War Stories

Learning From Bush’s Mistakes

How a prewar conversation can help us pick the next president.

Former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar

The Spanish newspaper El País recently published the transcript of a conversation between President George W. Bush and then-Prime Minister José María Aznar on Feb. 22, 2003—a few weeks before the invasion of Iraq—and it confirms some (though not all) of the most dreadful accounts and suspicions about Bush’s intentions and nature.

It may be a bit late in the day for another round in the debate over how the war in Iraq began. But the time is ripe for a discussion of what qualities the next president should possess—and the transcript reveals that, in many aspects, they should be the opposite of President Bush’s qualities.

The crucial exchange, in this respect, comes toward the end of the conversation, when the two leaders are discussing the magnitude of changing Saddam Hussein’s regime by force.

AZNAR: The only thing that worries me about you is your optimism.BUSH: I’m an optimist because I believe that I’m right. I’m a person at peace with myself. It was our turn to face a serious threat to peace.

Here, in three sentences, is the first lesson on how to assess the current crop of presidential candidates: Don’t pick anyone who utters, or seems capable of believing, those three sentences.

“I’m an optimist because I believe that I’m right.” There’s a delusional tautology to this sentence. (Bush is quoted as making similar remarks in Robert Draper’s book Dead Certain.) To the extent that sensible people are optimistic about something, it’s not because of a belief, much less a belief in their own wisdom; it’s because the facts at hand—or perhaps their experiences with similar situations—suggest that a positive outcome is likely. Bush had no experiences, on any level, with anything like war or Iraq. Nobody would give money to a stockbroker who says that he’s optimistic about his investments because he believes he’s right (not even that he generally is right, just that he believes he’s right). Nobody should vote for a would-be president who talks like this, either.

“I’m a person at peace with myself.” Taken by itself, this can be a reassuring sentiment. A leader should be comfortable with power, assured at making decisions. But combined with the first sentence, it’s the sort of thing that might be uttered by … well, by George W. Bush.

“It was our turn to face a serious threat to peace.” Beware the politician who sees his life as an appointment with destiny. Ditto a president who thinks it’s his “turn” to do anything, much less to go to war and save civilization. Elsewhere in the transcript, Bush talks of being “guided by a historic sense of responsibility,” of looking ahead “some years from now,” when “History judges us.” History walks on two feet, as Karl Marx wrote (in one of his least Marxist pronouncements). All that anyone, including a president, can do is make the best judgments and take the wisest actions, given the circumstances, resources, and options at hand. History can be a useful guide, but it’s neither a force nor a judge. (Or if it is, its rulings are hardly definitive. Debates still rage, after all these centuries, over the relative merits of Hamilton, Adams, and Jefferson.)

Another lesson that a president-wannabe, and those of us deciding which one to vote for, could take from this transcript: Never overestimate your own power.

Prime Minister Aznar—who, it is worth noting, favored going to war—keeps urging Bush to wait a little longer before invading, in order to assemble a broader coalition. “I agree,” he says after Bush tells him it’s time to put a stop to Saddam’s dithering, “but it would be good to be able to count on as many people as possible. Be a little bit patient.”

“My patience is over,” Bush replies. “I don’t even think about [waiting] beyond mid-March.” The other members of the U.N. Security Council, he says, “have to know” that friendship with the United States is at stake. If Chile doesn’t go along with a war resolution, the Free Trade Agreement is in trouble. If Angola falters, its leaders should forget about receiving funds from the Millennium Account. Vladimir Putin should know “that his attitude is jeopardizing” U.S.-Russian relations.

Bush didn’t realize—nor did most of his top advisers—that the United States, while still powerful, no longer had the leverage to play this kind of hardball. He was in no position to offer, or therefore to withhold, security guarantees. These countries could go, and have gone, elsewhere for trade deals. And as for Russia, skyrocketing oil prices and the resurgence of national industries allowed Putin to behave without much fear of Washington’s wrath.

An additional lesson that one could glean from these transcripts: Never let timetables for mobilization determine decisions about war.

At the beginning of the transcript, Bush says of Saddam, “We have to get him right now. … There are two weeks left. In two weeks, we’ll be militarily ready.” This seems to be at least one reason Bush doesn’t “even think about” postponing the invasion past mid-March. His attitude is: Unleash the dogs of war when they’re ready; and “in two weeks,” by mid-March, they’ll be ready.

Bush’s decisions weren’t entirely mechanical, of course. The evidence is strong that he had decided to go to war as far back as late May or early June of 2002, about nine months before his conversation with Aznar. But the timing of actually launching the invasion does appear to have been determined by when the invasion would be ready for launching.

This distinction isn’t academic, because the transcript has Bush telling Aznar the following:

The Egyptians are talking to Saddam Hussein. It seems that he’s indicated that he’s willing to go into exile if they let him take 1 billion dollars with him, and all the information that he wants about the weapons of mass destruction. Gadaffi has told Berlusconi that Saddam Hussein wants to go.

Aznar asks if there’s any possibility Saddam could be offered a deal to go into exile “with some guarantee.” Bush replies, “No guarantee. He’s a thief, a terrorist, a war criminal. Compared to Saddam, Milosevic would be a Mother Theresa [sic].”

Rumors were floating around at the time of a deal in which war would be averted if Saddam went into exile (where, by the way, he would be much more vulnerable to assassination). But this transcript reveals, for the first time, I think, that there actually were offers on the table and that Bush was well aware of them.

Such a deal was clearly unacceptable to someone of Bush’s optimism and self-righteousness. It would have been a huge risk even to a more levelheaded president. But would such a president have casually brushed it aside, given the alternative of a war that would spill much blood and treasure in the brightest of scenarios? (At one point, Bush tells Aznar that a war will cost the United States $50 billion. He turned out to be off by a factor of almost 20; but even at $50 billion, the alternative of an exile deal would have been worth at least considering.)

The transcripts also reveal the shortcomings of a trait that has long been detected by Bush-watchers—his inattention to detail and his failure to enforce high-policy decisions. In talking about the war plans, he tells Aznar, “We’re already looking at a post-Saddam Iraq, and I believe there’s a good basis for a better future. Iraq has a good bureaucracy and a civilian [sic] society that’s relatively strong.”

As Bush was soon to discover, there was no plan for a “post-Saddam Iraq” at all—except for one, laid down by Paul Bremer as Order No. 1 of the Coalition Provisional Authority, to demolish that “good bureaucracy” by firing every bureaucrat who was in the Baathist Party, even those who joined only because membership was required to get a job.

Bush wasn’t lying about his intention to retain the bureaucracy. As we now know, in early March, the National Security Council—in a meeting of principals, with Bush in charge—approved a postwar policy that drew the line on the issue: Baathists above a certain level, probably around 5 percent of officials, would be barred from government work; those below that level, most of the rank-and-file, would be allowed to stay. It is still not known who reversed the decision (probably Vice President Dick Cheney, perhaps Bush himself under his prodding), but reversed it was—and no one was punished for it.

Finally, the transcript puts Bush in a slightly redemptive light on one matter. It suggests—just as the much-misread Downing Street Memos also suggested—that he genuinely thought that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Several times, he says, “Saddam isn’t disarming” or words to that effect. Aznar agrees. “Saddam Hussein hasn’t cooperated, he hasn’t disarmed,” the Spanish leader says at one point. “We should make a summary of his failed obligations and send a more elaborate message.”

But the fact that Bush believed his distorted intelligence only highlights a deeper failing in his administration, in his character—and a sterner demand on the voters in the coming election. It’s not enough to pick someone who’s honest. The next president also has to be realistic, skeptical, curious, and experienced; he or she has to be decisive but also smart.