Bush’s 10 Mistakes At Home and Abroad

There is no reason why all lists today should have 10 items, numbered in reverse order. But as sonnets have 14 lines, so the modern list marches from 10 to 1.

What have been the failures of George W. Bush? In this election, that must mean: What have been his failures with respect to the central issue we face—the Terror War? We ask from the point of view of those who believe that there is a Terror War, and that our side should win. Those who believe that the world is a petting zoo, or that America is an abomination, may pass on:

10. Soft on Ken Lay. Twenty years from now, Ken Lay will be a trivia question for grad students. But the timing of the Enron scandal, following somewhat soon after 9/11, gave him momentary prominence. It would be demagogy for a President to comment on pending criminal actions. But sometimes a dash of demagogy goes a long way. A judicious sneer at Mr. Lay’s (as yet only alleged) pocket-lining, while the country was still all-for-one, might have fortified Mr. Bush’s role as tribune of that mood. Theodore Roosevelt would have known what to say about Mr. Lay if awakened in the middle of the night.

9. Soft on immigration. This issue is distinct from the Terror War, yet touches it at points, making it relevant here. Mr. Bush does not understand that we have been bingeing on immigration, because he imagines that he can be the Messiah leading the Hispanic vote into the G.O.P. Other immigrant groups get a free pass. Mr. Bush’s plans for a new amnesty for illegal immigrants have renewed the flood across our southern border. (How many terrorists have come in? Who knows?) We also continue to give easy treatment to visa applicants from Saudi Arabia (see below).

The next three items have to do with Iraq. Everybody now knows what went wrong in Iraq—not enough troops, too many troops, rushed elections, slow elections. If Washington were as smart as everyone outside it, there would be no problems.

These seem to be three mistakes:

8. Misreading France and Russia. Before going to the United Nations in the fall of 2002, seeking final demands backed by the prospect of force, Mr. Bush should have known that the Security Council might endorse him, or at least known that he would fail. But France and Russia, bound in corrupt alliance with Saddam Hussein, would not have backed force under any circumstances. The main misreader of French intentions was Colin Powell. But Mr. Powell is part of Bush’s team. Mr. Bush himself placed (places?) too much confidence in Vladimir Putin, based on a personal estimate of him. The Beslan massacre might reorient the Russians to their true interests. As for France, qui sait?

7. Misreading Turkey. Going the U.N. route unsuccessfully made our enterprise seem illegitimate (no one questioned our actions in the Balkans, which neither sought nor had U.N. sanction). Misreading Turkey had a material effect on the invasion of Iraq and, even more, on its aftermath. Tommy Franks’ plan was to sweep to Baghdad from the north and from the southeast. Because Turkey was not brought on board, we had to rely solely on the southern river corridor. The heartland of the old regime, the so-called Sunni triangle, was therefore not shattered in the initial push. It was as if Sherman marched to the sea without touching Atlanta.

6. No punishment for Falluja. The grim spring of 2004 began with the murder of American contract workers and the hanging of their burned corpses in the Sunni city of Falluja. A brigade of Marines moved in to crack the nut, then pulled back. No doubt we had our reasons, and the war-college seminars will be hashing them out for months and years. Pending that debate, and further action, one must say that the purpose of the Roman legion was to punish. Static occupation duty is for suckers.

The next two reasons have to do with the conditions of war:

5. Fighting war in peacetime. The United States is the wealthiest nation in history, but is it wealthy enough to fight a multiform, stop-start war on many fronts with its left hand? Mark Helprin, the novelist and sometime speechwriter, recently reviewed the figures: In the last year of World War II, we spent 38.5 per cent of our G.N.P. on defense (i.e., offense). To spend at that rate now, “we would be spending not $400 billion but $4.235 trillion.” Mr. Helprin wasn’t recommending the higher figures. Mr. Bush seems satisfied that the lower figure will do the job, though every story about extended tours of duty or stretched National Guard reserves awakens legitimate concern.

4. Busting the domestic budget. This is another issue formally distinct from the Terror War. But if we may be scrimping on the military, why are we splurging on so many other things? Mr. Bush has not vetoed a single domestic-spending bill. If he needs to reach into America’s pocket, how can he do it when so many hands are already in there?

The last items, fused for convenience, concern the scope of the war:

3, 2, 1. Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran. Some terror-supporting nations have changed their tune in the wake of our invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq: Libya (possibly) and Pakistan. What of these three countries? Saudi Arabia has given some lip service to the notion of mending its ways; its ways require great mending, since it is the home of Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 9/11 hijackers, as well as the unofficial central bank of crusading Islamism worldwide. Iran is a frank enemy, presiding over a despotic state, developing its own nuclear weapons and sponsoring terror throughout the region. Little Syria is the sidekick of larger regimes. Mr. Bush seems to believe that Syria is cowed and that the Saudis can be pressured. His administration seems not to believe that Iran is a threat; at least, it does not encourage spontaneous regime change there, as Ronald Reagan did when he urged Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. Perhaps Mr. Bush will grasp these nettles, but we cannot tell.

What causes these shortcomings? Are they matched by strengths? Are they somehow related to Mr. Bush’s strengths? I will try to address those questions in my next column.