Opening Argument – Has Bush Learned Anything From His Mistakes?

National Journal

With his occupation of Iraq teetering on the brink of strategic catastrophe and his reasons for invading discredited, President Bush has offered us no sign that he has learned from his mistakes, no course correction, and all too much robotic repetition of rhetorical platitudes.

Bush’s May 24 speech to the nation was all too typical: No honest coming to grips with the seriousness of the crisis we face. No acknowledgment of the administration’s blunders that have aggravated that crisis. No pledge to expand the clearly overstretched occupation force. No plan to turn the tide against the insurgents, other than a pathetic, too-little, too-late proposal to replace the Abu Ghraib prison with a kinder, gentler lockup. No serious move to persuade foreign leaders to help. No hope of stemming the crescendo of America-hating around the world that Bush has inflamed with his arrogant diplomacy and cowboy posturing.

The best that can be said of the speech is that it was less appalling than Bush’s recent news conference, at which he ranged between utter unresponsiveness, feckless fumbling, and vacuousness. He has refused not only to talk with reporters, but also to engage with the Republican lawmakers to whom he spoke on Capitol Hill on May 20, only to flee the scene without taking any of their anxious questions.

Bush is seen by a widening circle of Democrats, independents, and even Republicans as alarmingly unequal to the demands of his office — a shallow-minded ideologue impervious to the lessons of experience and incapable of thoughtful reflection.

As one who advocated President Clinton’s impeachment and who has grave misgivings about John Kerry, I have strained to give Bush the benefit of the doubt — especially since 9/11 dramatized the enormity of the jihadist threat to our civilization. I supported the Iraq invasion based on the misleadingly selective presentation of what turned out to be badly mistaken intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons. And I have not quite given up hope that Bush may yet come to grips with his mistakes, shake up his administration, and somehow reclaim the trust that he has so badly squandered.

Symptomatic of Bush’s unwillingness to correct mistakes — let alone admit them — is his failure to fire any of the people responsible for four of recent history’s biggest debacles: the intelligence agencies’ incompetence that exposed us to the 9/11 attacks; their wild exaggeration of Saddam’s doomsday weapons programs; the Pentagon’s reckless refusal to commit the forces necessary to win the peace in Iraq; and the apparent degeneration of a covert coercive interrogation program for captured Qaeda leaders into wholesale abuse of thousands of mostly harmless Iraqis.

George Tenet, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Condoleezza Rice, and Dick Cheney are able people doing their best. But their best has quite clearly not been good enough. They, and Bush, have blown it badly in Iraq.

This is not to suggest that Bush should offer up the groveling apologies demanded so tiresomely by so many reporters. No president has ever apologized to the nation for policy mistakes, as far as I know, and to start doing so now might convey weakness. But in the words of Washington lawyer John Nolan, who was a top aide to Robert Kennedy, effective leaders "are able to acknowledge imperfection with grace. They can talk about tough situations honestly, in fact-specific, real-world terms. They can acknowledge that they didn’t know everything and state how the problem is being addressed. Tony Blair, for example, does this," Nolan says.

"By contrast, the message can be delivered in abstract phrases, rhetoric rather than specifics, numbingly repeated to the end of the day. This is what [Bush spokesman] Scott McClellan does, and often, it’s President Bush’s style. Strong leaders in government, business, law, or wherever may spin, but they don’t spin in a rut. It erodes credibility. And most importantly," according to Nolan, "when rhetorical denial is the response to every difficulty, it blocks analysis and rational decision-making."

Bush has offered little but rhetorical denial of failures, including these:

• The unqualified claims by Bush, Cheney, and others that Saddam had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, was on the verge of being a nuclear threat, and had close ties to Al Qaeda appear to have been false — and made with far more confidence than was justified by the fragmentary and disputed intelligence.

• Bush, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz were disastrously wrong in brushing aside warnings by Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki and many others that they had sent grossly insufficient forces and resources to pacify Iraq. In the words of a Wall Street Journal op-ed by conservative writer Mark Helprin, the number of U.S. troops per Iraqi is the same as the "number of uniformed police officers per inhabitant of the City of New York. But the police in New York … do not have to protect their redoubts, travel in convoys, maintain a hospital system, run a civil service, reform a government, build schools, supply electricity, [or] battle an angry population that speaks an alien language, lives in an immense territory, and is armed with automatic weapons, explosives, suicide bombers, and rocket-propelled grenades."

• Most of the Iraqis who Cheney predicted would greet us as liberators now tell pollsters they want us out. Millions see us — understandably, if unfairly — as occupiers who have betrayed our promises, have made their lives more dangerous than Saddam did, and have killed, imprisoned, mistreated, and even tortured many innocent civilians.

• Evidence is accumulating that the torture at Abu Ghraib was far more than the aberrational misconduct of "a few American troops," as Bush portrayed it on May 24. The torture appears to have been a foreseeable outgrowth of systematic abuse of thousands of Iraqi civilians by many frightened, angry U.S. troops who have no way of knowing which Iraqis are insurgents. That abuse appears, in turn, to have grown out of high-level decisions to employ in occupied Iraq, without careful supervision, extremely harsh interrogation techniques initially developed to squeeze information out of known Qaeda leaders captured in or near Afghanistan. And the indiscriminate use of such harsh techniques was facilitated by White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales’s extremely narrow reading of the 1949 Geneva Conventions.

• Bush has cast aside the decent respect for the opinions of mankind enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, and he comes across to many onetime admirers of America overseas as a simpleminded, bullying international scofflaw. He has alienated potential friends, driven new recruits into the arms of our enemies, and brought hatred of America to unprecedented levels.

• While disdaining Clinton’s failed attempt to bribe North Korea into ending its nuclear weapons program, Bush appears to have done nothing, and to have no viable plan, to slow the race by that charter member of the "axis of evil" to build a major nuclear arsenal and become a nuclear Wal-Mart.

And that is not to mention Bush’s embrace of Ariel Sharon, which has depleted American credibility as an honest broker in the Mideast; his disdain for due process, which seems likely to bring him a succession of Supreme Court rebuffs next month in cases involving two U.S. citizens and other indefinitely imprisoned "enemy combatants"; the looming fiscal disaster that Bush would accelerate by freezing in place his extravagant tax cuts disproportionately favoring the wealthiest Americans at the expense of our children and grandchildren; the pandering proposal to amend the Constitution to bar voters (as well as judges) from ever creating a right to same-sex marriage; and other unwise Bush departures from mainstream policy.

All presidents make mistakes. But no other president has publicly eschewed reading newspapers on the grounds that he can learn all he needs to know from his advisers, an unusually insular group that — with a few exceptions — acts as an ideological echo chamber and seeks to suppress dissenting voices rather than learn from them. Nor has any president in memory been so unwilling to adapt his preconceptions to the inconvenient realities of the real world.

In fairness, undue presidential sensitivity to what Bush calls "nuance" might bring paralysis or invite parody, a la John Kerry. Perhaps Learned Hand’s wisdom that "the spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right" is incompatible with presidential decisiveness and constancy. Perhaps I am too imbued with the parochial disdain of the intellectual class for a man who eschews nuance even when he has a script, who is lost without one, but who understands voters’ low tolerance for complexity. Perhaps Bush will turn the current crisis around. Perhaps he will prove that I have underestimated him. If so, I will be very, very happy to admit my mistake.