The French call an idée fixe.
It’s a malady not uncommon in politicians, especially those who – like George W. Bush – command powerful military forces.
It should not be confused with actual insanity, as was the case of Czar Peter III of Russia. And it must also be differentiated from an induced “insanity” such as that which afflicted King George – that is, George III who was on the throne of Great Britain at the time of the U.S. War for Independence and whose redcoats were creating the British empire. Not until 2005 did researchers discover the cause of George III’s malady – severe arsenic poisoning compounded by an arsenic-laced skin cream used as part of his treatment.
(George III actually deserves a touch of sympathy. As documented in Alan Bennett’s play and the 1994 film The Madness of King George, the king suffered lengthy bouts of bizarre behavior – including hearing voices – that were regarded as manifestations of insanity. On more than one occasion, his advisors – apparently despairing of any other remedy – put the king in a strait jacket and chained him to a chair.)
Pharmacology has made enormous strides since George III’s time in identifying substances and “treatments” that adversely affect the body. Unfortunately, medical science still seems incapable of finding a remedy for the idée fixe: that obsessive refusal of leaders, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that a policy has gone badly awry, to rethink their chosen course, make necessary alterations to halt further deterioration, and chart a rational course for recovery.
This, Mr. and Mrs. J.Q. Public, is what the United States confronts with our 21st century version of “The Madness of George W,” who is obsessed with the idea that he can achieve a military victory in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The latest “bizarre twist” to come to light is the White House hunt for a retired four-star general to be the administration’s war “czar.” The new position would come with the power to direct Pentagon, State Department, and National Security Council activities related to the fighting and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
This is not simple madness; it is sheer madness. More to the point, it will serve only to perpetuate the initial madness of George W. -- starting these wars, especially the Iraq war, in the first place.
This latest manifestation of instability in the administration’s war obsession resides in the revelation that the “highest ranking White House official responsible exclusively for the wars” is the deputy national security advisor. Why is this “madness?” Quite simply, the current deputy national security advisor, Meghan O’Sullivan, does not report directly to the president. And, as a bureaucrat in the National Security Council, she does not have the authority to issue directives to executive departments or agencies.
After five years of fighting and with no prospect of a cut-back in the war effort (as evidenced by the newly announced extension of combat tours to 15 months), the least one would expect is that the “war advisor” would report directly to the president. Not only have the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq been absolutely central to the Bush presidency, the nation has invested so much – lives, money, moral credibility, and national prestige – in these conflicts that as the “decider” (as he likes to remind us ), Bush should be getting unfiltered reports from the individual charged with “running” the war.
The more one considers this idea of a “war czar,” the more it seems to be little more than one more convoluted effort by the war party in the administration to regain its former clout. While not “doves” by any stretch, both the secretary of defense and secretary of state are looking for ways to reduce reliance on war-fighting and enhance rebuilding and reconstruction in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Even if a “war czar” made sense (which it doesn’t) a retired four-star officer in the post is not the image the administration ought to be projecting – and may be a factor in the reluctance of retired military officers to take the job. A better choice would be a civilian with a background in civil governance and a track record of overseeing aid and reconstruction of devastated societies.
Moreover, trying to find someone outside of the chain of command to “run the war” may be illegal. By law, the command chain runs from the president to the secretary of defense to the combatant commander – in this case, Admiral Fallon. And those pushing for a war czar seem to overlook the fact that he or she would be one of those “bureaucrats in Washington” that Bush has railed against for interfering with the freedom of action the field commanders require to prosecute and “win” these wars.
In the end, however, the “war czar” idea is not the real “war madness.” That madness is the idée fixe held by Bush and the generals that military force will ‘win” in Afghanis and in Iraq.
George Bernard Shaw once asked, “What can you do against a lunatic who…gives your arguments a fair hearing…and then simply persists in his lunacy?” Shaw provides an answer to his own question in the play Man of Destiny. Napoleon Bonaparte asks the owner of an inn what to do about a recalcitrant officer. “Everything he says is wrong,” Napoleon complains. The inn owner has a quick answer: “Make him a general, Excellency; and then everything he says will be right.”
In its search for a war czar, that is the course the White House has chosen. And in focusing once again on retired military generals, competent as they may have been in their profession, for a distinctively non-military effort, the administration is really feeding its original obsession: “stay the course.”