26 Feb 2009

Ambushed on the Potomac

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George W. Bush confronting the bureaucracies

In the National Interest, Richard Perle describes the fatal disconnect between George W. Bush’s professed policies and the entrenched State Department and National Security bureaucracies’ failure to implement them. Not only were Bush’s policies not faithfully pursued, in many cases, they were openly attacked and covertly undermined by leaks and disinformation operations.

Perle additionally debunks the left’s favorite bogey: the sinister imperialist “neocon” conpiracy. In recent years, neocon came to be used as a leftwing pejorative for someone supposedly guilty of responsibility for a new, more virulent and objectionable form of conservatism, inclined to unilateral militarism overseas and supportive of hypersecurity measures at homes. The left entirely managed to forget that a neocon is really a (typically Jewish intellectual) former liberal who has been “mugged by reality” and become a foreign policy and law enforcement hawk in response to the excesses of the radical left post the late 1960s. Dick Cheney, who has always been a conservative, for instance, cannot possibly be classified as a neocon.

For eight years George W. Bush pulled the levers of government—sometimes frantically—never realizing that they were disconnected from the machinery and the exertion was largely futile. As a result, the foreign and security policies declared by the president in speeches, in public and private meetings, in backgrounders and memoranda often had little or no effect on the activities of the sprawling bureaucracies charged with carrying out the president’s policies. They didn’t need his directives: they had their own. …

The responsibility for an ill-advised occupation and an inadequate regional strategy ultimately lies with President Bush himself. He failed to oversee the post-Saddam strategy, intervening only sporadically when things had deteriorated to the point where confidence in cabinet-level management could no longer be sustained. He did finally assert presidential authority when he rejected the defeatist advice of the Baker-Hamilton commission and Condi Rice’s State Department, ordering instead the “surge,” a decision that he surely hopes will eclipse the dismal period from 2004 to January 2007. But that is but one victory for the White House among many failures at Langley, at the Pentagon and in Foggy Bottom. …

Understanding Bush’s foreign and defense policy requires clarity about its origins and the thinking behind the administration’s key decisions. That means rejecting the false claim that the decision to remove Saddam, and Bush policies generally, were made or significantly influenced by a few neoconservative “ideologues” who are most often described as having hidden their agenda of imperial ambition or the imposition of democracy by force or the promotion of Israeli interests at the expense of American ones or the reshaping of the Middle East for oil—or all of the above. Despite its seemingly endless repetition by politicians, academics, journalists and bloggers, that is not a serious argument. …

I believe that Bush went to war for the reasons—and only the reasons—he gave at the time: because he believed Saddam Hussein posed a threat to the United States that was far greater than the likely cost of removing him from power. …

[T]he salient issue was not whether Saddam had stockpiles of WMD but whether he could produce them and place them in the hands of terrorists. The administration’s appalling inability to explain that this is what it was thinking and doing allowed the unearthing of stockpiles to become the test of whether it had correctly assessed the risk that Saddam might provide WMD to terrorists. When none were found, the administration appeared to have failed the test even though considerable evidence of Saddam’s capability to produce WMD was found in postwar inspections by the Iraq Survey Group chaired by Charles Duelfer.

I am not alone in having been asked, “If you knew that Saddam did not have WMD, would you still have supported invading Iraq?” But what appears to some to be a “gotcha” question actually misses the point. The decision to remove Saddam stands or falls on one’s judgment at the time the decision was made, and with the information then available, about how to manage the risk that he would facilitate a catastrophic attack on the United States. To say the decision to remove him was mistaken because stockpiles of WMD were never found is akin to saying that it was a mistake to buy fire insurance last year because your house didn’t burn down or health insurance because you didn’t become ill. …

I believe the cost of removing Saddam and achieving a stable future for Iraq has turned out to be very much higher than it should have been, and certainly higher than it was reasonable to expect.

But about the many mistakes made in Iraq, one thing is certain: they had nothing to do with ideology. They did not draw inspiration from or reflect neoconservative ideas and they were not the product of philosophical or ideological influences outside the government. …

If ever there were a security policy that lacked philosophical underpinnings, it was that of the Bush administration. Whenever the president attempted to lay out a philosophy, as in his argument for encouraging the freedom of expression and dissent that might advance democratic institutions abroad, it was throttled in its infancy by opponents within and outside the administration.

I believe Bush ultimately failed to grasp the demands of the American presidency. He saw himself (MBA that he was) as a chief executive whose job was to give broad direction that would then be automatically translated into specific policies and faithfully implemented by the departments of the executive branch. I doubt that such an approach could be made to work. But without a team that shared his ideas and a determination to see them realized, there was no chance he could succeed. His carefully drafted, often eloquent speeches, intended as marching orders, were seldom developed into concrete policies. And when his ideas ran counter to the conventional wisdom of the executive departments, as they often did, debilitating compromise was the result: the president spoke the words and the departments pronounced the policies.

Read the whole thing.

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