Paternity is the Mother of all Bullshit

Robert Scheer disects Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack in today's LA Times Book Review...
If Bob Woodward is right — and he has had more access to the president of the United States and his team than anyone else in the Fourth Estate — George W. Bush views introspection as a sign of weakness, and doubt as a failure of character. Though there are several major revelations embedded in the hundreds of pages of minutiae that fill out "Plan of Attack," the famed reporter's latest epic fly-on-the-wall chronicle of the halls of power is fascinating less for its scrupulous examination of the administration's inexorable rush to war with Iraq than for the way he vividly captures Bush's resolve. For it is the president's native gift to remain "on message" no matter how confounding the facts on which he bases his policies or tragic the consequences of his actions.

Woodward has written an astonishing book: It reveals the startling degree of contempt, confusion, political ambition and personal vendetta that seems to dominate the inner circle around the president but which, until recently, has been largely kept from the public. Along the way, Woodward confirms many of the assertions in recent books by former Bush administration Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and National Security Council antiterrorism chief Richard A. Clarke. Here, in abundant detail, is a convincing portrait of a president who, it appears, consciously exploited America's fears after Sept. 11 to pursue an extraneous but deeply held animus against Saddam Hussein, the already-defanged dictator of Iraq.

According to Woodward, Bush was told repeatedly by many of his advisors that the evidence linking Hussein to Sept. 11 was nonexistent; nonetheless, the president in his public speeches continued to successfully connect the two. Eighty percent of Americans would come to believe something that the president knew privately to be false.

The president was never convinced that the claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction could be substantiated with sufficient credibility to satisfy himself; nor did he believe that the evidence presented to him would sway, as the president put it, "Joe Public." In public, however, he never evinced any misgivings.

Why then was Bush determined from the outset to topple Hussein from power? The closest explanation Woodward elicits from the president is that Hussein is "a bad guy." Bush promises Italy's prime minister on Jan. 30, 2003, that "we will kick his ass." But the question that Woodward does not get Bush to answer is, why preemptively strike Iraq? Why dethrone the Iraqi despot when you have enjoined the nation to fight a ubiquitous band of terrorists in Afghanistan led by a disaffected Saudi religious fanatic who is a sworn enemy of the secular Iraqi dictator?

According to "Plan of Attack," Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney began to gear up to get Iraq only 72 days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Moreover, their effort to overthrow Hussein was underway in earnest even as U.S. troops were battling in Afghanistan, trying to capture or kill the elusive Osama bin Laden, root out the Taliban and bring competing local warlords to heel. Gen. Tommy Franks, who was in charge of that operation, knew he had much work ahead to stabilize Afghanistan and, according to Woodward, sputtered a string of expletives when asked to suddenly plan for the overthrow of Hussein, who, as was already well known, had no serious ties to the terrorists harbored in Afghanistan by the Taliban.

But the president is a man whose mind is made up. Woodward shows him collaring Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in a White House hallway after a meeting and announcing, out of the blue, that he wants the planning for an invasion of Iraq to begin in earnest. Somehow, Bush is convinced that the terrorist threat posed by Al Qaeda is not merely the violent expression of the perverse pathology of an obscure minority religious sect but that it represents something more: a battleground in an apocalyptic struggle between the forces of good and evil. Bush makes it clear to Rumsfeld that he doesn't want Congress — let alone the public — to know that he's planning to invade Iraq while fighting is going on in Afghanistan. He fears the average American will not support the new venture.

Woodward writes that Rumsfeld is taken aback, seeming surprised by Bush's sense of urgency since neither the Pentagon nor the CIA has yet to prove a connection between Hussein and Bin Laden. (Nor would they ever.) He tells the president that the Defense Department has contingency plans for invading more than 60 countries, including Iraq. He can dust them off if the president wishes him to do so. Bush isn't satisfied.

The president's early fixation on Iraq is mirrored by (perhaps even inspired by, on evidence in this book) Cheney's. Woodward says that Secretary of State Colin Powell "detected a kind of fever in Cheney. He was not the steady unemotional rock that he had witnessed a dozen years earlier during the run-up to the Persian Gulf War. Cheney was beyond hell-bent for action against Saddam. It was as if nothing else existed."

The cause of Cheney's "fever" is never fully explained. One can speculate that its taproot lies in the unfinished business of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when the failure to take Baghdad and overthrow Hussein engendered considerable criticism in the war's aftermath. For Cheney, as for some others, Hussein's remaining in power might well have been a continuing embarrassment and humiliation. Now history offered him a second chance.

What is beyond question in Woodward's account is Cheney's omnipresent role in the president's decision-making, a role Bush fully and repeatedly concedes in the book. Cheney is always shown at Bush's side. According to "Plan of Attack," no one else in the president's inner circle is as firmly in the loop, and it is clear that Cheney's views of the world, and his belief in the need to forcefully redraw the map of the Mideast, carry the day.

What drives Cheney is unknown. Is it his sense that time is running out, that the heart blood-vessel stent introduced to save his life is a constant reminder that there is much to be done and little time left to leave his mark on history? Whatever the explanation, it is clear from Woodward's dozens of interviews with others that the vice president is driven in a way so frenetic that he is a man who never lets the facts get in the way of a good story. And so he is undeterred by the administration's repeated failure to establish a convincing connection between Hussein and Bin Laden or by the failure to find evidence of weapons of mass destruction.

There is another mystery at the heart of Woodward's book: It is not at all clear why the president isn't sufficiently inoculated to protect him from catching Cheney's fever. All administrations have their zealots, but usually they are able to surround themselves with more sober counselors. Bush could certainly have sought the advice of men such as former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft, who had assisted his father, or, for that matter, his father, the former president. Bush tells Woodward, "He is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength; there is a higher father that I appealed to."

Bush is revealed in Woodward's account to have his own worldview and, like Cheney, to be a driven man. He speaks to Woodward of his need to do "fantastic things" to liberate the backward areas of the world. Iraq, he says, is just the beginning. He insists that his war in Iraq will result in the flowering of Iraqi democracy that ultimately will be a model for the entire Muslim world.

Critics who denigrate Bush's intelligence, his ignorance of the world's complexity and the arrogance of his unilateralist instincts underestimate this politician's survival instincts: his imperviousness to criticism, his willful determination, his abundant rectitude and tenacity.

In their last interview, Woodward refers Bush to British Prime Minister Tony Blair's admission after Hussein's ouster and the taking of Baghdad that he had "doubts" that the deaths of British soldiers were worth it. Blair, who had received letters from those who lost sons in the war and wrote of their hatred for what he had done, told members of his Labor Party, "Don't believe anyone who tells you when they receive letters like that they don't suffer doubts." Bush responds, "Yeah, I haven't suffered doubt." Woodward was incredulous: "Is that right? Not at all?" Bush replies, "No. And I'm able to convey that to the people."

The president is a gifted politician. In this remarkably revealing book, Bush appears as a man detached not only from the complex political implications of his actions and policies, but also, depressingly from the human cost as well.

Robert Scheer writes a weekly column for The Times and is coauthor of "The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq."
And so, my friends, it goes. At least Clinton and Reagan and Poppy and Carter could fake concern, and in all likelihood, could really feel your pain to some degree -- not just talk about it. This is President as self-annointed Pope, without benefit of suffering or theological training, or for that matter, any real contemplation of larger spiritual truths. A "leader" without doubts is either an epic liar or a solipsist of the first order.

When is "Compassionate Conservatism" or "American Values" simply "None of the Above?" When it's all just a bunch of fucking bullshit knawing at yet another fictional bone while masquerading as Rockwell's Hound lounging on The Porch of America. Left or Right, no matter how you think about it, the order that we need now is New Leadership. Has Bush been a leader? Yes: A Failed Leader.

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