George Bush, Make-Believe President

Not Qualified, Not Truthful, Not Wise

 February 24, 2004

President Bush's war in Iraq, oddly, has begun to remind me of the floating craps game in Guys and Dolls. In the classic musical, the "guys" have to keep moving the venue from one hiding place to another—to avoid getting caught playing an illegal gambling game. The president, with much bigger stakes, keeps moving his rationale for the war (as he rolls the dice)—to avoid getting caught playing with the truth.

His problem is that he has been caught.

All the recent revelations about the recklessness of his war policy, the delusory nature of his economic plan, the heretofore masked role of Vice President Dick Cheney as the unaccountable power directing the throne, have revealed Bush as he is—a limited man missing many qualifications for the job. This pulling back of the curtain, all at once, has made clear that while George W. Bush may be a religiously sincere man who actually believes he's trying to do good, he is, in the same incarnation, a make-believe president who has made a mess of almost everything and put the country at risk in many ways, including the risk of economic disorder.

In some of his latest appearances, the revealed Bush, in word and demeanor, has appeared wan and defensive, even hunched—and yet he does not come clean. He cannot seem to take the final step and apologize to a nation that has already lost more than 500 sons and daughters to his Iraq war; each week, another nine or 10 fall. Apologies, ever rare in public life, are even rarer in election years.

Virtually none of the "facts" this president gave after 9-11 to win public and congressional support for an urgent preemptive invasion of Iraq have turned out to be true. No stockpiles of "weapons of mass destruction" have been found in the nine months since victory was declared. No functional production facilities for chemical or biological weapons have been unearthed. Iraq's nuclear bomb program—which the White House told us was being ramped up again—did not exist. On the eve of war last March 17, with the decision made and our troops and planes poised for the command to go, George Bush spoke to the nation on television from the Oval Office. He spelled out one more time his core justification for starting a war without being attacked by the other side. "Intelligence gathered by this and other governments," he said, "leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised."

He said "no doubt." But a wiser commander in chief would have had tugs of uncertainty at a moment like that. Intelligence is iffy. The CIA analysts always use caveats when they issue findings. Satellite photos, for example, can seem to show absolutes—and then turn out to be inaccurate. Bush and his White House chorus had no place in their calculus for caveats or reservations of any kind. They had "no doubt."

Well, their certitude is now shown to have been essentially a stew of hyperbole, concoction, and in some cases the knowing use of forged documents from foreign sources (namely a dossier claiming to show that Iraq sought to buy enriched uranium from Niger—which Bush alluded to in his 2003 State of the Union address as evidence of the Iraqi threat).

The White House also had no doubt that the military occupation of Iraq was going to be a relatively smooth one, with administration officials predicting a countrywide embrace of the American troops as liberators, followed by a steady march toward a secular, constitutional democracy. Perhaps the Bush hawks thought it would be unseemly to mention that the three main blocs in Iraq—the Sunnis, the Shiites, and the Kurds—had been killing each other for generations. The ethnic and religious bloodletting has already started again. A more well-balanced president might have prepared us.

This affable Texas carouser who, with his wife's firm intervention, turned around his tosspot life and found born-again direction through evangelical Christianity seems addled and stunned that slings and arrows are presently flying at him from all directions. Even his conservative Republican base is saying he has put the nation's economy in jeopardy with reckless spending and record deficits.

Last week, NBC's Tim Russert, interviewing Bush in the Oval Office for Meet the Press, took note of polls showing that an unusual number of Americans are "angry or dissatisfied with you" and asked, "Why do you think you are perceived as such a divider?"

Bush: "Gosh, I don't know, because I'm working hard to unite the country. . . . I don't speak ill of anybody in the process here . . . I don't attack."

Russert tried again, bringing up the president's unpopularity in Europe and asking why he was disliked there.

Bush: "Heck, I don't know. Ronald Reagan was unpopular in Europe . . . I'm keeping pretty good company. I think that people, when you do hard things, when you ask hard things of people, it can create tensions. . . . I'll tell you, though, I'm not going to change, see? I'm not trying to accommodate. I won't change my philosophy or my point of view."

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