War Stories

Bush at Sea

Does this war president have any idea what he’s talking about?

New policy or "just Bush"?
New policy or “just Bush”?

Going over the transcript of Tim Russert’s interview with President Bush, a disturbing question comes to mind: Is the president telling lies and playing with semantics, or is he unaware of what’s going on—including inside his own administration?

Two sections of the interview particularly stand out in this regard: a) Bush’s defense of the war in Iraq, despite his concession that Saddam Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction; and b) his views on the war in Vietnam.

Russert asked Bush what he made of the recent comments by David Kay, who recently resigned as the CIA’s chief weapons inspector, that Iraq did not have biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons after all. Bush replied:

David Kay did report to the American people that Saddam Hussein had the capacity to make weapons. … There was no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was a danger to America … because he had the capacity to have a weapon, make a weapon … and then let that weapon fall into the hands of a shadowy terrorist network. … He could have developed a nuclear weapon over time. I’m not saying immediately, but over time, which would then have put us in what position? We would have been in a position of blackmail.

There are many remarkable things about this statement, but let us note just two.

First, President Bush seems to be vastly enlarging his doctrine of pre-emptive warfare. This doctrine originally declared that the United States has the right to attack a hostile power that possesses weapons of mass destruction. The idea was that we must sometimes strike first, in order to prevent the other side from striking us.

Now, however, the president is asserting a right to strike first not merely if a hostile power has deadly weapons or even if it is building such weapons, but also if it might build such weapons sometime in the future.

The original doctrine, though controversial, at least stemmed from the logic of self-defense. Bush’s expansion of the doctrine, as implied in his remarks to Tim Russert, does not.

If no commentators have noted, or perhaps even noticed, this new spin on American military policy, it may be because they don’t take Bush’s unscripted remarks seriously. (It’s just Bush, talking off the top of his head. No sense parsing the implications.) That in itself is quite a commentary on this president. But it’s not clear that these particular remarks were unscripted. Bush used the same phrase—”a capacity to make a weapon”—three times; it was almost certainly a part of his brief. Either the statement means something—that we now reserve the right to wage pre-emptive war on a hostile power that has the mere capacity to make weapons of mass destruction—or it’s empty blather. It’s unclear which would be more unsettling.

Second, unless the president is defining the “capacity to make a weapon” in an extremely loose sense, David Kay said nothing of the sort. When Kay said he’d concluded that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction in the months leading up to the war, he elaborated with this comment: “We don’t find the people, the documents, or the physical plants that you would expect to find if the production was going on.”

No people, no documents, no physical plants—it doesn’t sound like much “capacity.”

On chemical weapons in particular, Kay said that Iraq’s infrastructure was destroyed by President Clinton’s air strikes in 1998. On biological weapons, Kay noted in his written report last October that his team had found laboratories that “may have engaged in research.” On nuclear weapons, the report cited only “small and unsophisticated research initiatives … that could be useful in developing a weapons-related science base for the long term.” (Italics added.)

Also worthy of note were Bush’s comments on the war in Vietnam. Russert asked him whether he supported that war. Bush replied that he did, sort of. The president added:

The thing about the Vietnam War that troubles me, as I look back, was it was a political war. We had politicians making military decisions, and it is a lesson that any president must learn, and that is to set the goal and the objective and allow the military to come up with the plans to achieve that objective. And those are essential lessons to be learned from the Vietnam War.

This is the great conservative shibboleth about the Vietnam War—that we lost the war because Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and to a lesser extent President Lyndon Johnson, put too many constraints on the generals, telling them which targets they could and could not hit. But it’s very odd for George W. Bush to be reciting this case because the two wars he’s commanded, in Afghanistan and Iraq, have been, in this sense, the most “political” wars in recent American history.

While Bush himself may not have done much micromanaging of the war, his defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, not only helped pick targets, but rearranged the structure of the units sent into battle. In preparing for Iraq, he ordered the removal of several heavy-artillery battalions from Army divisions. In the weeks leading up to the invasion of Afghanistan, he rejected several war plans submitted by Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of U.S. Central Command, until the general devised an unprecedented combination of troops and special operations commandos that conformed to Rumsfeld’s concept of “military transformation” and smaller, lighter forces.

The interesting thing about this blatant intrusion into the nuts and bolts of military planning is that Rumsfeld was right. With the advent of very precise “smart bombs,” aerial drones with real-time video transmissions, and computerized command-control networks that allowed for much greater coordination between air forces and ground troops, the Army didn’t need so much artillery; air power could break up enemy defenses in a way that, in an earlier era, only artillery could. Or at least Rumsfeld was right in the battlefield phase of the war. He should have paid more attention to his generals in planning how many troops would be needed after victory was declared.

But the point here is that if civilian interference is “the thing about the Vietnam War that troubles” George W. Bush, why wasn’t he troubled about the way his own wars were planned and fought, for better and for worse? Or has he ever really been troubled about the Vietnam War, back then or now? And was he aware of the intense internecine fighting between Rumsfeld and the Army over the war plans for Iraq? The main message that President Bush tried to send during his session with Russert was that he is a leader in command. “I’m a war president,” he said at the start. “I make decisions here in the Oval Office on foreign policy matters with war on my mind.” But in some of his remarks that followed, the president cast doubt on how much he’s even in the loop.