Failure Upon Failure
By BOB HERBERT
Imagine a surgeon who is completely clueless, who has no idea what he or she is doing.
Imagine a pilot who is equally incompetent.
Now imagine a president.
The Middle East is in flames. Iraq has become a charnel house, a crucible of horror with no end to the agony in sight. Lebanon is in danger of going down for the count. And the crazies in Iran, empowered by the actions of their enemies, are salivating like vultures. They can’t wait to feast on the remains of U.S. policies and tactics spawned by a sophomoric neoconservative fantasy — that democracy imposed at gunpoint in Iraq would spread peace and freedom, like the flowers of spring, throughout the Middle East.
If a Democratic president had pursued exactly the same policies, and achieved exactly the same tragic results as George W. Bush, that president would have been the target of a ferocious drive for impeachment by the G.O.P.
Mr. Bush spent a fair amount of time this week with the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. There was plenty to talk about, nearly all of it hideous. Over the past couple of months Iraqi civilians have been getting blown away at the stunning rate of four or five an hour. Even Karl Rove had a tough time drawing a smiley face on that picture.
“Obviously the violence in Baghdad is still terrible,” said Mr. Bush, “and therefore there needs to be more troops.”
One did not get the sense, listening to this assessment from the commander in chief, that things would soon be well in hand. There was, instead, a disturbing sense of déjà vu. A sense of the president at a complete loss, not really knowing what to do. I recalled the image of Mr. Bush sitting in a Sarasota, Fla., classroom after being informed of the Sept. 11 attacks. Instead of reacting instantly, commandingly, he just sat there for long wasted moments, with a bewildered look on his face, holding a second-grade story called “The Pet Goat.”
And then there was the famous picture of Mr. Bush, on his way back from a monthlong vacation, looking out the window of Air Force One as it flew low over the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina. “It’s devastating,” Mr. Bush was quoted as saying. “It’s got to be doubly devastating on the ground.”
I’ll tell you what’s devastating. The monumental and mind-numbing toll of Mr. Bush’s war in Iraq, which is being documented in a series of important books, the latest being Thomas Ricks’s “Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq.” Mr. Ricks gives us more disturbing details about the administration’s “flawed plan for war” and “worse approach to occupation.”
Near the end of his book, he writes:
“In January 2005, the C.I.A.’s internal think tank, the National Intelligence Council, concluded that Iraq had replaced Afghanistan as the training ground for a new generation of jihadist terrorists. The country had become ‘a magnet for international terrorist activity,’ said the council’s chairman, Robert Hutchings.”
Saddled with one failure after another, the administration seems paralyzed, completely unable to shape the big issues facing the U.S. and the world today. Condoleezza Rice is in charge of the diplomatic effort regarding Lebanon. She’s been about as effective at that as the president was in his response to Katrina.
But Dr. Rice is still quick with the scary imagery. Her comment, “I have no doubt there are those who wish to strangle a democratic and sovereign Lebanon in its crib,” recalls her famous, “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”
It might help if she spent less time giving us provocative metaphors and more time on the very difficult nuts and bolts of trying to maintain or bring about peace.
It may be that a hamstrung Bush administration is a better bet than the same crew being free to act as it pleases. Imagine how much better off we’d have been if Congress had found the wisdom and the courage to prevent the president from invading Iraq.
In two years and a few months Americans will vote again for president. I hope the long list of tragic failures by Bush & Co. prompts people to take that election more seriously than some in the past. If you were about to be lifted onto an operating table, you’d be more interested in the competence of the surgeon than in his or her personality.
Mr. Bush’s record reminds us that similarly careful consideration should be given to those who would be president.