Burdened by his record low poll ratings, the president of the United States sought last night to convince the nation and the world that he knows what he is doing in Iraq. He succeeded only in proving that he has no new ideas and no plausible plan -- except to tear down that prison whose name he cannot pronounce.
Americans are losing confidence in President Bush, not so much because they distrust his motives, although many do, as because they question his competence. The aggressive unilateralism once regarded by Bush's political strategists as their most powerful domestic political weapon is now turned around and pointing straight at them.
For this humiliating reversal, they can thank the neoconservatives who convinced Bush that they -- and they alone -- were capable of managing foreign and defense policy that would serve American interests. So much for another major myth long promoted and cherished by the Republican right (including many figures who are now seeking distance from the increasingly discredited neocons).
Back when Bush was running for president, supporters deflected concern about his utter ignorance of foreign affairs with assurances that he would surround himself with the most brilliant, seasoned, adult advisors. Everything would turn out well so long as the people he selected to formulate and execute policy were the right choices, in every sense. Unfortunately for him, those choices have performed less adequately than advertised, their swollen self-regard notwithstanding.
From the intelligence bungling that drove the decision to invade Iraq to the arrogant diplomacy that drove away traditional U.S. allies to the false expectations and inept planning that created postwar chaos, Bush's neoconservative policy elite promoted mistaken assumptions and bad decisions. Now, as Iraqis and Americans suffer the consequences of those errors, the neocons demand more of the same failed policies, and continue to imagine that U.S. military power will salvage their misadventure.
At the moment, the neocons' blustering matters somewhat less than their blundering. The news emerging from Iraq suggests that although they regard themselves as hardheaded realists, they are in fact silly dreamers.
The police raid on the Baghdad quarters of Ahmed Chalabi, the crooked banker and former exile who hopes to become Iraq's next prime minister, was a portent of worse news. After fleecing U.S. taxpayers for more than $40 million worth of dubious "intelligence" about Saddam Hussein's weapons, Chalabi and his associates in the Iraqi National Congress are now officially suspected of abusing their privileged position for corrupt purposes. Rumors of extortion, kidnapping, blackmail and embezzlement are rife.
All that might be acceptable to Chalabi's right-wing sponsors in the United States, who have rarely spurned a "pro-American" strongman over such peccadilloes. Far more troubling, however, are the plausible suspicions, now under investigation by the FBI, that Chalabi and his intelligence chief, Aras Habib, passed U.S. secrets to their other friends and sponsors in Tehran. (Habib is missing and presumed to have fled to avoid facing those charges.)
This is rather embarrassing for the White House. Having warned in his second State of the Union address that Iran belongs to the "axis of evil," the president delivered his third State of the Union last January in the presence of the grinning Chalabi, who was seated in a place of honor behind the first lady. Bush must be wondering by now exactly how his neoconservative advisors squared their desire to overthrow the Iranian mullahs with their determination to install an Iranian ally in Baghdad.
In the neoconservative promotion of Chalabi, wishful thinking and political patronage overcame doubts expressed by analysts in the CIA and the State Department. And the same shortsighted, highly ideological decision making seems to have affected the staffing of the Coalition Provisional Authority.
According to a remarkable article in the Washington Post, the CPA selected a number of utterly inexperienced young conservatives to oversee critical aspects of Iraq's reconstruction. Apparently these youthful idealists were chosen solely because their résumés had been posted on the Web site of the right-wing Heritage Foundation. (Such clumsy political vetting is ironically reminiscent of the ultra-left origins of the neoconservative movement.)
The results of their excellent adventure were predictably poor, as important aspects of the struggling nation's finances were turned over to the likes of Todd Baldwin, a former legislative aide to Sen. Rick Santorum; John Hanley, an editor of the Heritage Foundation Web site; and Simone Ledeen, the daughter of Iran-Contra figure Michael Ledeen, whose résumé featured her role in founding a cooking school. Despite their obvious lack of qualifications, all were hired without so much as an interview or a background check. (The level of Ledeen's political maturity is amusingly displayed on a Christian-right Web site, which posted her gushing account of the president's Thanksgiving visit to the troops in Baghdad. Coming down from the euphoria of meeting Bush, Ledeen wrote, "Hillary Clinton is coming here tomorrow. For her sake I hope I don't see her. I might do something crazy like spit in her direction.")
Much like their more senior sponsors, the young conservatives sent to staff the CPA possessed more enthusiasm than wisdom, and more self-confidence than self-knowledge. And young and old, no matter how bad things look -- they will all tell anybody who listens that they are doing a great job.