Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Bush's War

I was riveted last week by the Frontline documentary Bush's War. (You can watch the whole thing online here.) I think it represents something like an authoritative narrative of the events leading up to the Iraq War and how that war has progressed since it started. It was particularly helpful for me, since I find it easy to forget who did what when, who was in charge of what, and how the administration's rhetoric and reasoning have evolved over time.

(It also makes me profoundly thankful for a free press. Even if you disagree with Frontline's take on the whole thing, it brings home the importance of having someone there to ask these questions and to tell the story. The thought of a government being able to conduct its affairs without the accountability provided by the press is rather horrifying and this story in particular brings that home.)

I've long thought that the legacy of the Bush administration would be one of arrogant incompetence. I am not one of those who attributes radically insidious motives to Bush or thinks that he is, in any straightforward sense, an evil man. Rather, I think that he is an overly simplistic thinker, with a commitment to a small number of bumper-sticker convictions about politics and the role of government, who simply was not up to the task of governing the nation in this historical moment. Moreover, he does not have the sense to think that he and his inner circle might need some input and correction outside their own number.

The incompetence thus lies in his basic inability to deal with the issues that face him (or, for that matter, any president). They are, I contend, simply too big and too complex for him and as a result, he's in way over his head. The arrogance lies in not recognizing this fact and proceeding as though his sloganish thinking is adequate to the tasks at hand. You might be able to get away with this combination as owner of the Texas Rangers or even as governor of Texas. Indeed, had history unfolded differently, Bush might have largely been able to get away with it as president. But the second those planes hit the Towers, that chance evaporated.

I think the narrative arc of Bush's War more or less confirms this analysis. The bumbling insularity of the administration's war preparations and execution come through loud and clear.
But it complicates my take somewhat because it shows what happens when arrogant incompetence does something like go to war. When you are talking about killing other human beings, deposing their government, and attempting to set up something in its place, arrogant incompetence starts to have undeniably evil effects. And the connection between the arrogance, incompetence, and those effects makes it very difficult not to render an incredibly harsh moral verdict on the one who is responsible for bringing about those effects.

There would be nothing particularly immoral if I thought that I was a masterful engineer and that because I possessed the relevant skills, I really didn't need to go to engineering school. I might be deluded or self-deceived, or maybe just silly, but I probably wouldn't be a bad person just in virtue of holding those beliefs. But if I then proceeded to design and build a bridge that subsequently collapsed and killed hundreds of people, the verdict would probably be quite different.

Of course, someone would have to allow a self-deluded engineer to build a bridge and they would accrue some responsibility if they did. Perhaps a similar responsibility therefore falls on those who allowed the Bush to do what he did: the electorate, congress, members of the Cabinet, military personnel, etc.

The documentary closes by noting that at the beginning of next year, Bush's war will belong to someone else. I find that profoundly disheartening because there does not seem to be any good way forward. I am not at all optimistic about the prospects for success there, at least not without committing far more troops than the American people are willing, and perhaps able, to commit. But I also think that simply withdrawing and coming home will leave a dangerous and unstable situation on the ground--one that we created and that will only be resolved, if at all, through an extremely violent and prolonged conflict.

The next administration can certainly blame Bush for putting us in this situation. But I don't think they'll be able to determine how best to get out of it by simply trying to pretend that it is not the situation we are in.


KAL said...

I have seen most of the same Frontline program, and you are right on! Reminds me of one of my favorite movie lines, "What kind of wanton hubris IS this?" Simplistic and misguided thinking, YES, but it is difficult to attribute deep malice aforethought. It is also difficult to see how Bush will not be considered the worst or at least one of the worst presidents we have ever had, not for malice, but for incompetence and misdirection.

A key thing -- implicated in the Frontline -- was the inner circle of people he selected or appointed (Cheney, Rumsfeld, etc.) and the ol' boy atmosphere of trust in their relationships. This was compounded by the extreme unquestioning support the administration received from the public after 9/11. The administration could do virtually whatever it felt was necessary.

Bush trusted these people (and I include Karl Rove in the mix) to guide him to the right decisions, and Voila! Poor choice of people, too much trust in them, lots of hubris all around, control of the legislature, and a blank check from the public yields a recipe for disaster. And that's what we got.

As for getting out of Iraq, I really think it can indeed be done, albeit carefully, because the international community will support it.

JAK said...

The previous comment was actually from JAK

NonVoxPop said...

I'm no fan of W, but I've heard it wondered whether the stupidity is just a front adopted for "common man" appeal, and that he's really quite bright. That would make his behavior all the worse, of course.

I remember a short time into this fiasco, before Iraq, Rusfeld on TV talking about a new army for a new sort of warfare-- basically one that consisted of lots and lots of small-group special forces units particularly for the sort of city-conflict they're now seeing in Iraq. I wonder what went wrong?

I guess the point, if there is any, between my two observations is that I think it's possible it wasn't ineptitude, but rather evil, that occasioned our present circumstance.

cory said...

I too find you to be right on the money with this post. Admittedly, I am a big Frontline fan, and I think this was one of their finest pieces.

The element of this that resonates most with me is shocking lack of accountability in a government seemingly structured to prevent and/or correct such "wanton hubris." I can't help but blame Congress for neglecting their essential oversight responsibilities and the polarized and profit-driven press refusing to risk their unfettered access by asking tough questions.

Emma said...

People should read this.