Lest we forget

President George W. Bush was not the devil, bereft of any positive traits or accomplishments during his eight years in office. But as his administration ends today, we must not be so eager to put the past behind us that we forget the damage those eight years have inflicted on the United States of America.

The list of excesses, oversights and manipulations is long and political analysts likely will chew on them for decades to come. Their views will be written off by some as partisan politics, and in some cases they will be.

That's why we were intrigued by a lengthy article in the February edition of Vanity Fair, in which no fewer than 44 insiders recalled their experiences in dealings with the Bush White House. Many of those interviewed were in the room when major decisions were made, and their direct quotes told the story better than any political commentator. What follows tells us much about how the mistakes were made and about the people who made them:

The president: In the early days of the Bush administration, Richard Clarke, the chief White House counterterrorism adviser, was told by then National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice: "... don't give the president a lot of long memos, he's not a big reader ... ."

Vice President Dick Cheney: Lawrence Wilkerson, chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, said Cheney was "probably the most astute, bureaucratic entrepreneur I've ever run into. Cheney, he said, "... knew exactly how to polish him (Bush) and rub him. He knew exactly when to give him a memo ... and exactly the word choice to use to get him really excited."

Cooperation with other countries: Joschka Fischer, Germany's foreign minister and vice chancellor, said during the Kosovo War, under the Clinton administration, the U.S., Britain, France, Italy and Germany routinely met to discuss developments. That ended abruptly after Bush was elected because, Fischer said, "... the new administration was not interested anymore in a multilateral coordination."

Climate change: Christine Todd Whitman, the EPA administrator, wanted the U.S. to take a proactive role in addressing climate change and told European governments that the U.S. wanted to regulate carbon dioxide. After that meeting, when she returned home, she was told that was "off the table," not to be raised again. In 2005, Phillip Cooney, the president's chief of staff on the Council of Environment Quality, resigned after it was revealed that he edited reports to downplay the threat of global warming. He worked for the petroleum industry before taking the White House job and was hired by Exxon after he left.

Relations with Democrats: David Kuo, deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, recalls that when Democrat Tom Daschle became Senate majority leader, there was a debate among White House insiders about whether Daschle should come in the front door or side door of the White House for a first meeting with the president. They decided to have him come in the side door. Matthew Dowd, Bush's campaign pollster and strategist, said Bush's chief strategist, Karl Rove, believed "... you defeat people in politics by calling one side bad and one side good."

Religious Right: While the Bush administration depended on support from religious circles, Kuo said the senior staff at the White House "... aren't particularly religious and have no particular affection for people who are religious right leaders. ... These guys were pains in the butt who had to be accommodated."

9/11: On the night of 9/11, Clarke remembers, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in a meeting that the U.S. needed to target Iraq. Rumsfeld told the assembled group, including the president, that the U.S. should bomb Iraq "... to prove that we're, you know, big and strong and not going to be pushed around by these attacks."

Detainee rights: Wilkerson said Powell and his legal adviser believed they had convinced the president that the Geneva Conventions applied to Taliban and al-Qaida detainees. A memo reversing that position was approved by the president after it was delivered to him by Cheney.

Weapons of mass destruction: In attacking Iraq, the Bush administration cited the likelihood that Iraq held weapons of mass destruction. Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain's ambassador to the United Nations, said the full Security Council knew there was no proof that the weapons existed and "... the American system was entirely aware of this."

War costs: White House economic policy adviser Lawrence Lindsey said in September 2002 that the war would cost $100 billion to $200 billion. The White House revised the figure downward to $50 billion to $60 billion and fired Lindsey. The cost now is put at as much as $3 trillion.

Troop strength: Gen. Eric Shinseki, Army chief of staff, told a congressional hearing in 2003 that it will take several hundred thousand troops to successfully occupy Iraq. The statement was denounced by the Secretary of Defense's office and Shinseki was forced to retire early.

Iraq reconstruction: Jay Garner, the first overseer of reconstruction efforts in Iraq, recalls that George Marshall began reconstruction planning three years before the end of World War II. Garner was given less than three months. Responding to reports of widespread looting in Iraq, Rumsfeld said, "Stuff happens."

Iraq army: Garner and Gen. Scott Wallace, commander of U.S. ground forces in the invasion, agreed that 250,000 members of the Iraq Army should be retained to help with security. Garner said officials up to and including the president appeared to agree. Then the army was ordered disbanded.

Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo: The general counsel for the U.S. Navy, Alberto Mora, said "general-rank officers" with the Joint Chiefs believe the top two recruiting tools used by jihadists were the prisons at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. The administration ignored repeated opinions from lawyers throughout the federal government that U.S. treatment of prisoners would be considered torture.

Iraq Study Group: Alan Simpson, former Republican senator from Wyoming, presents the long-awaited report on how the U.S. should proceed on Iraq. The group met for nine months and produced a 160-page document with 79 recommendations. Simpson said the group had low expectations: "We expected that maybe 5 of the 79 recommendations would ever be considered, and I think we were pretty right."

This recount doesn't do justice to the Vanity Fair and Bush article and we recommend you read it for yourself. It's available on newsstands and also online at www.vanityfair.com/politics.

What you'll find is a story of hubris, of men and women who believed their view of the world trumped all else, including the law. They strove to make the United States more powerful and more secure. In the end, they accomplished exactly the opposite.

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