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Bush's 'Happy Thoughts' Death Trap

By Robert Parry
June 13, 2005

In evaluating the case for impeaching George W. Bush over the Iraq War, his deceptions about weapons of mass destruction most readily come to mind, but there is also the incompetence of his military strategy, especially Bush’s refusal to recognize how such a complex project might go terribly wrong.

Rather than look at the military prospects realistically, Bush and his advisers pursued a consistent policy of wishful thinking, deceiving the American public about the war’s cost in both money and blood, and ultimately deluding even themselves.

From the expected flower-strewn Iraq welcome in March 2003 to the cheery predictions after the Shiite election win in January 2005, the war has suffered from a macabre “Peter Pan” syndrome, that happy thoughts and some pixie dust of propaganda could lift the U.S. to victory – when instead it has sent tens of thousands of people to unnecessary deaths, including almost 1,700 American soldiers.

Reality was banished not only from the pre-war WMD justifications, it’s been barred from mid-war assessments, too. But the hard truth – recognized from the start by many military experts – was that U.S. chances for prevailing in Iraq were never very good and certainly would come at a high price.

As for the practicality of Bush’s impeachment over the Iraq debacle, the Republican control of Congress may make the debate more theoretical than realistic. But two interrelated arguments could reasonably create a foundation for impeachment: the lies that led the nation into the quagmire and the military negligence that left an American army bleeding in this death trap.

The argument for negligence goes directly to the question of why Bush embraced wishful thinking over cautionary military advice in his rush to war – and whether Bush’s level of incompetence meets the constitutional standard of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Banishing Skeptics

From the start, Bush dismissed skeptics from his imperial presence, as he did with Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, who warned about the difficulty of war in Iraq, and Army Gen. Eric Shinseki, who said hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops would be needed to pacify Iraq after an invasion.

Even Bush’s loyal British allies were dismayed by Bush’s lack of a coherent plan for the post-invasion period. A newly disclosed British briefing paper told Prime Minister Tony Blair eight months before the Iraq War that the Bush administration was giving short-shrift to planning for what the British knew would be a “protracted and costly” occupation of Iraq.

The eight-page briefing paper was written two days in advance of the July 23, 2002, meeting whose minutes have become known as the Downing Street Memo. The July 21 briefing paper said U.S. “military planning for action against Iraq is proceeding apace,” but “little thought” has been given to “the aftermath and how to shape it.” [Washington Post, June 12, 2005, based on documents obtained by the London Sunday Times.]

Yet, rather than listen to skeptics, Bush only heeded advice that matched his preconceptions, especially the opinions of neoconservative aides who saw U.S. military might at the start of the Third Millennium not only as preeminent, but nearly limitless.

Gaza Strip

At the invasion’s outset in March 2003, some military experts close to the Bush administration told me they had counseled against attacking Iraq and especially protested rushing to war without more troops.

These experts feared that American forces – lacking Arabic language skills and knowledge of this ancient culture – would be ill-prepared to control Iraq, which is as big as California and could be as rebellious as the Gaza Strip.

Based on those interviews, even as the U.S. military was marching to Baghdad, I wrote an article entitled “Bay of Pigs Meets Black Hawk Down.” The article said Bush had mixed the wishful thinking from the Bay of Pigs disaster in Cuba in 1961 with the lack of cultural savvy evident in the bloody “Black Hawk Down” raid in Somalia in 1993.

Later, in 2003, I spoke with a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who had visited U.S. troops in Iraq. I was stunned when the senator predicted that the United States would be in Iraq for 30 years.

I assumed I had misheard him and asked, “Do you mean three years?”

 “Thirty years,” the senator repeated. “It will take a generation.”

That assessment seems less incredible now than it did in 2003. Instead of looking for ways to extricate U.S. forces, the Bush administration insists that the American troops will remain in Iraq until stability is restored.

“We don’t have an exit strategy,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld boasted during a trip to Iraq on April 12, 2005. “We have a victory strategy.”

Saddam Songs

Despite these upbeat declarations, recent battlefield reports continue to point toward more trouble ahead. For instance, when Washington Post reporters spent time with Iraqi government soldiers in one U.S.-trained unit, the troops expressed admiration of the insurgents and sang odes to former dictator Saddam Hussein while slouching off to battle.

“We have lived in humiliation since you left,” a soldier of the Iraqi army’s Charlie Company sang about Hussein while out of earshot of American advisers.

A U.S. adviser to the unit told the Post that he keeps the Iraqi government soldiers in the dark about their missions. “We can’t tell these guys about a lot of this stuff, because we’re not really sure who’s good and who isn’t,” said Rick McGovern, a platoon sergeant who heads the training of Charlie Company. [Washington Post, June 10, 2005]

Normally, these and similar reports about an army that sympathizes with the “enemy” and mostly is motivated by a paycheck would be treated as warning signs. But Bush continues to hail the supposed progress in assembling this Iraqi force that is being counted on to defeat the insurgency and allow U.S. troops to leave.

Parallel Delusions

Looking back over the past three years, from the start of the war hysteria in 2002 to the present, the Bush administration seems to have been caught up in several dangerous illusions simultaneously.

The first delusion dates back to the U.S. defeat in Vietnam when the Right blamed the loss on the “liberal” news media, cowardly congressmen and treasonous war protestors. This myth of a Vietnam betrayal became a touchstone for conservative politics over the next three decades.

But this right-wing viewpoint lacks historical support. Even U.S. Army historians have concluded, for instance, that the press coverage of the Vietnam War had little to do with the U.S. defeat.

“Most of the public affairs problems that confronted the United States in South Vietnam stemmed from the contradictions implicit in Lyndon Johnson’s strategy for the war,” wrote U.S. Army historian William M. Hammond in The Military and the Media: 1962-1968. “What alienated the American public, in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars, was not news coverage but casualties.”

But the Vietnam betrayal myth – combined with the Right’s anger over Richard Nixon’s Watergate resignation – propelled the conservative movement toward a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude and the building of a sophisticated right-wing media infrastructure.

‘Perception Management’

Another lesson that conservatives learned from Vietnam was the need to keep the American people in line. Popular opposition could never again be permitted to interfere with government actions around the world as the Vietnam War protests did.

So, in the 1980s, CIA Director William J. Casey and senior Reagan-Bush officials developed a program of domestic “public diplomacy,” also known as “perception management.” This strategy targeted the American people with a combination of CIA-style agit-propaganda and sophisticated Madison Avenue advertising techniques.

The immediate goal was to manage how the American people perceived events in Central America and other international hot spots, so the White House would have maximum flexibility in addressing these crises. [For details on “perception management,” see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq or his Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press &Project Truth.]

Neoconservative policymakers, who rose to prominence during the Reagan-Bush years, viewed their success in controlling public perceptions of the Central American wars – or at least defusing public opposition – as an important lesson for the future.

Plus, Reagan-Bush operatives saw how the expanding conservative media infrastructure enabled them to blunt the Iran-Contra scandal of the late 1980s in a way that Nixon and his backers couldn’t do in trying to contain the Watergate scandal a little more than a decade earlier.

Militarily, the recent past also showed that in any conventional conflict, U.S. armed forces could overwhelm an enemy, as happened in Grenada in 1983, Panama in 1989, Kuwait in 1991, Yugoslavia in 1999 and Afghanistan in 2001.

Over-Optimism

So, Bush and his team put themselves on two parallel tracks of over-optimism: they were confident they could whip the American people into line behind another war and felt sure that the U.S. military’s “shock and awe” could break the will of any nation.

That would leave the only remaining jobs to be sweeping rose petals from the streets of Iraq and brushing confetti off shiny new medals at victory parades back home. By 2003, Bush and his team were sure they could say whatever they wanted and be believed, and attack any enemy and expect victory.

In the United States, with an intimidating conservative media at his disposal and an intimidated mainstream press at his feet, Bush saw little reason to show restraint. But Bush ignored a fundamental lesson of military leaders throughout history – that while you can hope for the best, you must prepare for the worst.

Another lesson that Bush didn't learn is that, in the end, reality counts. An ironic twist, as the bloody Iraq War grinds on, is that Bush and the neoconservatives appear to have become captives of their own propaganda. Having succeeded so well in managing the perceptions of the American public, Bush and his advisers now find it easier to shield themselves from the harsh reality of a disastrous war than face the facts.

To maintain their happy thoughts – and hear how well the war is going – all they have to do is tune in Fox News, read the Washington Times or listen to Rush Limbaugh.

Yet, while Bush and his advisers may enjoy the notion that they can fly among the stars and transcend the facts on the ground, the ultimate victims of this mass delusion are the nearly 1,700 U.S. soldiers and the tens of thousands of Iraqis who have died – plus the thousands more wounded and many more who are certain to die in the months ahead.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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