The past 10 days have borne out the nation’s lowest suspicions about President Bush — that he is only nominally in charge of his own administration — but they raised a glimmer of hope about him, too.
First the hopeful news. We have been taught that when James A. Baker II speaks, it is the voice of the Bush family, or soon will be. Baker, the Bush family consigliere and lately the Bush-appointed co-chair of an Iraq study group, let it be known Sunday that Bush’s Iraq policy — stay the course — is through. They are looking for a better-sounding name than “cut and run” for arranging a departure from the country that Bush’s war policy has all but obliterated.
This may be a hoax to raise people’s hopes about the president before the election and stave off a disaster for his party but, if it is, it probably will be a hoax on Baker, too. Baker is the ultimate family loyalist — he is more responsible than anyone for the U.S. Supreme Court making Bush president in 2000 — but he was always an honest broker.
A close but unidentified friend of Baker told The New York Times that Baker would not be talking about Iraq policy on TV without the president’s tacit approval although many of Baker’s remarks on ABC were a polite roundhouse attack on the administration’s war and foreign policies: the president’s refusal to engage diplomatically with countries that Bush deems his enemies (he sends men to be tortured in Syria but he will not negotiate with its leaders), and the plan to occupy Iraq until final victory.
Memoirs by both Baker and the president’s father 10 years ago predicted what would happen if the United States toppled Saddam Hussein and occupied the country. We would have to contend with ceaseless strife and civil war between the ethnic and religious sects, and the American occupation would inflame the Arab world and feed extremism. They were talking about the Bush-Baker decision to withdraw from Iraq in 1991 after the liberation of Kuwait.
Yes, Baker acknowledged Sunday, a lot of it did come true under Bush II.
Bush gave tacit approval for this?
Another member of Baker’s bipartisan study group said all its members, Republican and Democratic, realized that time was short for changing course in Iraq to avoid the ultimate cataclysm and that Bush himself was “desperate” for a change and listening to Baker. “But no one in the White House,” he said, “can bring themselves to say so with this election coming.”
That has to pass for hope.
But then you have to factor the essential character of George W. Bush, outlined so starkly in Bob Woodward’s new book on the war and the president, “State of Denial,” which described a far different man than the decisive, commanding leader characterized in the first two Woodward books on the presidency. This time, he talked to Andy Card, George Tenet, Colin Powell and other now-departed insiders, and a portrait emerges of a man presiding over a riven cabinet and staff, glued desperately to a failed course and dependent on his vice president. Ever since Dick Cheney anointed himself Bush’s running mate after leading a phony search for one, there has been a nagging suspicion that this was the Cheney presidency.
Woodward recounts all the worries about the war, before and after Bush declared it (his father lay sleepless over fears that the son would order the invasion), and the near unanimous view afterward that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s strategies had wasted the American effort and were destroying the presidency. Even First Lady Laura Bush went to Card, the president’s chief of staff, and wondered why her husband was so intent on keeping Rumsfeld. Card tried twice to persuade Bush to replace Rumsfeld with Jim Baker. Finally, Bush went to Rumsfeld’s sponsor, Dick Cheney, about replacing the defense secretary.
Absolutely not, Cheney said. And that was that.
Cheney and Rumsfeld, along with conservative editor William Kristol, were the fathers of the Project for the New American Century, which organized in 1997 to promote a Middle Eastern invasion that would help establish a “benevolent global hegemony” for the United States. The Washington Post reported this summer that the organization had closed its offices this year, its goals having been accomplished. Actually, many of the hawks in the organization had already fallen out with Rumsfeld because they thought he had run the war disastrously by refusing to deploy enough soldiers.
So we now are to understand that Bush wants out of the war if Baker and Co. can find a face-saving way to do it (simple: just declare victory). If the Republicans maintain control of Congress next month, Cheney will say, “See, people want us to stay the course.” And we still have no evidence that Bush can stand up to Cheney.