wholething however for the full flavor of the dysfunction and ineptitude of the Bush White House) :

Rumsfeld's war envisioned rapid victory and rapid departure. Wolfowitz and the other Pentagon neoconservatives, on the other hand, imagined a "democratic transformation," a thoroughgoing social revolution that would take a Baathist Party–run autocracy, complete with a Baathist-led army and vast domestic spying and security services, and transform it into a functioning democratic polity—without the participation of former Baathist officials.

How to resolve this contradiction? The answer, for the Pentagon, seems to have amounted to one word: Chalabi. "When it came to Iraq," James Risen writes in State of War,

the Pentagon believed it had the silver bullet it needed to avoid messy nation building—a provisional government in exile, built around Chalabi, could be established and then brought in to Baghdad after the invasion.

This so-called "turnkey operation" seems to have appeared to be the perfect compromise plan: Chalabi was Shiite, as were most Iraqis, but he was also a secularist who had lived in the West for nearly fifty years and was close to many of the Pentagon civilians. Alas, there was one problem: the confirmed idealist in the White House "was adamant that the United States not be seen as putting its thumb on the scales" of the nascent Iraqi democracy. Chalabi, for all his immense popularity in the Pentagon and in the Vice President's office, would not be installed as president of Iraq.

Though "Bush's commitment to democracy was laudable," as Risen observes, his awkward intervention "was not really the answer to the question of postwar planning." He goes on:

Once Bush quashed the Pentagon's plans, the administration failed to develop any acceptable alternative.... Instead, once the Pentagon realized the president wasn't going to let them install Chalabi, the Pentagon leadership did virtually nothing. After Chalabi, there was no Plan B.

An unnamed White House official describes to Risen the Laurel-and-Hardy consequences within the government of the President's attachment to the idea of democratic elections in Iraq:

Part of the reason the planning for post-Saddam Iraq was so nonexistent was that the State Department had been saying if you invade, you have to plan for the postwar. And DOD said, no you don't. You can set up a provisional government in exile around Chalabi. DOD had a stupid plan, but they had a plan. But if you don't do that plan, and you don't make the Pentagon work with State to develop something else, then you go to war with no plan.

Woodward tends to blame "the broken policy process" on the relative strength of personalities gathered around the cabinet table: the power and ruthlessness of Rumsfeld, the legendary "bureaucratic infighter"; the weakness of Rice, the very function and purpose of whose job, to let the President both benefit from and control the bureaucracy, was in effect eviscerated. Suskind, more convincingly, argues that Bush and Cheney constructed precisely the government they wanted: centralized, highly secretive, its clean, direct lines of decision unencumbered by information or consultation. "There was never any policy process to break, by Condi or anyone else," Richard Armitage, the former deputy secretary of state, remarks to Suskind. "There was never one from the start. Bush didn't want one, for whatever reason." Suskind suggests why in an acute analysis of personality and leadership:

Of the many reasons the President moved in this direction, the most telling may stem from George Bush's belief in his own certainty and, especially after 9/11, his need to protect the capacity to will such certainty in the face of daunting complexity. His view of right and wrong, and of righteous actions— such as attacking evil or spreading "God's gift" of democracy—were undercut by the kind of traditional, shades-of-gray analysis that has been a staple of most presidents' diets. This President's traditional day began with Bible reading at dawn, a workout, breakfast, and the briefings of foreign and domestic threats.... The hard, complex analysis, in this model, would often be a thin offering, passed through the filters of Cheney or Rice, or not presented at all.

...This granted certain unique advantages to Bush. With fewer people privy to actual decisions, tighter confidentiality could be preserved, reducing leaks. Swift decisions—either preempting detailed deliberation or ignoring it—could move immediately to implementation, speeding the pace of execution and emphasizing the hows rather than the more complex whys.

What Bush knew before, or during, a key decision remained largely a mystery. Only a tiny group—Cheney, Rice, Card, Rove, Tenet, Rumsfeld—could break this seal.

This says it all. Bush had been this way when he was governor of Texas. We knew, for instance, that he'd had his aides read him short abstracts of death penalty reports rather than reading them himself --- and he never questioned their assumptions. The man had not ever been truly interested in the job of governance, nor did he take it particularly seriously.

Still, one would have thought that when it came to running the most powerful nation in the world he would have grown in the job. He didn't. He and Cheney created a small,insular circle of incompetent advisors that fed his ego and his tiny mind. What wasn't clear until now is how well they controlled him. It turns out --- not so much.An amazing amount of power resides in the person of the president, regardless of how dim or ill informed he is, and as that anecdote shows, when the president speaks, even if he has no idea of the consequences of his decision, people obey.

His romantic and childlike belief in the magical "democracy" that was created for public consumption by the greeting card poets on the rightwing welfare rolls led him to make a fateful decision that was both right and wrong at the same time. But he made it and there was no other plan and neither he nor anyone else seemed to think that was a problem. The tinker bell strategy in full effect.

Danner continues:

Suskind describes how many of those in the "foreign policy establishment" found themselves "befuddled" by the way the traditional policy process was viewed not only as unproductive but "perilous." Information, that is, could slow decision-making; indeed, when it had to do with a bold and risky venture like the Iraq war, information and discussion—an airing, say, of the precise obstacles facing a "democratic transition" conducted with a handful of troops—could paralyze it. If the sober consideration of history and facts stood in the way of bold action then it would be the history and the facts that would be discarded. The risk of doing nothing, the risk, that is, of the status quo, justified acting. Given the grim facts on the ground—the likelihood of a future terrorist attack from the "malignant" Middle East, the impossibility of entirely protecting the country from it—better to embrace the unknown. Better, that is, to act in the cause of "constructive instability"—a wonderfully evocative phrase, which, as Suskind writes, was

the term used by various senior officials in regard to Iraq—a term with roots in pre-9/11 ideas among neoconservatives about the need for a new, muscular, unbounded American posture; and outgrowths that swiftly took shape after the attacks made everything prior to 9/11 easily relegated to dusty history.

The past—along with old-style deliberations based on cause and effect or on agreed-upon precedents—didn't much matter; nor did those with knowledge and prevailing policy studies, of agreements between nations, or of long-standing arrangements defining the global landscape.

What mattered, by default, was the President's "instinct" to guide America across the fresh, post-9/11 terrain—a style of leadership that could be rendered within tiny, confidential circles.

America, unbound, was duly led by a President, unbound.

I blame the media for this. After 9/11 they lost their minds and became unthinking hagiographers and adminstration cheerleaders to an absurd extent. The man's halting, incoherent first press conference after 9/11 scared me more than the attacks and yet the press corps behaved as if they were in the presence of a God whose stuttering, meandering gibberish were words uttered from on high. He was called a genius and compared to Winston Churchill. Paeans to his greatness were turned into best sellers. His "gut" was infallible. It was patently obvious that he was in over his head and yet this bizarre, almost hallucinogenic image of the man emerged in the media that actually made me question my sanity at times. It took years for this trance to wear off with a majority of the public and even longer in the media. It was one of the strangest phenomenons I've ever observed.

Until recently, however, I was never quite sure if Bush himself believed it. It appears that he did. Big time. And that belief in his own hype created a completely dysfunctional organization. I suspect that what started out as a shield by Cheney and Rove to narrow the influences upon him may have morphed into a bubble designed to keep him from completely spinning out of control. But it couldn't keep him from making decisions, and make them he did, without thought or analysis or knowledge. His belief in his "gut" and God's anointment has been leading this nation since 9/11. Combined with Cheney's megalomaniacal belief in untrammelled executive power it has been a disaster.(In fact, Cheney could not have chosen a better subject to more thoroughly discredit his theory than Junior.)

I understand that it is difficult to know in advance what constitutes a real leader. A resume isn't enough to make one (although it's certainly better than not having one at all) and depending on personality or symbols isn't enough either. I don't know what the magic formula is. I do know that when someone speaks like a fool and acts like a spoiled child and appears to be "intellectually uncurious" and has never done anything in life that would give you a clue that he knows how to govern or lead -- well, it's not a good idea to make that person the most powerful person on the planet. If we've learned nothing else, I hope we have learned that.

The president matters. But whether or not we want to have a beer with him or whether or not we approve of his private life is not what matters about him or her. These are false hueristics and they don't add up to leadership any more than years of political experience translates into great political skills. Citizens need to think a little bit harder about this choice, look a little deeper, ask some serious questions. Part of the job is certainly PR and a president does have to be the star of the national TV show for four years. But it's a lot more than that and Americans need to rediscover a healthy sense of the requirements of this particular job.

Most importantly, the people who work in politics and the media need to take this more seriously. Presidential politics isn't American Idol, it's a contest for the leadership of the United States of America and putting together an "electable" package cannot be the only focus. And it goes without saying that this kewl kidz and mean girls nonsense from the press has to stop. The past six years have been a tragedy and we desperately need some thoughtful, intelligent, competent leadership to set this right.