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President Self-Centered

By Robert Parry
June 23, 2005

During the recession of the early 1990s, George H.W. Bush famously tried to reassure voters about his compassion by reading aloud his talking point, “Message: I care.” Now, as the nation grieves the loss of more than 1,700 soldiers in a seemingly futile war in Iraq, George W. Bush has announced, “I think about Iraq every day, every single day.”

As the “message: I care” remark came to crystallize the elder George Bush’s lack of genuine empathy for common Americans, the “every single day” comment shows that the younger George Bush may be growing desperate to convince Americans that he’s on top of the deepening crisis in Iraq and feels for the dead and wounded.

But the comment, made at a press conference with European leaders on June 20, also suggests a disconnect between Bush’s self-image as an in-charge leader worrying about his troops in the field and a more troubling picture of a self-centered politician who flaunts his sacrifice when all he’s doing is thinking about the mess he created.

Indeed, Bush’s announcement about his burden of contemplating Iraq “every single day” may have surprised many Americans who had assumed that the crisis in Iraq – and the 140,000 U.S. soldiers sweltering there – are rarely out of the president’s mind, not an intrusion that sneaks in once a day or so.

Lead Actor

The phrasing – “I think about Iraq …” – is also a reminder that Bush has long had a tendency to see himself as the lead actor in the national drama that has played out since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, though historians may someday wonder how the world’s most powerful nation tolerated his performance.

Instead of Bush’s image of himself as the farsighted leader who has steered America off the shoals of danger, many critics already view Bush as the careless captain who fell asleep on the bridge before awakening to a calamity that could have been avoided and then making matters worse by rash overreactions.

Arguably the success of al-Qaeda’s Sept. 11 attacks could be blamed on Bush’s negligence in ignoring blunt warnings from the CIA, including the Aug. 6, 2001, briefing paper entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the U.S.” Instead of responding aggressively – or “shaking the trees” of the federal bureaucracy, as counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke said – Bush stayed on a month-long vacation, went fishing, cleared brush at his ranch and studied the ethics of stem-cell research.

Then, on Sept. 11, Bush sat frozen for seven minutes in a second-grade Florida classroom after White House chief of staff Andrew Card whispered in his ear, “the nation is under attack.” When Bush finally got up and left, he rushed to Air Force One and flew westward to greater safety in Louisiana and then Nebraska.

Most of the events that later enshrined Bush as a national hero were essentially PR stunts, such as his speaking through a bullhorn to firefighters amid the rubble at Ground Zero or boasting that he would get Osama bin Laden “dead or alive.”

Bush’s decision to attack al-Qaeda’s sanctuaries in Afghanistan was an obvious and popular response, even though the invasion failed to capture or kill bin Laden or eradicate his Taliban allies.

Press Allies

Without doubt, Bush benefited politically because the shocked nation instinctively rallied around the president. Then, a U.S. media consensus – a kind of group determination among national journalists to look flag-lapel patriotic – took shape and elevated Bush beyond criticism to near demigod status.

The powerful conservative news media pushed the mythmaking most aggressively as a way to solidify the Right’s political power, while mainstream journalists feared that a lack of enthusiasm toward Bush might prove damaging to their careers. So, for months, Americans got a steady dose of pro-Bush propaganda.

In one memorable TV news moment on Dec. 23, 2001, NBC’s supposedly hard-nosed interviewer Tim Russert pondered whether God might not have selected Bush to be the nation’s leader at this time of trouble.

Russert asked his guest, Laura Bush, if “in an extraordinary way, this is why he was elected.” Mrs. Bush disputed Russert’s suggestion that “God picks the president, which he doesn’t.”

Others on the same program disagreed with Mrs. Bush, however. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani interjected, “I do think, Mrs. Bush, that there was some divine guidance in the president being elected. I do.”

Roman Catholic Cardinal Theodore McCarrick added, “I think I don’t thoroughly agree with the first lady. I think that the president really, he was where he was when we needed him.” [For an early account on this apotheosis of George W. Bush, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Missed Opportunities of Sept. 11.”]

Infallibility

Soon, the notion of Bush’s infallibility was filling American bookstores as well as the air waves. The Right Man, a book by former Bush speechwriter David Frum, depicted the president as a leader who instinctively makes the right calls even when he might be ignorant of details and oblivious to the nuances.

Amid this acclaim, Bush appears to have bought into this glorification of himself as an inspired “war president,” a “gut player” whose “instincts” never fail him.

In the mostly fawning Bush at War, author Bob Woodward wrote that “it’s pretty clear that Bush’s role as politician, president and commander in chief is driven by a secular faith in his instincts – his natural and spontaneous conclusions and judgments. His instincts are almost his second religion.”

So, rather than weigh complex decisions and make tempered judgments, Bush trusted his “gut” and made “bold” moves. He came to see himself as a kind of modern-day Alexander the Great, someone who shaped history by his personal will, albeit without actually putting his own life on the line.

British Memos

In reading the recently disclosed British government memos – some of which were written in March 2002 – the picture comes through of a White House intoxicated by its own sense of destiny. Filled with self-assurance after ousting the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Bush administration took aim at Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

A 10-page options paper, dated March 2, 2002, from the British overseas and defense secretariat of the Cabinet Office said, “Some in [the U.S.] government want Saddam removed. The success of Operation Enduring Freedom [the code name for the Afghan attack], distrust of U.N. sanctions and inspection regimes, and unfinished business from 1991 are all factors.”

Bush and his top aides were undeterred by British concerns that an invasion for the purpose of overthrowing Hussein would violate international law.

“Condi’s enthusiasm for regime change is undimmed,” according to a March 14, 2002, memo by British foreign policy adviser David Manning after a dinner with Bush’s national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.

Eight days later, British Foreign Office political director Peter Ricketts sent a memo to Foreign Secretary Jack Straw admitting that the case for ousting Hussein was flimsy, with the “U.S. scrambling to establish a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda [which] is so far frankly unconvincing.”

Family Grudge

British officials also were aware of the personal feud that existed between the Bush family and Hussein, whom the senior George Bush had viewed as an ally until Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990.

After the invasion, George H.W. Bush began comparing Hussein to Adolf Hitler and rebuffed Hussein’s overtures of an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait in favor of a punishing U.S. air and ground assault. The elder George Bush drove Iraqi troops from Kuwait but rejected neoconservative advice that he send U.S. troops to Baghdad and occupy Iraq.

Later, after George H.W. Bush left the White House, Hussein allegedly plotted to assassinate the former U.S. president.

George W. Bush carried the family’s hostility against Hussein back into the White House in 2001. Both Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and counter-terrorism chief Clarke have described how Bush and his top aides seemed obsessed with overthrowing Hussein even before the Sept. 11 attacks.

In early 2002, after listening to the administration’s tough talk, British official Ricketts wrote to Foreign Secretary Straw that “it sounds like a grudge between Bush and Saddam.” (That March 22, 2002, memo was among the batch of secret documents obtained by London Sunday Times correspondent Michael Smith.)

By summer 2002, as the British memos make clear, the die essentially had been cast for a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The behind-the-scenes debate between U.S. and British officials focused more on how to give the attack a veneer of legality than on whether to invade or not.

Though the White House showed little concern about the legality, the British felt it was important to have at least a pretext, possibly by orchestrating an ultimatum that would goad Hussein into rejecting a new round of U.N. arms inspections. [For more, see Consortiumnews.com’s “LMSM – ‘the Lying Mainstream Media” or “Mocking the Downing Street Memo.”]

‘U.S. Hegemon’

While most attention on the British memos has centered on the admission about the U.S. effort to “fix” the intelligence around Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, another notable aspect is the British tone of resignation in the face of Bush’s determination to get rid of Hussein once and for all.

“In practice, much of the international community would find it difficult to stand in the way of the determined course of the U.S. hegemon,” noted a July 21, 2002, briefing paper for a meeting two days later between Prime Minister Tony Blair and his top foreign policy advisers.

For Bush, the personal animosity toward Hussein always was close to the surface. On Sept. 26, 2002, Bush blurted out, “After all, this is the guy who tried to kill my dad.” [CNN, Sept. 27, 2002]

Despite calls from many U.S. allies as well as hundreds of thousands of American protesters to give more time to U.N. arms inspectors who had returned to Iraq, Bush rode the wave of media acclaim that had surrounded him since the days after the Sept. 11 attacks. With the nation hurtling toward war, both conservative and mainstream news outlets acted more as cheerleaders than fact-checkers.

As the invasion began on March 19, 2003, American journalists – whether “embedded” with U.S. troops or commenting from the safety of TV studios – dropped even the pretense of objectivity. For instance, sitting with a team of retired U.S. military officers on the first night of the invasion, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw volunteered that “in a few days, we're going to own that country.”

After a three-week war ousted Hussein’s regime, U.S. newsmen competed with each other for superlatives about Bush’s leadership as the “war president.”

On May 1, 2003, Bush was so taken by his success in Iraq that he choreographed a made-for-TV landing of himself in a jet onto the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, which was circling off the California coast. Under a banner reading “Mission Accomplished,” Bush announced the end of major combat operations. The U.S. news media was at his feet.

“U.S. television coverage ranged from respectful to gushing,” observed New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. “Nobody seemed bothered that Mr. Bush, who appears to have skipped more than a year of the National Guard service that kept him out of Vietnam, is now emphasizing his flying experience.” [NYT, May 6, 2003]

No WMD

Only when no WMD was discovered and a stubborn insurgency began claiming the lives of hundreds of American soldiers did a sliver of skepticism begin to return to the U.S. press corps. By July 2003, Bush felt under enough pressure that he began revising the pre-war history.

On July 14, 2003, Bush said about Hussein, “we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn’t let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power” – when, in fact, Hussein had let the inspectors back in and Bush had forced them to leave. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “President Bush, With the Candlestick …”]

Over the past two years, U.S. journalists have returned to Bush’s corner whenever Iraq has shown glimpses of positive developments, such as the Jan. 30, 2005, election. But the overall trend of public opinion – and with it the press coverage – has been on a downward slide. Some polls now show majorities feeling the invasion wasn’t worth the cost and critical of Bush’s war leadership.

Bush’s need to demonstrate that he’s still engaged in bringing the Iraqi situation to some reasonable conclusion also has grown more acute as the U.S. military has struggled to meet its enlistment quotas.

His remark assuring Americans that he thinks about Iraq “every single day” also may be a bid to show that he really does care about the fate of the mostly lower- and working-class soldiers who volunteered for duty often in exchange for promises of college tuitions and high-tech training.

Those inducements have little appeal to the children of Bush’s friends and family. First daughters Jenna and Barbara Bush, for instance, are not likely to volunteer to drive military trucks in Iraq in exchange for future education grants any more than their college chums plan to sign up to fight and pass up lucrative work at Wall Street investment firms or prestigious jobs with Republican congressional leaders.

Lobbying Bonanza

Indeed, it’s never been a better time to be a young Republican staffer who can trade in a few years experience in the Executive Branch or on Capitol Hill for a starting salary of $300,000 at Washington lobbying firms. Since 2000, the number of Washington lobbyists has more than doubled to 34,750 and their salaries have soared, according to a survey by the Washington Post.

“The lobbying boom has been caused by three factors, experts say: rapid growth in government, Republican control of both the White House and Congress, and wide acceptance among corporations that they need to hire professional lobbyists to secure their share of federal benefits,” the Post reported. [Washington Post, June 22, 2005]

So, rather than sharing in the sacrifice of the lowly U.S. soldiers dodging “improvised explosive devices” in Iraq, many Bush supporters in Washington are discovering that the War on Terror is becoming a gold mine with a rich vein of money that promises to last for many years.

Nevertheless, this juxtaposition between advantaged young Americans profiting through their connections, while less-advantaged youngsters are dying in Iraq presents another complication for Bush’s war strategy.

Since Bush’s own life story is an example of privilege over performance, the class-based realities of who serves in Iraq and who lands the cushy jobs back home could further erode public support for the war. [For more on Bush’s history, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]

So Bush has been searching for new ways to express his commitment to resolving the crisis in Iraq and demonstrating that he cares about the young Americans caught in the death trap of Bush’s own making.

The best Bush could come up with this week was his assurance that “I think about Iraq every day, every single day.”


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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