From the Bad Instincts file: believing Bush knew what he was doing
There are too many Iraq mea culpas going around to mention, but for the most part they seem to be sincere reflections on a decision that turned out to be wrong (although some predictably manage to find ways to say that regardless of their bad judgement, the hippies are even worse.)Andrew Sullivan has been doing a whole series on it and his recollections and re-evaluations are very interesting, (and somewhat infuriating, still) to read.
But this I just don't get:
Rumsfeld and Cheney were great at projecting confidence, competence and management skills.
I think this may be one of the most important perceptions that separated the believers from the non-believers. The evaluations of someone's "confidence, competence and management skills" requires a very complex set of assumptions and observations, which human instinct has evolved to do very skillfully. But we don't always see the same things. When I looked at George W. Bush I saw someone barely sentient. He was childlike and almost silly.
In fact, it frightened me to think that someone this shallow was making such momentous decisions. And it didn't help that his two lieutenants, Cheney and Rumsfeld, were old Cold Warhorses in a longstanding DC bureaucratic battle dedicated to rebuilding presidential power in the wake of Watergate so they could beat back the Commies. They were like those Japanese soldiers on a pacific island who never heard about VJ Day.
I think this anecdote captures the picture I had of this troika from the very beginning quite well:
On Jan. 10, a Wednesday morning 10 days before the inauguration, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Powell went to the Pentagon to meet with Cohen. Afterward, Bush and his team went downstairs to the Tank, the secure domain and meeting room for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Two generals briefed them on the state of the no-fly zone enforcement. No-fly zone enforcement was dangerous and expensive. Multimillion-dollar jets were put at risk bombing 57mm antiaircraft guns. Hussein had warehouses of them. As a matter of policy, was the Bush administration going to keep poking Hussein in the chest? Was there a national strategy behind this, or was it just a static tit for tat?
Lots of acronyms and program names were thrown around -- most of them familiar to Cheney, Rumsfeld and Powell, who had spent 35 years in the Army and been chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989 to 1993. President-elect Bush asked some practical questions about how things worked, but he did not offer or hint at his desires.
The Joint Chiefs' staff had placed a peppermint at each place. Bush unwrapped his and popped it into his mouth. Later he eyed Cohen's mint and flashed a pantomime query, Do you want that? Cohen signaled no, so Bush reached over and took it. Near the end of the hour-and-a-quarter briefing, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton, noticed Bush eyeing his mint, so he passed it over.
Cheney listened, but he was tired and closed his eyes, conspicuously nodding off several times. Rumsfeld, who was sitting at a far end of the table, paid close attention, though he kept asking the briefers to please speak up or please speak louder. "We're off to a great start," one of the chiefs commented privately to a colleague after the session. "The vice president fell asleep, and the secretary of defense can't hear."
That's how I saw them from the very beginning --- a spoiled dauphin under the control of grey emminences fighting the last war. They certainly struck me as malevolent, but they never seemed competent to me, quite the opposite. I'd watch those press conferences with Rumsfeld in which the press corps would call him a "rock star" and laugh uproariously at his lame jokes and feel as if I was having an out of body experience. I just never got it.
Sullivan claims that we now know they were as terrified as we were and just sort of lost their heads. Maybe. But it's at least debatable as to whether they were all that on the ball to begin with. Aside from all the evidence telling us that invading Iraq was a strategic error of massive proportions that would come at great cost and offer no gain, I felt absolutely no confidence that the group running this mission was even barely competent. I'll never understand how people looked at George W. Bush on 9/11 or any of the days after and convinced themselves that he was a great leader.
I wrote about this many, many times over the course of the last decade such as this post, in which I discussed Mark Danner's great essay about the Bush administration in the NY Review of Books:
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.
I'm not holding my breath.