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Wrong again. Zero for two.
George W. Bush had more than his share of bad luck in Iraq. He bet that Saddam would have an active nuclear or at least biological-weapons program; that Iraq's social and physical infrastructure would be functional; that the war would be short. None of those bets was crazy, but he lost all three.
Still, a good gambler never bets more than he can afford to lose; he scrubs the odds with a sharp eye on the worst case; he hedges to give himself options. Above all, he keeps abreast of the game.
Bush placed too large a bet, padded the odds, and didn't hedge. Worst of all, he never caught up with the state of play. Again and again, he and his team were too slow in understanding and reacting to events, if they reacted at all. They were late to react to wholesale looting; late to understand the scale of the effort and to commit sufficient forces (arguably they still haven't); late to recognize they confronted an insurgency and to fight it with proven counterinsurgency tactics; late to recognize the emergence of a Shiite-Sunni civil war. Today, almost five years on, they are still behind the curve: As Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Joseph Biden, D-Del., plausibly argues, Bush clings to an insistence on a strong central government in Baghdad, despite that strategy's failure and signs that regionalism would work better.
Some optimists say that in Army Gen. David Petraeus, Bush has finally found his Gen. Grant. That may or may not be true, but it is beside the point. The problem is that Petraeus has not yet found his President Lincoln.
Judging presidents' wartime performance before the war starts is hard. No one could have known in 1860 that Lincoln, a lawyer and military novice, would develop into a commander-in-chief of genius. As lessons go, "Don't misjudge the president before committing to a war" is roughly as useful as "Buy low, sell high."
It does, however, provide some insight into the key mistake of five years ago. In February, asked for the umpteenth time to recant her war vote, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., for the umpteenth time refused. "The mistakes were made by the president," she said. In 2004, she said, "I do not regret giving the president authority.... What I regret is the way the president used the authority."
She had a fair point. She might have sharpened it by saying what I have come to say: I do not regret giving the president authority; I regret giving this president authority. I am sorry. I made a mistake five years ago. But not about the vote. About the leader.
© Copyright 2007 National Journal
Jonathan Rauch is a senior writer and columnist for National Journal and a frequent contributor to Reason. The article was originally published by National Journal.