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Blind Into Baghdad - James Fallows - The Atlantic


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President Bush must have known that however bright the scenarios, the reality of Iraq eighteen months after the war would affect his re-election.

The political risk was enormous and obvious. Administration officials must have believed not only that the war was necessary but also that a successful occupation would not require any more forethought than they gave it.

It will be years before we fully understand how intelligent people convinced themselves of this. My guess is that three factors will be important parts of the explanation.

One is the panache of Donald Rumsfeld. He was near the zenith of his influence as the war was planned. His emphasis on the vagaries of life was all the more appealing within his circle because of his jauntiness and verve. But he was not careful about remembering his practical obligations. Precisely because he could not foresee all hazards, he should have been more zealous about avoiding the ones that were evident—the big and obvious ones the rest of the government tried to point out to him.

A second is the triumphalism of the Administration. In the twenty-five years since Ronald Reagan's rise, political conservatives have changed position in a way they have not fully recognized. Reagan's arrival marked the end of a half century of Democrat-dominated government in Washington. Yes, there has been one Democratic President since Reagan, and eventually there will be others. But as a rule the Republicans are now in command. Older Republicans—those who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, those who are now in power in the Administration—have not fully adjusted to this reality. They still feel like embattled insurgents, as if the liberals were in the driver's seat. They recognize their electoral strength but feel that in the battle of ideology their main task is to puncture fatuous liberal ideas.

The consequence is that Republicans are less used to exposing their own ideas to challenges than they should be. Today's liberals know there is a challenge to every aspect of their world view. All they have to do is turn on the radio. Today's conservatives are more likely to think that any contrary ideas are leftovers from the tired 1960s, much as liberals of the Kennedy era thought that conservatives were in thrall to Herbert Hoover. In addition, the conservatives' understanding of modern history makes them think that their instincts are likely to be right and that their critics will be proved wrong. Europeans scorned Ronald Reagan, and the United Nations feared him, but in the end the Soviet Union was gone. So for reasons of personal, political, and intellectual history, it is understandable that members of this Administration could proceed down one path in defiance of mounting evidence of its perils. The Democrats had similar destructive self-confidence in the 1960s, when they did their most grandiose Great Society thinking.

The third factor is the nature of the President himself. Leadership is always a balance between making large choices and being aware of details. George W. Bush has an obvious preference for large choices. This gave him his chance for greatness after the September 11 attacks. But his lack of curiosity about significant details may be his fatal weakness. When the decisions of the past eighteen months are assessed and judged, the Administration will be found wanting for its carelessness. Because of warnings it chose to ignore, it squandered American prestige, fortune, and lives.

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