09 Mar 2008

A Failed Presidency

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Jeffrey Bell looks at the Bush Administration’s record and identifies its lack of attention span as a key problem: the pattern is excellent initial judgment, strong will, fair to decent early execution, culminating in distraction and in an ultimate failure to finish.

Reagan made some unusually good calls. Speaking as a Reaganite, I believe Bush did too, particularly in his first three years in the White House. But too often, he didn’t let his bet ride. At other times he was proven right, but became distracted or forgetful when it was time to get to completion, to bank his winnings. We’ve seen how this worked to undo or render negligible some of his bravest and most innovative domestic moves, such as the first-term tax cuts and the faith-based initiative. The same failure to follow through demoralized Bush’s supporters and threatened his achievements in foreign policy as well.

He also, correctly, identifies the mishandling of the Plamegame as key ingredient in the dégringolade.

A somewhat bigger turning point, it seems to me, was the fall 2003 appointment of Patrick Fitzgerald as a special prosecutor to investigate the public disclosure of Valerie Plame Wilson’s identity as an employee of the Central Intelligence Agency. Looking back on it, several elements of this episode appear truly absurd, indeed almost comical: the indictment and conviction of Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff, Scooter Libby, for perjury and obstruction of justice, even though the prosecutor had concluded there was no underlying crime; the fact that the prosecutor seemingly pursued only people who were hawkish on Iraq and never people who were dovish on Iraq; the fact that from the beginning, even before Fitzgerald’s appointment, all of the key players knew that the deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, was the original source of the leak to columnist Robert Novak, rather than anyone in the White House. If nothing else, the criminal investigation cursed and complicated several years of the life of Karl Rove, the president’s most gifted and most combative political adviser, who it turned out had nothing to do with disclosing the identity of Valerie Plame Wilson.

In part because the Plame affair succeeded in criminalizing or semi-criminalizing effective defenders of the Iraq invasion, in part because the weapons of mass destruction were missing–perhaps even in part because the partisan polarization that predated 9/11 was never destined to go away for long–the administration lost its voice. This affected not so much voters’ support for Bush’s handling of Iraq–that would have plummeted during the Iraq bungling of 2004-06 no matter what the administration had said about it–as the president’s ability to persuade the country that U.S. involvement in Iraq is a difficult but indispensable part of battling jihadism worldwide.

The loss of voice that began to be apparent in the second half of 2003 opened a wide avenue for a liberal Democratic storyline, which quickly dovetailed with the realist storyline of Republican critics such as Brent Scowcroft, not to mention the storyline of members of the permanent government inside the national security apparatus in Washington: World war? What world war? What war at all, other than Afghanistan and the one blundered into by George W. Bush in Iraq? Yes, 9/11 was terrible, but the Bush “obsession” with Iraq, obvious to insiders long before the actual invasion, enabled the perpetrators of 9/11 to escape the clutches of allied forces in the Afghan mountains, and has resulted in inexcusable neglect of the war in Afghanistan ever since.

That it has been possible for critics to isolate Iraq as an issue–making it into a giant, stand-alone Bush blunder–accounts in large part for the failure of the president to get much benefit in public opinion from the turnaround achieved by his appointment of General Petraeus. Improved prospects for getting the United States out of a difficult situation with only limited damage doesn’t change the “fact” that our being there at all is a mistake. Even a completely unpredicted Bush success–the lack of new terrorist attacks against the American mainland since September 2001–lends further plausibility to the Democratic storyline. In the words of the New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh in a C-SPAN interview, after all, 9/11 was “not that big a deal.” In the revealing words of John Edwards, the war on terrorism is nothing more than a bumper sticker.

Read the whole thing.

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