Almost exactly 43 years ago, on April 21, 1961, President John F. Kennedy held a press conference to answer questions on the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban exiles that he had approved. "There's an old saying," he said, "that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan ... I am the responsible officer of the government and that is quite obvious." He expressed private disbelief at and disdain for his sudden rise in popularity: "The worse I do the more popular I get." He remarked to his aide Ted Sorensen: "How could I have been so far off base? All my life I've known better than to depend on the experts. How could I have been so stupid, to let them go ahead?"
On Wednesday, President Bush held only his third prime-time press conference and was asked three times whether he accepted responsibility for failing to act before Sept. 11 on warnings such as the President's Daily Brief of Aug. 6, 2001, titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." "I'm sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference with all the pressure of trying to come up with an answer, but it hadn't yet," he said. "... I just haven't -- you just put me under the spot here and maybe I'm not quick -- as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one."
Bush's press conference was the culmination of his recent efforts to stanch the political wounds of his bleeding polls since the 9/11 commission had begun public hearings and the Fallujah killings of four U.S. contractors had set off a spiral of violence in Iraq. Bush had tried to divert blame by declaring that the Aug. 6 memo he was forced to declassify at the commission's insistence contained no "actionable intelligence," even though it specifically mentioned the World Trade Center, federal buildings in New York (many lodged in the WTC), and Washington as targets. Like his national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, he claimed that because that dire memo, written by the CIA with the intention of catching his blurred attention, lacked "a time and place of an attack" it didn't prompt him to do anything.
Bush, in fact, does not read his PDBs, but has them orally summarized every morning by CIA director George Tenet. President Clinton, by contrast, read them closely and alone, preventing any aides from interpreting what he wanted to know firsthand. He extensively marked up his PDBs, demanding action on this or that, which is almost certainly the reason the Bush administration withheld his memoranda from the 9/11 commission.
"I know he doesn't read," one former Bush National Security Council staffer told me. Several other former NSC staffers corroborated his habit. It seems highly unlikely that he read the National Intelligence Estimate on WMD before the Iraq war that consigned contrary evidence and caveats that undermined the case to footnotes and fine print. There is no record that he raised any questions about the abuse of intelligence. Nor is there any evidence that he read the State Department's 17-volume report "The Future of Iraq," warning of nearly all the postwar pitfalls, that was shelved by the neocons in the Pentagon and Vice President Cheney's office. "He probably didn't even know of 'The Future of Iraq,'" said a former NSC staffer.
Nor was Bush aware of similar warnings urgently being sounded by the military's top strategic analysts. I have learned that a monograph, "Reconstructing Iraq," by the U.S. Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute, predicting in detail "possible severe security difficulties" and conflicts among Iraqis that U.S. forces "can barely comprehend," was suppressed by the Pentagon neocons, and only released to U.S. Central Command after Sen. Joseph Biden, ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, directly intervened. By then, the problems foreseen were already overwhelming Iraq.
A revolt within the military against Bush is brewing. Many in the military's strategic echelon share the same feelings of being ignored and ill-treated by the administration that senior intelligence officers voice in private. "The Pentagon began with fantasy assumptions on Iraq and worked back," one of them remarked to me. Reflecting the developing consensus at that level, the Army War College has just issued a new monograph in which a senior Army strategist accuses the Bush administration of seeking to win "quickly and on the cheap" while having "either misunderstood or, worse, wished away" the predicted problems.
As the iconic image of the "war president" has tattered, another picture has emerged. Bush appears as a passive manager who enjoys sitting atop a hierarchical structure, unwilling and unable to do the hard work that a real manager has to do in order to run the largest enterprise in the world. He does not seem to absorb data unless it is presented to him in simple, crystal-clear fashion by people whose judgment he trusts. He is receptive to information that agrees with his point of view rather than information that challenges it. This therefore leads to enormous power on the part of the trusted interlocutors, who know and bolster his predilections. Thus Rice fulfills Bush's idea of the national security advisor as the comforting briefer.
At his press conference, Bush was a confusion of absolute confidence and panic. He jumbled facts and conflated threats, redoubling the vehemence of his incoherence at every mildly skeptical question. Whenever he could, he drove himself back to the safety of 9/11 -- and then disclaimed responsibility. He attempted to create a false political dichotomy between "retreat" and his own vague and evolving position on Iraq, which now appears to follow Sen. John Kerry's of granting more authority to the U.N. and bringing in NATO.
The ultimate revelation was Bush's vision of a divinely inspired apocalyptic struggle in which he is the leader of a crusade bringing the Lord's "gift." "I also have this belief, strong belief that freedom is not this country's gift to the world. Freedom is the Almighty's gift to every man and woman in this world. And as the greatest power on the face of the earth we have an obligation to help the spread of freedom." But religious war is not part of official U.S. military doctrine.