Very early this month, I was debating the merits of George W. Bush’s policy in Iraq with a supporter of the president.
The man in question is very bright and he is also intellectually honest, willing to move beyond the sound bite volley that too often passes for political debate in this country today.
“You want to know why we went into Iraq when we did?” he asked rhetorically. “Because we could.”
I think that’s just about right. The decision wasn’t about weapons of mass destruction or any other immediate danger posed by Saddam Hussein. Instead it reflected a deeply held ideological predisposition that in order to reorder the pieces in the Middle East puzzle, the Iraqi dictator had to be removed, and if it could be done in high profile, shock and awe fashion, all the better in terms of the lessons it would teach the Arab street.
The political environment of America in 2002 was ripe for a move. Given the staggered American psyche in the wake of 9/11, Iraq was something George Bush could do.
The flip side of a policy based on “because we could,” however, is that you must achieve the mission. If you are fighting a war that is not absolutely necessary, but is instead simply possible, then winning is everything. There is no nobility in a nice try.
All of this took on added meaning for me a week later when Defense Sec. Donald Rumsfeld made what he hoped would be a rock star pit stop on December 9 at an Army base in Kuwait. Speaking to troops preparing to move into Iraq, Rumsfeld, accustomed to being in charge of any room in which he publicly appears, was thrown off guard by several soldiers who asked tough questions about the lack of military preparedness that has dogged the military campaign since the fall of Baghdad and threatens their lives as they undertake their mission. Fumbling to answer one particularly pointed question, Rumsfeld snapped back with words that have come to haunt him: “You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want.”
If the pretexts—and there have been several—that the Bush administration set out for its Iraqi incursion had held up, the secretary’s response might have had some merit. But in a war that was optional—a war we started because we could—Rumsfeld’s response is indefensible.
In the days since, moderate Senate Republicans have begun to make noise about the defense secretary and, just this week, conservative commentator Pat Buchanan warned that Rumsfeld may be scapegoated by the neo-cons’ need to prop up their case for the war. Yet, Bush himself is signaling his continued confidence in Rumsfeld, saying, “You know, sometimes perhaps his demeanor is rough and gruff, but beneath that rough and gruff, no-nonsense demeanor is a good human being who cares deeply about the military and deeply about the grief that war causes.”
This is an administration unshaken by the horrors revealed in late April about the prison atrocities at Abu Ghraib.
It is also a government that saw fit, just last week, to bestow the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, on George J. Tenet, the former CIA director who when asked by Bush about WMDs in Iraq said, “Don’t worry, it’s a slam dunk case”; L. Paul Bremer III, the former U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, whose tenure was marked by almost none of the progress in normalizing that nation originally promised; and Tommy Franks, the retired general who was in charge of the military’s Central Command during the invasion of Iraq.
Don’t count on George W. Bush, buoyed by a popular vote victory denied him in 2000, to find useful lessons in Rumsfeld’s current predicament.
But if ever there were a time to learn the lessons of humility offered in this sacred season, this is it.