Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The De-rogue-ifier

My Nixon buddy Hugh Hewitt has stimulated a debate between Donald Rumsfeld, President Bush's defense secretary, and former White House aide Peter Wehner over how much stress Bush placed on democratizing the Middle East in the buildup to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Rumsfeld says it came up very little behind closed doors. Wehner says Bush mentioned it in several major speeches. Hewitt aptly leapfrogs the conversation:
Whatever one concludes about this debate, most serious observers connect Libya's disarmament of WMD with America's overthrow of Saddam, and aren't we glad this week that Qaddafi isn't sitting on his stockpile of deadly agents?
Hewitt's argument is preferable to those that credit Bush and his freedom agenda for Egypt's Nile grassroots revolution. What's still at issue isn't Bush's admirable post-Sept. 11 vision of a freer Middle East and Persian Gulf region but the use of force to bring it about. Besides, how could the Egyptians have been inspired by Iraq, since its inenviably tenuous democracy occurred as the result of an invasion by Western powers?

But Libya's self-de-rogue-ification because it didn't want to mess with Texas was a definite win for Bush, U.S. interests in the years since, and Libya's besieged people today.


MK said...

[Rule applies]

Bush's legacy is going to be complicated for historians to work through, for different reasons than RN's. It will be a long time before the records are available and even then, we'll only see what was written down. Unlike with RN, there will be no way to prove or disprove what happened in conversations, of course. Given the astonishing "deficits don't matter" line, I'm most interested in what constrained a president who could seem bold in some areas from acting on the fiscal and financial issues right after 9/11. The Bush-Cheney administration's timidity on that aspect of governing really leaves me scratching my head. There had to have been a recognition that you can't fight credit card wars and that bubbles eventually burst.

Under normal circumstances, I would say I know why they kicked the can down the road. It goes back to what David Brooks refers to as the rise in "economic immorality." Voters resist hearing bad news. Yet there was a brief period of time after 9/11 where there was a window of opportunity to look at some issues more realistically than usual. And to have an honest debate about budgets, taxes, and policy goals and objectives. That window eventually would have closed, of course, but it was slammed shut prematurely.

Once Rove and some of the surrogates started pushing the Democrats have a pre-9/11 mindset line, people got distracted by the silly flag pin and patriotism debates and the goodwill naturally dissipated, as I could have predicted. Shiny objects, nothing more. And we sure paid a price for that down the road. I'd love to know if there was any pushback towards the decision on the political side to go divisive rather than unifying. But such records most likely don't exist and if purely political in tone, may not even make it into NARA.

J.C. Marrero said...

Bush may have fallen in what I would call the "Churchill temptation". Just like Churchill's first premiership was only about defeating the Nazis, Bush may have seen himself as St. George fighting the al-Qaeda dragon, deficits be dammed.

Churchill was wrong more often than not throughout his career--Ireland, India, Galipoli, economic policy, and Edward VIII (as Hitchens recently reminded). But he is justly revered because he stood up to the greatest manisfestation of evil, perhaps ever, in history.

I am not sure that al Qaeda was sufficiently strong a force to be compared to the Nazis, so as to excuse all of GWB's shortcomings. Churchill was dealing with a Sequoia among relative saplings. Bush may have burned the forest to get at his evil tree.

Fr. John said...

For two such thoughtful and apt comments, all a host can say is thanks.

CH said...

Don Rumsefeld was a great disappointment as defense secretary. He did not reform the Pentagon and failed to adequately plan and execute the Iraq war. One can't help but notice that conditions in Iraq began to improve not long after Rumsfeld got the sack.

Anonymous said...

Pete simply isn't addressing the content of what Rumsfeld is saying.

Rumsfeld is pointing out correctly that the "Freedom Agenda" was never offered to the American peoples as the justification for starting a war with Iraq.

For a very good reason.

Americans and the Congress would have rejected that justification.

And Rumsfeld also points out correctly that only after the WMD failure did the "Freedom Agenda" become a _justification_ for going to war.

Talking about the value and goal of advancing freedom in the wake of a war justified on other grounds isn't at all the same as justifying committing troops to war in the name of spreading the "Freedom Agenda".

But the "Freedom Agenda" was indeed put forward after the fact as the the justification for going to war -- something it had never been before.

And -- significantly -- this became the new justification for the war, and the true, prior justification was dumped over board.

a D- or worse PR job, as Rumsfeld and Hewitt correctly assert.

Fr. John said...

Thanks for your comments. It seemed to me at the time that there was no doubt that Bush was prosecuting a freedom agenda but knew he couldn't sell it, because that's not why Americans go to war. (Destroy the sin of slavery? No. Save the union? Yes. Save Europe and resist history's worst devil? No. Avenge Pearl Harbor? Yes.)

So Iraq was justified on the basis of an imminent threat to U.S. national security in the form of support of anti-U.S. terrorism (a somewhat thin reed) and WMD (a broken one).

The Civil War and WWII were justifiable both on the basis of their pretexts and their larger purposes. Historians will have to decide whether Bush and his colleagues ever really perceived a threat from Iraq that justified the war and its costs. If they believed it and were wrong, they'll get a C for effort. If they never really believed it...

MK said...

I am not so sure Bush was motivated by a Freedom Agenda Again, as in so many other cases, I'd say we have to wait until the records are not released (definitely not a self-selecting release as Rumsfeld has done on his website.) As an historian, I read many memoirs but always with a sense of caution.

What makes me dubious of a Freedom Agenda is the inteptness with which Bush and his surrogates handled the Iraq War domestically. Simply put, you can't sell a "Freedom" agenda when so many of your surrogates thunder about the lack of patriotism of your political opponents or whine about pre-9/11 mindsets when dissent and debate are the hallmark of democracy. When people trying to sell the public on a goal demagogue an issue that much, and the public is distracted by shiny objects such as who wears flag pins or not, the underlying lack of confidence in what they are doing by the "salesmen" rises to the fore.

Bush projected a steeliness that suggests to me that he may have believed in something that the rest of his anger-displaying team (Rumsfeld, Cheney, the neocon salesmen outside government) did not. Perhaps the records will show what that was. Whatever it was, he was very poorly served by a team on his side inside and outside government whose actions screamed at least to me, "we're scared" and "oh please, believe us" rather than "come walk with us."

I lost confidence in the administration due to the tactics Bush's surrogates used: the hype, the exaggerated depictions of dissenters, the angry Big Daddys on tv wagging their fingers at viewers (anger never sells with indepedent minded people such as I), the terrible implication of lack of patriotism of anyone among the voters who didn't salute and fall into line. I've worked in government long enough to know the signs of when salesmen are confident and when the are not. Bush's weren't.

MK said...

Sorry, extra not in the sentence in the first parargrap of the comment above. That should have been, "I'd say we have to wait until the records are released (definitely not a self-selecting release as Rumsfeld has done on his website.)" Not a Freudian slip reflecting concern about future battles between the Bush-Cheney side and NARA!

Shorter version: If Bush is the RN figure, not in terms of personality or intellect, just in being a president guiding a war effort, then his salesmen came across to me red-meat flinging Spiro Agnews. No one rose among the spokesmen or surrogates to prominence who had the serenity to project "we actually have an agenda and its one worth sacrificing for." I feel sorry for Bush, at heart a decent guy, I think. Terribly served by a team inside and outside DC which escalated a trend of a lot of voters backing away from him and as 2006 and 2008 showed, his party.

Fr. John said...

That all sounds about right, MK. Thanks.