Bush's Way or the Highway
By Robert Parry
September 18, 2006
George W. Bushs Sept. 15 outburst threatening to stop interrogating terror suspects if Congress doesnt 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 didnt 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, Im going to do what I want to do, and if nobody likes it, Im going to go back to Crawford, Brownstein wrote, quoting the lobbyist. [Los Angeles Times, July 5, 2001]
Back then, Republicans framed Bushs 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 Reagans speechwriter Peggy Noonan in an article for the Wall Street Journals 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, Bushs 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 Bushs sense of entitlement sometimes would spill out in his humor, when hed put down people in his presence or hed joked about his preference for autocracy. If this were a dictatorship, itd be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as Im 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 Bushs 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.
Now, five years later, Bushs 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 leaders 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 Ive 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 Im reminded that this guy is different. Theres 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.
Brookss example of Bushs visionary quality was the Presidents 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 Bushs 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 historys most dangerous dictators were inner-directed.
But the only criticism of Bush that Brooks could muster was that Bush didnt act aggressively enough in implementing his visionary programs.
The sad truth is, there has been a gap between Bushs 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 Bushs 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 Bushs claims of unlimited power and with several senior Republicans resisting Bushs demands that he be allowed to redefine the Geneva Conventions, Bushs 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 Genevas 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.
Bushs former Secretary of State Colin Powell joined in opposing Bushs 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 Powells comments on Sept. 15, the petulant Bush reappeared.
If theres any comparison between the compassion and decency of the American people and the terrorist tactics of extremists, its flawed logic, Bush snapped. I simply cant accept that. Its unacceptable to think that theres 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 Bushs 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 wasnt just ordinary love, his wife said. He was crazy about them. It wasnt 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. Alis 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.
At the Sept. 15 news conference, Bush also threatened to stop all interrogation of terrorism suspects if his demands on the Geneva Conventions werent met.
We can debate this issue all we want, but the practical matter is, if our professionals dont 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 wont go forward; if there is vague standards applied, like those in Common Article III from the Geneva Convention, its just not going to go forward.
Common Article III doesnt 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 wont 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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