The ancient Greeks believed character was destiny. This view naturally entailed the notion that the fate of the nation was inextricably bound up with the personal characteristics of a political leader. For better or worse, the fate of U.S efforts in Iraq – and hence America’s destiny in the 21st century – hinges on the character of George W. Bush.
The historian Robert Dallek believes that “absolute power reveals character.” That is, contrary to Lord Acton’s contention, that “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” Dallek argues that concentrating power in an individual tends to magnify their strengths and flaws.
Six years into his presidency Bush has left an indelible impression on the nation’s consciousness and institutions. Bush’s moral certitude, his propensity to divide the world into black & white, his reliance on his gut instinct to make snap decisions, his impatience with opposing points of view, and his inclination to take big risks to achieve great aims have been extolled as self-evident virtues by his supporters. Now, facing an increasingly bleak and desperate situation in Iraq, traits that were once advertised as Bush’s selling points look all to much like obvious character flaws. Indeed, the mess of contradictions America faces in Iraq seems to reflect all too closely the incongruous rationales Bush has so often proffered to an overly credulous American public.
On invading Iraq the president once famously asserted, “the risks of inaction outweigh the risks of action.” The failure to find WMD that never existed, coupled with the fact that the disintegration of Iraq is likely to engender a full-scale civil war and mass ethnic cleansing, all of which could easily lead to a regional conflagration, certainly belies the administration’s claims regarding the potential risks and benefits of launching the “preventive war” against Iraq. Like so many of the administration’s other assertions -- that toppling Saddam was necessary to forestall an Iraqi-al-Qaeda alliance – the invasion has actually precipitated the very conditions it was meant to forestall. As a result, America cannot easily exit Iraq without turning parts of Iraq into a base for al-Qaeda, something it never was before the invasion.
The operative concept here is irony. Indeed, examining Bush’s record carefully one immediately discerns a pattern of what might be called “pretzel logic” – statements or assertions end up getting twisted into their opposite over time. For example, as a candidate in 2000 Bush famously decried nation building, mission creep, and the idea of committing U.S. troops without a clear exit strategy. If we judge Bush according to his own standards its hard to see how he avoids being either a flip-flopper or a failure.
Bush’s most egregious flip-flop is his recent decision to repudiate the advice of his commanders on the ground – who have recommended against surging troops into Baghdad – by ordering an additional 22,000 troops to Iraq. Besides contradicting his repeated earlier statements, that “troops levels will be decided by commanders on the ground, not by politicians in Washington,” there is a double disingenuousness here, at least in so far as it is widely recognized that earlier commanders in Iraq did want more troops, but were afraid to request them out of fear of political retribution. Thus, it will be a truly tragic irony if Bush’s proposed surge, as most military experts fear, is too little to late.
Surging troops into Baghdad has been described as Bush’s Hail Mary. In other words, it’s a long shot gamble. That the outcome in Iraq rests in large part on: 1) Maliki’s shaky government, 2) less than reliable Iraqi troops, and 3) sheer luck should be a disconcerting notion. After all, as Machiavelli once observed, fortune is fickle. But Bush has always been a gambler. And when faced with defeat he has always doubled his bet. For instance, faced with the fact that Al Gore had won the popular vote, and in all probability was the choice of voters in the critical state of Florida, Bush upped the ante by taking the unprecedented step of circumventing the rules with a series of quasi-legal maneuvers that made a mockery of the electoral and judicial processes.
The Bush team’s tactics in Bush vs. Gore were the political equivalent of fouling an opponent during a basketball game to keep them from winning. The analogy here is far from accidental. Because as journalist Ron Susskind documents in his book, The One Percent Doctrine, the future president purposively employed unsportsmanlike conduct – deliberately elbowing an opponent in the face – as a “game changer” during an intramural basketball game when he was a graduate student at Harvard Business School. The incident, if accurate, would appear to shed light on Bush’s win at all costs mentality and his propensity to raise the stakes and go outside the rules in order to ensure the outcome he wants.
The notion of a “game changer” is worth bearing in mind as the Bush Administration prepares to escalate U.S. forces in Iraq. From a military standpoint surging 22,000 troops into Baghdad at this late juncture seems insufficient to turn the tide in America’s favor. However, Bush’s recent appointment of a Navy Admiral, William Fallon, to oversee a ground war in the Middle East is significant because the Navy would be the service most instrumental in maintaining open sea lanes and the free flow of oil should the U.S. find itself in a confrontation with Iran.
In fact, Bush’s vow to thwart Iranian networks and supply lines that are ferrying munitions being used against U.S. troops in Iraq has many in Congress openly worrying that the administration may be contemplating possible strikes against Iran and Syria. Iran, of course, has been seeking to extend its influence in Iraq and undermine American efforts there, even to the extent of waging a proxy war. And it’s doubtful the Bush Administration has given up on the idea that if it just removes the opponents of democratization (in this case the mullahs in Tehran) it can succeed in Iraq and transform the region. It’s a beguilingly simple idea for a complex world, but I wouldn’t underestimate how much Bush is willing to wager to try and atone for past mistakes and vindicate his place history. Just remember that character is destiny; it’s a notion that’s giving a lot of people pause these days.