War Stories

Worst Press Conference Ever

Does President Bush understand his own foreign policy?

Condoleezza Rice and George Bush. Click image to expand.
Condoleezza Rice and George W. Bush

George W. Bush’s news conference on Monday was the most dismaying spectacle put on by a top American official since Condoleezza Rice’s news conference two and a half weeks earlier.

Both the president and the secretary of state were addressing the Israel-Lebanon conflict and why they favored peace but not right away.

Rice’s session with the press corps on July 21 achieved instant infamy for her interpretation of carnage and mayhem as “the birth pangs of a new Middle East.”

Bush’s remarks yesterday, from his vacation ranch in Crawford, Texas, with Rice at his side, raise once more the question of whether he believes the things he says—whether he’s really so clueless about the world that his actions so deeply affect.

The transcript contains so many mind-boggling statements that it’s hard to know where to begin, so let’s take them in chronological order.

“Everybody wants the violence to stop,” Bush said in answer to the session’s first question. But of course this isn’t true. If it were, he could have imposed a cease-fire in the first few days. He and Rice explicitly wanted the violence to continue, wanted Israel to pummel Hezbollah, so that when the time was ripe for a settlement, Israel could come to the table with a huge advantage.

Then Bush made a statement that curiously veered off script: “People understand that there needs to be a cessation of hostilities in order for us to address the root causes of the problem.” This contradicted Rice’s mantra of the last two weeks—that there should be no cessation until these root causes are addressed. Did he understand what he was saying? Everybody skipped over it in any case.

A short while later, a reporter asked why U.S. troops wouldn’t participate in the international force that a proposed U.N. resolution envisions for a wide buffer zone along the Israel-Lebanon border. Bush’s reply was jaw-dropping:

[I]t’s like Darfur. People say to me, ‘Well, why don’t you commit U.S. troops to Darfur as part of an international peacekeeping?’ And the answer there is that the troops would be—would create a sensation around the world that may not enable us to achieve our objective. And so when we commit troops, we commit troops for a specific reason with the intent of achieving an objective. And I think command-and-control and logistical support is probably the best use of U.S. forces.

This cried out for some follow-up questions. Was the president acknowledging that U.S. troops are unwelcome in many parts of the world? Was he saying that command-and-control and logistical support are all that “the sole superpower” can manage in the most Westernized area of the Middle East? Was he making a broad statement about the scope of American military commitments in the future? If not, what did he mean?

Another reporter asked why Bush was refusing to talk with Syria. The president’s answer here was a head-scratcher:

We have been in touch with Syria. Colin Powell sent a message to Syria in person. Dick Armitage talked to Syria. Bill Burns talked to Syria. … Syria knows what we think. … The problem is that their response hasn’t been very positive.

No, Bush has not sent Colin Powell as an envoy to Syria in recent days (though that’s what he seemed to be saying). He was referring to a trip that then-Secretary of State Powell took to the Middle East in 2003. And, by the way, Syria’s response wasn’t entirely negative back then. Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s prime minister, had asked Powell to get Syrian President Bashar Assad to crack down on Hezbollah—and Assad did, for a short while anyway.

As for Bush’s refusal to enter talks now, it may be true that “Syria knows what we think,” but Assad doesn’t know what we’re willing to give him in exchange for doing what we want. Maybe there is no room for a deal, but there’s no way to know without exploring the possibilities.

Then Bush moved on to his favorite theme—the titanic struggle between good and evil, freedom and terrorism, and how it accounts for all the world’s conflicts. “The lynchpin of [American] policy,” he said, “is to support democracies.” Speaking of Lebanon’s prime minister, Fouad Siniora, he said, “We want the Siniora government to survive and be strengthened.” But Hezbollah is “trying to stop that advance of democracy. … Hezbollah is trying to create the chaos necessary to stop the advance of peace. … It is the great challenge of this century. … As young democracies flourish, terrorists try to stop their progress.”

Once again, Bush demonstrated that he doesn’t understand what makes young democracies flourish or why Hezbollah has appeal even to many nonterrorists. He doesn’t seem to realize that democratic governments require democratic institutions and the resources to make them thrive. He evinces no awareness that the longer Israel bombs Beirut into oblivion, the harder it becomes for Siniora (who has few resources) to retain legitimacy—and the easier it becomes for Hezbollah (which has many more resources) to gain still greater power.

In the spring of 2005, when democratic uprisings forced the Syrian army to leave Lebanon, many analysts noted that the expulsion left a power vacuum and that Hezbollah would fill the vacuum unless Western countries moved quickly to bolster the new democratic government. The Western countries did nothing, not even the Bush administration, which viewed the uprising as the most encouraging sign of “freedom on the march.” Hezbollah, which emerged as a major party in the new parliament, openly armed its militias, engaged in increasingly provocative behavior—and, at the same time, stepped up social services to the Lebanese population. Siniora couldn’t do much about it; the results were predictable, even inevitable.

Bush seems to believe that once democratic elections are held, the other ingredients of democracy fall into place naturally. This belief has two dreadful consequences. First, it leads him to misunderstand his foes. If Siniora’s regime is democratic and Hezbollah engages in terrorism, and if those are the only two labels that count, it’s easy to conclude—wrongly—that everyone who supports Hezbollah or opposes Siniora is a terrorist; that there’s no need to co-opt, placate, or otherwise deal with Hezbollah’s sympathizers; that there is only the need to defeat them, militarily if necessary.

Second, it leads him to underestimate what it takes to support a democracy in transition. One reporter at yesterday’s press conference noted that British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently said he’d been mistaken in thinking that a young democracy would spring up very quickly after Saddam Hussein fell from power in Iraq. What did Bush think about that? Bush replied:

My attitude is that a young democracy has been born quite quickly. … You know, I hear people say, ‘Civil war this, civil war that.’ The Iraqi people decided against civil war when they went to the ballot box.

Again, does the president really believe this? The main thing Iraqis expressed at the ballot box was that Sunnis wanted Sunnis to rule, Shiites wanted Shiites to rule, and Kurds wanted to secede. The election, inspiring as it was to behold, served as little more than an ethnic census. In the absence of democratic institutions to mediate disputes and legitimize outcomes, it might even have hardened the social, political, and religious conflicts that are now—by the testimony of Bush’s own top generals—erupting into civil war.

The emergence of democracy marks the starting point of politics. Politics by nature involves conflicts. A democracy thrives or crumbles on how well it deals with those conflicts. There is nothing inherently civilizing about holding elections—nothing unusual, much less contradictory, about a putatively democratic government embroiled in war, civil war, or chaos.

Bush sometimes seems to get this. “What Condi and I are working on,” he said yesterday, “is to remind people about the stakes in the Middle East. And those stakes include … helping the Lebanese government firm up its democracy.”

But where’s the work? Where’s the aid, the diplomacy, the whatever-it-takes to firm up Lebanese democracy? Where’s the proof that the president understands what he’s talking about?