Always look on the bright side of life

There's a long article by Bob Woodward in the WaPo about the discrepancies between what the Bush administration knew was going on in Iraq from secret military reports and what was publicly being stated in upbeat presidential speeches and other public information. Here's a bit from an interview with Jay Garner, the first military governor of Iraq:

On June 18, 2003, Jay Garner went to see Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to report on his brief tenure in Iraq as head of the postwar planning office. Throughout the invasion and the early days of the war, Garner, a retired Army lieutenant general, had struggled just to get his team into Iraq. Two days after he arrived, Rumsfeld called to tell him that L. Paul "Jerry" Bremer, a 61-year-old terrorism expert and protege of Henry A. Kissinger, would be coming over as the presidential envoy, effectively replacing Garner.



"We've made three tragic decisions," Garner told Rumsfeld.



"Really?" Rumsfeld asked.



"Three terrible mistakes," Garner said.



He cited the first two orders Bremer signed when he arrived, the first one banning as many as 50,000 members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party from government jobs and the second disbanding the Iraqi military. Now there were hundreds of thousands of disorganized, unemployed, armed Iraqis running around.



Third, Garner said, Bremer had summarily dismissed an interim Iraqi leadership group that had been eager to help the United States administer the country in the short term. "Jerry Bremer can't be the face of the government to the Iraqi people. You've got to have an Iraqi face for the Iraqi people."



Garner made his final point: "There's still time to rectify this. There's still time to turn it around."



Rumsfeld looked at Garner for a moment with his take-no-prisoners gaze. "Well," he said, "I don't think there is anything we can do, because we are where we are."



He thinks I've lost it, Garner thought. He thinks I'm absolutely wrong. Garner didn't want it to sound like sour grapes, but facts were facts. "They're all reversible," Garner said again.



"We're not going to go back," Rumsfeld said emphatically.



Later that day, Garner went with Rumsfeld to the White House. But in a meeting with Bush, he made no mention of mistakes. Instead he regaled the president with stories from his time in Baghdad.



In an interview last December, I asked Garner if he had any regrets in not telling the president about his misgivings.



"You know, I don't know if I had that moment to live over again, I don't know if I'd do that or not. But if I had done that -- and quite frankly, I mean, I wouldn't have had a problem doing that -- but in my thinking, the door's closed. I mean, there's nothing I can do to open this door again. And I think if I had said that to the president in front of Cheney and Condoleezza Rice and Rumsfeld in there, the president would have looked at them and they would have rolled their eyes back and he would have thought, 'Boy, I wonder why we didn't get rid of this guy sooner?' "



"They didn't see it coming," Garner added. "As the troops said, they drank the Kool-Aid."
There's also some very interesting passages about the influence Henry Kissinger has had over Dick Cheney, notably pressing the argument that US troops should stick it out in Iraq and defeat the insurgency militarily before leaving. According to Woodward, Kissinger sees Iraq as another Vietnam, and thinks that Vietnam could have been won if the US had stayed longer. Senior military officials completely disagreed with this view, saying "we've got to get the fuck out."

Finally, former White House Chief of Staff seems to have had a pretty accurate reading of the situation, even if he was unwilling to actually internalize it:



Card put it on the generals in the Pentagon and Iraq. If they had come forward and said to the president, "It's not worth it," or, "The mission can't be accomplished," Card was certain, the president would have said "I'm not going to ask another kid to sacrifice for it."



Card was enough of a realist to see that there were two negative aspects to Bush's public persona that had come to define his presidency: incompetence and arrogance. Card did not believe that Bush was incompetent, and so he had to face the possibility that, as Bush's chief of staff, he might have been the incompetent one. In addition, he did not think the president was arrogant.



But the marketing of Bush had come across as arrogant. Maybe it was unfair in Card's opinion, but there it was.



He was leaving. And the man he considered most responsible for the postwar troubles, the one who should have gone, Rumsfeld, was staying.
Even The Economist, which in 2002/2003 was largely pro-war and pro-Bush (and is now eating humble pie), had called for Rumsfeld to resign on its cover. One of the lessons of the Bush presidency will be that, as well as all the corruption, pork-barreling for big industry and ideological blindness, Bush's personality will have been a key to his policy failures: he is a man unable to admit mistakes or consider that he may have been wrong. He confuses arrogance and groundless optimism with dogged resolve. You can imagine these meetings with the president, surrounded by his favorite yes-men, singing the Monty Python song "Always look on the bright side of life" in unison as they are delivered pessimistic report after pessimistic report from the uniformed professionals in Iraq. What a catastrophe.
3 Comments

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.