Bush "at peace" waging war

A new transcript reveals the president, on the brink of the Iraq invasion, full of faith, calm and unyielding optimism.

Published October 18, 2007 10:59AM (EDT)

The only thing that worries me about you is your optimism. -- Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar to President George W. Bush, from the Crawford Transcript of Feb. 22, 2003

Surely one of the agonizing attributes of our post-Sept. 11 age is the unending need to reaffirm realities that have been proved, and proved again, but just as doggedly denied by those in power, forcing us to live trapped between two narratives of present history, the one gaining life and color and vigor as more facts become known, the other growing ever paler, brittler, more desiccated, barely sustained by the life support of official power.

At the center of our national life stands the master narrative of this bifurcated politics: the Iraq war, fought to eliminate the threat of weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist, brought to a quick and glorious conclusion on a sunlit aircraft carrier deck whose victory celebration almost instantly became a national embarrassment. That was four and a half years ago; the war's ending and indeed its beginning, so clearly defined for that single trembling instant, have long since vanished into contested history.

The latest entry in that history appeared on Sept. 26, when the Spanish daily El País published a transcript of a discussion held on Feb. 22, 2003 -- nearly a month before the war began -- between President Bush and José María Aznar, then prime minister of Spain. Though the leaders met at Mr. Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, some quickly dubbed the transcript Downing Street Memo II, and indeed the document does share some themes with that critical British memorandum, mostly in its clear demonstration of the gap between what President Bush and members of his administration were saying publicly during the run-up to the war and what they were saying, and doing, in more private settings. Though Hans Blix, the United Nations chief inspector whose teams were then scouring Iraq for the elusive weapons, had yet to deliver his report -- two weeks later he would tell the Security Council that it would take not "years, nor weeks, but months" to complete "the key remaining disarmament tasks" -- the president is impatient, even anxious, for war. "This is like Chinese water torture," he says of the inspections. "We have to put an end to it."

Even in discussing Aznar's main concern, the vital need to give the war international legitimacy by securing a second U.N. resolution justifying the use of force -- a resolution that, catastrophically, was never achieved -- little pretense is made that an invasion of Iraq is not already a certainty. "If anyone vetoes," the president tells Aznar, "we'll go. Saddam Hussein isn't disarming. We have to catch him right now. Until now we've shown an incredible amount of patience. There are two weeks left. In two weeks we'll be militarily ready ... We'll be in Baghdad by the end of March."

The calendar has already been determined -- not by the inspectors and what they might or might not find, nor by the diplomats and what they might or might not negotiate, but by the placement and readiness of warplanes and soldiers and tanks.

When did war become a certainty? The gradations of the president's attitudes are impossible to chart, though as far back as the previous July, the head of British intelligence, Sir Richard Dearlove, on his famous consultations in Washington, had detected "a perceptible shift in attitude." As Dearlove was quoted reporting to the British cabinet in the most famous passage in the Downing Street Memo:

"Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had no patience with the UN route..."

It is on this point -- the need of the Europeans to have a U.N. resolution justifying force, and thus a legal, or at least internationally legitimate, war, and the deep ambivalence among Bush administration officials about taking "the UN route" -- that much of the drama of the Crawford transcript turns, making it into a kind of playlet pitting the sinuous, subtle and sophisticated European, worried about the great opposition in Europe, and in Spain in particular, to an American-led war of choice with Iraq ("We need your help with our public opinion," Aznar tells Bush), against the blustery, impatient, firing-straight-from-the-hip American cowboy. Bush wants to put out the second resolution on Monday. Aznar says, "We'd prefer to wait until Tuesday." Bush counters, "Monday afternoon, taking the time zone differences into account." To Bush's complaint that the U.N. process was like "Chinese water torture," Aznar offers soothing understanding and a plea to take a breath:

Aznar: I agree, but it would be good to be able to count on as many people as possible. Have a little patience.

Bush: My patience has run out. I won't go beyond mid-March.

Aznar: I'm not asking you to have indefinite patience. Simply that you do everything possible so that everything comes together."

Aznar, a right-wing Catholic idealist who believes in the human rights arguments for removing Saddam Hussein, finds himself on a political knife edge: More than nine Spaniards in 10 oppose going to war and millions have just marched through the streets of Madrid in angry opposition; he is intensely concerned to gain a U.N. resolution making the war an internationally sanctioned effort and not just an American-led "aggression." Bush responds to his plea for diplomacy with a rather remarkable litany of threats directed at the current temporary members of the Security Council. "Countries like Mexico, Chile, Angola, and Cameroon have to know," he declares, "that what's at stake is the United States' security and acting with a sense of friendship toward us." In case Aznar doesn't get the point, he describes to the Spaniard what each nation will suffer if it doesn't recognize "what's at stake":

[Chilean President Ricardo] Lagos has to know that the Free Trade Agreement with Chile is pending Senate confirmation, and that a negative attitude on this issue could jeopardize that ratification. Angola is receiving funds from the Millennium Account that could also be compromised if they don't show a positive attitude. And Putin must know that his attitude is jeopardizing the relations of Russia and the United States.

What is striking about this passage is not only how crude and clumsy it is, with the president of the United States spouting threats like a movie gangster -- he presumably wants the Spaniard to convey them directly to the various leaders -- but how ineffective the bluster turned out to be. None of these countries changed their position on a second resolution, which, in the event, was never brought before the Security Council to what would have been certain defeat. Bush, in making the threats, did the one thing an effective leader is supposed always to avoid: He issued an order that was not obeyed, thus demonstrating the limits of his power. (The Iraq war itself, meant as it was to "shock and awe" the world and particularly U.S. adversaries, did much the same thing.)

Along with bluster comes stern self-righteousness. Aznar asks whether "there's a possibility of Saddam Hussein going into exile" -- "the biggest success," he tells the president, "would be to win the game without firing a single shot" -- and Bush answers that there is: The Egyptians "say he's indicated that he's willing to go into exile if they let him take $1 billion and all the information that he wants about the weapons of mass destruction."

And would such exile, asks Aznar, come with a "guarantee" (presumably against prosecution or extradition)? "No guarantee," declares Bush. "He's a thief, a terrorist, a war criminal. Compared to Saddam, Milosevic would be a Mother Teresa." Though it's hard to evaluate whether Saddam was really willing to leave Iraq -- the Egyptians, Saudis, and others who were then touting the possibility all had an interest in seeing Saddam leave and the Sunni power structure remain in place -- it is inconceivable that he would do so without some sort of guarantee, a possibility Bush forecloses.

What is most interesting in this passage, and indeed in the entire transcript, is what it reveals about Bush's attitudes and character. One moment he blusters and threatens, the next he speaks reverently and self-righteously about how he is guided by "a historic sense of responsibility":

When some years from now History judges us, I don't want people to ask themselves why Bush, or Aznar, or Blair didn't face their responsibilities. In the end, what people want is to enjoy freedom. Not long ago, in Romania, I was reminded of the example of Ceausescu: it took just one woman to call him a liar for the whole repressive system to come down. That's the unstoppable power of freedom. I am convinced that I'll get that resolution.

He did not get it, of course. Despite his strong conviction, neither Chile nor Angola nor Russia proved ready to change their votes, threat or no threat. There is a difference between being sure and being right. Bush's conviction, here as elsewhere, came not from an independent analysis of the facts -- of the interests and intentions of the nations involved -- but from the wellspring of faith. He has confused rhetoric, however uplifting, and reality. Aznar, the sophisticated European, comments wryly on this. It is the most Jamesian moment in the playlet of Crawford; one can almost see the subtly arched eyebrow:

Aznar: The only thing that worries me about you is your optimism.

Bush: I am an optimist, because I believe that I'm right. I'm at peace with myself. It's up to us to face a serious threat to peace.

It is worrying, as Aznar remarks, to rely on optimism grounded only in belief. The Spaniard knows that gaining that second Security Council resolution, and thus the critical international legitimacy for the war, will be very hard; in many nations, launching a war against Iraq, particularly before the U.N. inspectors have finished their work, is deeply unpopular. Faith cannot replace facts, nor can a historic sense of mission. Both may be personally comforting -- they plainly are to George W. Bush -- but they don't obviate the need to know things.

Bush came to office a man who knew little of the world, who had hardly traveled outside the country, who knew nothing of the practice of foreign policy and diplomacy. Two years later, after the attacks of Sept. 11 and his emergence as a self-described "war president," he has come to know only that this lack of knowledge is not a handicap but perhaps even a strength: that he doesn't need to know things in order to believe that he's right and to be at peace with himself. He has redefined his weakness -- his lack of knowledge and experience -- as his singular strength. He believes he's right. It is a matter of generations and destiny and freedom: It is "up to us to face a serious threat to peace." For Bush, faith, conviction and a felt sense of destiny -- not facts or knowledge -- are the real necessities of leadership.

So Bush is confident -- confident about winning the second resolution and thus international legitimacy; confident, because "we're developing a very strong humanitarian aid package," that "there's a good basis for a better future" in a "post-Saddam Iraq." In fact, of course, at the very moment he is telling these things to the Spanish prime minister in Crawford, Texas, the postwar planning in Washington is a shambles, consisting of little more than confusion and savage internecine warfare between the Defense and State Departments.

The plan for governance in "post-Saddam Iraq" does not exist, all discussion of it having been paralyzed by a bitter dispute between officials in the Pentagon, State Department and CIA that the president will never resolve. The Iraqi "civil society" that he tells Aznar is "relatively strong" will soon be decimated by the prolonged looting and chaos that follows on the entry of American troops into Baghdad. The "good bureaucracy" he boasts about in Iraq will shortly be destroyed by a radical de-Baathification ordered by the American proconsul that he almost certainly never approved. The Iraqi army that he decides in early March will be retained and used for reconstruction will instead be peremptorily dissolved, to catastrophic effect.

If these radical departures from the president's chosen plan have dampened his optimism and faith -- or indeed have even led him to try to discover what happened -- there is no evidence of it. When Bush's latest biographer, Robert Draper, asked him why the Iraqi army had not been kept intact, as the president had decided it should be, Bush replied, "Yeah, I can't remember. I'm sure I said, 'This is the policy, what happened?'"

"This is the policy, what happened?" As a subtitle for a history of the Iraq war, one could certainly do worse. Prime Minister Aznar is gone now, having been fatally weakened by his support for the Iraq war and the failure to obtain United Nations support for it; almost exactly a year after the war began, jihadists targeted the Madrid train station, killing nearly 200 Spaniards and sending the prime minister to electoral defeat. Tony Blair, the star of the Downing Street Memo, is gone as well, his popularity having never recovered from his staunch support of the war. George W. Bush, on the other hand, nearly five years after he launched the war, remains confident of victory, just as he was confident he would win that second U.N. resolution. There is no sign that his confidence is any more firmly rooted in reality now than it was then. Instead of reality we have faith -- in himself, in the deity, in "the unstoppable power of human freedom." He stands as lead actor in his own narrative of history, a story that grows steadily paler and more contested, animated solely by the authority of official power. George W. Bush remains, we are told, "at peace with himself."

By Mark Danner

Mark Danner is the author, most recently, of "Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror" (2004) and "The Secret Way to War: The Downing Street Memo and the Iraq War's Buried History" (2007). He has covered the Iraq war from its beginning for the New York Review of Books. He teaches at both Bard College and the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. His work is archived at MarkDanner.com.

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