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Bush's Way or the Highway

By Robert Parry
September 18, 2006

George W. Bush’s Sept. 15 outburst – threatening to stop interrogating terror suspects if Congress doesn’t let him revise the Geneva Conventions to permit coercive techniques – is part of a pattern of petulance that dates back to even before the 9/11 attacks but has resurfaced as Bush faces new challenges to his authority.

In summer 2001, less than six months into his presidency while confronting congressional obstacles to his domestic program, Bush told followers that he was ready to “go back to Crawford” if he didn’t get his way on legislation.

That threat came after Sen. Jim Jeffords, a Vermont Republican, joined with the Democrats to give them narrow control of the Senate in mid-2001. Bush also was facing defeat on a patients’ bill of rights.

In a meeting with congressional allies, “Bush appeared to draw a line in the sand when he indicated he always could return to Crawford, Texas, if the liberal health juggernaut grinds him down,” wrote right-wing columnist Robert D. Novak. [Washington Post, July 5, 2001]

Besides the patients’ bill of rights, Bush found himself battling congressional momentum in favor of new campaign-finance restrictions.

In the context of Bush fighting those two popular bills, Los Angeles Times political writer Ronald Brownstein also picked up word of Bush issuing a “back to Crawford” threat, this one recounted by a GOP lobbyist close to the administration.

Bush “continues to send a signal that, ‘I’m going to do what I want to do, and if nobody likes it, I’m going to go back to Crawford’,” Brownstein wrote, quoting the lobbyist. [Los Angeles Times, July 5, 2001]

Back then, Republicans framed Bush’s “back to Crawford” threats as a sign of his principled leadership as well as a new self-confidence in asserting his authority.

“Gone is the tentativeness of 20 months ago, of the lost man of the early Republican debates,” wrote Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter Peggy Noonan in an article for the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. “In its place seems an even-keeled confidence, even a robust faith in his own perceptions and judgments.” [WSJ, June 25, 2001]

However, Bush’s critics saw something else: a troubling self-centeredness more befitting an autocrat than a leader of a democratic Republic. To them, Bush was a callow, ill-prepared politician who seemed oblivious to the fact that he had risen to his exalted status because of family connections and tough political tactics, not through hard work and talent.

The critics noted that Bush’s sense of entitlement sometimes would spill out in his humor, when he’d put down people in his presence or he’d joked about his preference for autocracy. “If this were a dictatorship, it’d be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I’m the dictator,” he quipped on Dec. 18, 2000.

Though Bush never did quit his job, he did seek comfort back at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he retreated for a month-long vacation in August 2001.

The course of Bush’s presidency changed dramatically on Sept. 11, 2001, however, when al-Qaeda terrorists attacked targets in New York and Washington. The 9/11 attacks gave Bush a new mantle as “war president” and he exploited that opening to assert “plenary” – or unlimited – powers as Commander in Chief.

With Republicans reclaiming the Senate in 2002 – and the federal courts initially giving Bush wide latitude – Bush got pretty much whatever he wanted and his petulance was subsumed by his new presidential swagger.

Mystical Leader

Now, five years later, Bush’s supporters see an almost mystical leader who exudes manly powers and possesses a farsighted vision for saving the world. In one of those paeans to Bush, conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote on Sept. 14, 2006:

“A leader’s first job is to project authority, and George Bush certainly does that. In a 90-minute interview with a few columnists in the Oval Office on Tuesday, Bush swallowed up the room, crouching forward to energetically make a point or spreading his arms wide to illustrate the scope of his ideas – always projecting confidence and intensity.

“He opened the session by declaring, ‘Let me just first tell you that I’ve never been more convinced that the decisions I made are the right decisions,’ and he grew more self-assured from there. I interview politicians for a living, and every time I brush against Bush I’m reminded that this guy is different. There’s none of that hunger for approval that is common in the breed. This is the most inner-directed man on the globe.

“The other striking feature of his conversation is that he possesses an unusual perception of time. Washington, and modern life in general, encourages people to think in the short term. But Bush, who stands aloof, thinks in long durations.”

Brooks’s example of Bush’s visionary quality was the President’s assertion that he had gotten into politics because of his “campaign against the instant gratifications of the 1960s counterculture,” which somehow helped qualify him “to think about the war on terror as a generations-long struggle.”

Brooks made no mention of Bush’s own extensive dabbling in “instant gratifications” from his playboy life-style that included evading military service in Vietnam, heavy drinking (at least until his 40th birthday), and illicit drug use (which he implicitly acknowledged during Campaign 2000).

Like other Bush enthusiasts, Brooks also failed to consider the dangers from an autocratic leader who both is “inner-directed” and possesses a messianic view of the world. “Inner-directed” could be defined as impervious to outside criticism, advice or even reality. Many of the history’s most dangerous dictators were “inner-directed.”

But the only criticism of Bush that Brooks could muster was that Bush didn’t act aggressively enough in implementing his visionary programs.

“The sad truth is, there has been a gap between Bush’s visions and the means his administration has devoted to realize them. And when tactics do not adjust to fit the strategy, then the strategy gets diminished to fit the tactics,” Brooks wrote. [NYT, Sept. 14, 2006]

But another way of looking at Bush’s presidency is that he and his neoconservative advisers have operated in an ideological reality of their own making, that they have too little respect for the opinions of others, that they are hubristic and anti-democratic.

Return to Petulance

Now, with a slim majority of the U.S. Supreme Court rejecting Bush’s claims of unlimited power and with several senior Republicans resisting Bush’s demands that he be allowed to redefine the Geneva Conventions, Bush’s petulance is returning.

At the Sept. 15 news conference, Bush suggested that senators – such as John Warner and John McCain – were endangering U.S. security by opposing his legislation to rewrite Geneva’s Common Article III to allow harsh interrogation of detainees.

“We must also provide our military and intelligence professionals with the tools they need to protect our country from another attack,” Bush said. “And the reason they need those tools is because the enemy wants to attack us again.”

Bush did not spell out his desired interrogation techniques, since he insists that his administration does not condone torture. But the known practices include simulating drowning by “waterboarding,” keeping prisoners naked in excessive heat and cold, sleep deprivation, and forcing them into painful “stress positions” for extended periods of time.

Bush’s former Secretary of State Colin Powell joined in opposing Bush’s legislation, warning that “the world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism.” Powell, a retired general, also cautioned that allowing abusive interrogations of prisoners of war would open captured U.S. soldiers to similar abuse

Asked about Powell’s comments on Sept. 15, the petulant Bush reappeared.

“If there’s any comparison between the compassion and decency of the American people and the terrorist tactics of extremists, it’s flawed logic,” Bush snapped. “I simply can’t accept that. It’s unacceptable to think that there’s any kind of comparison between the behavior of the United States of America and the action of Islamic extremists who kill innocent women and children to achieve an objective.”

Though the Washington press corps sat mute before Bush’s assertions, there was cause to challenge Bush on his hypocrisy. The Bush administration is responsible for slaughtering thousands of women and children in Afghanistan and Iraq “to achieve an objective.”

For instance, early in the Iraq War, Bush authorized the bombing of a residential Baghdad restaurant because of faulty intelligence that Saddam Hussein might be having dinner there. The attack killed 14 civilians, including seven children. One mother collapsed when her decapitated daughter was pulled from the rubble.

Hundreds of other civilian deaths were equally horrific. Saad Abbas, 34, was wounded in an American bombing raid, but his family sought to shield him from the greater horror. The bombing had killed his three daughters – Marwa, 11; Tabarek, 8; and Safia, 5 – who had been the center of his life.

“It wasn’t just ordinary love,” his wife said. “He was crazy about them. It wasn’t like other fathers.” [NYT, April 14, 2003]

The horror of the war was captured, too, in the fate of 12-year-old Ali Ismaeel Abbas, who lost his two arms when a U.S. missile struck his Baghdad home. Ali’s father, his pregnant mother and his siblings were all killed. As he was evacuated to a Kuwaiti hospital, becoming a symbol of U.S. compassion for injured Iraqi civilians, Ali said he would rather die than live without his hands.

For its part, the Bush administration has refused to tally the Iraqi civilians killed in the war, a number now estimated in the tens of thousands.

New Threats

At the Sept. 15 news conference, Bush also threatened to stop all interrogation of terrorism suspects if his demands on the Geneva Conventions weren’t met.

“We can debate this issue all we want, but the practical matter is, if our professionals don’t have clear standards in the law, the program is not going to go forward,” Bush said. “The bottom line is – and the American people have got to understand this – that this program won’t go forward; if there is vague standards applied, like those in Common Article III from the Geneva Convention, it’s just not going to go forward.”

Common Article III doesn’t prohibit interrogating prisoners, but it does bar coercive tactics to elicit information. POWs are required to supply only their name, rank and serial number or comparable information.

The United States played a prominent role in establishing these standards, along with other rules of war. In addition, the U.S. Constitution bars cruel and unusual punishment and U.S. law prohibits torture and other degrading treatment of detainees, though Bush has stipulated that he does not feel legally bound by those constraints.

Bush has argued that the “war on terror” is a new kind of war, justifying these extraordinary tactics. But military historians say the conflict is actually similar to many irregular wars fought over the centuries, including the anti-colonial wars in the 1950s and 1960s and Latin American “dirty wars” against leftist “terrorists” in the 1970s and 1980s.

In those conflicts, too, government security forces resorted to extensive use of torture, “disappearances” and detentions without trial.

The “inner-directed” Bush now is charting a similar future for the United States – and getting increasingly petulant with those Americans who won’t follow him.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest 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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