Presidential Portrait

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Nicholas Lemann pulls together a deep profile of George W. Bush featuring several important observations, not the least of which is Lemann writing "I was wrong," a rarity for any journalist. Lemann pegs Bush as a Nolan Ryan-worshipping, elite-hating, grudge-carrying guy with ADD. That sounds about right.

Lemann also tries mightily to find out why we went to war with Iraq, turning to former Bush State Department official Richard Haass for guidance. In the end, Lemann seems to share Haass' bafflement over the question:

"I will go to my grave not knowing that," Haass said. "I can't answer it. I can't explain the strategic obsession with Iraq—why it rose to the top of people's priority list. I just can't explain why so many people thought this was so important to do. But, if there was a hidden reason, the one I heard most was that we needed to change the geopolitical momentum after 9/11. People wanted to show that we can dish it out as well as take it. We're not a pitiful helpless giant. We can play offense as well as defense."

What Haass does not make explicit is that America playing offense clearly has nuclear proliferation as its ultimate target. Bush administration war planners see a robust, active U.S. military presence in the Middle East and Central Asia as absolutely vital to deterring, controlling, and, if need be, detroying any nuclear capability that might make its way to undeterrable actors. Iraq had, and has, nothing really to do with this. Its nuke dreams are long gone, it just happens to be a suitable place to park a several U.S. combat divisions for the foreseeable, dangerous future.

Lemann closes with what might be a warning, or a hearty Bush endorsement, depending on your politics:

If the voters give Bush a second term, he would, it seems, govern with the goal of a Franklin Roosevelt-level transformation–in the opposite direction, of course–of the relation of citizen to state and of the United States to the rest of the world. He would pursue ends that are now outside what most people conceive of as the compass points of the debate, by means that are more aggressive than we are accustomed to. And he couldn't possibly win by a smaller margin than last time, so he couldn't possibly avoid the conclusion that he had been given a more expansive mandate.

That sounds about right, too.

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  1. Bush administration war planners see a robust, active U.S. military presence in the Middle East and Central Asia as absolutely vital to deterring, controlling, and, if need be, detroying any nuclear capability that might make its way to undeterrable actors.

    Bingo. If anyone has a better plan for addressing the intertwined problems of rogue states, nuclear proliferation, and Islamist terrorism, I have yet to hear it.

    Warfighting is a matter of settling on the least bad option. Given the real-world alternatives (which are precious few), American armor and air in Iraq sure looks like the least bad approach to the problem of terror-sponsoring states and irresponsible nuclear proliferation.

  2. “What Haass does not make explicit is that America playing offense clearly has nuclear proliferation as its ultimate target. Bush administration war planners see a robust, active U.S. military presence in the Middle East and Central Asia as absolutely vital to deterring, controlling, and, if need be, detroying any nuclear capability that might make its way to undeterrable actors.”

    Yet, oddly enough, our presence in Iraq is probably standing in our way from dealing forcefully with Iran’s nuclear weapons program, as we’re worried about the trouble that Iran would likely stir up in Iraq in the aftermath of a pre-emptive strike on the Iranian nuclear facilities. If the NYT’s most recent article on the subject is to be believed, the Administration has now gone into full-blown appeasement mode with the mullahs.

  3. The set-up for this thread and the first post are deeply disturbing.
    Would that this could cause the same dust-up as Dan Rather’s acceptance of forged documents.

  4. he couldn’t possibly win by a smaller margin than last time

    Don’t be so sure, Lemann…

  5. I’ve got your presidential portrait right here!

    http://www.youforgotpoland.com/

  6. Some of the main proponents of the war such as Wolfowitz have been obsessed with Iraq since before the first Gulf War and have been a driving force behind taking out Saddam and setting up shop in Iraq. Nuclear proliferation is a rather late comer to their reasoning. Earlier considerations involved uncertainty over the stability of the Saudi Regime, a need to secure Israel by imposing a friendlier regime in Iraq, and, of course, at the middle of it all: stability of oil supplies. Wolfie was writing about Iraq before Nuclear bombs were much of consideration in the region.

  7. “If anyone has a better plan for addressing the intertwined problems of rogue states, nuclear proliferation, and Islamist terrorism, I have yet to hear it.”

    Actually securing nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union, and in Iraq itself, would have been nice. But hey, at least the marble in the Oil Ministry didn’t get scuffed.

    “American armor and air in Iraq sure looks like the least bad approach to the problem of terror-sponsoring states and irresponsible nuclear proliferation.”

    It would look like an even less bad approach if the forces were actually available for action if needed, rather than bogged down fighting a growing insurgency. Oh wait, I forgot – there are plenty of troops to spare in Iraq, because they’re not busy or anything.

  8. This: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/la-fg-saddam12oct12,1,1442034.story?coll=chi-news-hed
    apparently ran in the LA Times, although I read it on Chi Trib. If true, it adds some interesting colors to understanding all of this.

  9. “Iraq had, and has, nothing really to do with this. Its nuke dreams are long gone,”

    With the certainty of hindsight he speaketh. It was not clear at the time that this was the case.

  10. “Iraq had, and has, nothing really to do with this. Its nuke dreams are long gone,”

    With the certainty of hindsight he speaketh. It was not clear at the time that this was the case.

  11. Actually securing nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union, and in Iraq itself, would have been nice.

    The invasion of Iraq had zero impact on whatever efforts were made in the Soviet Union. As for the nuclear materials in Iraq, are we now admitting that Saddam had them? And if so, that they were more secure and less likely to find their way to the terrorists he harbored and financed than they are now?

    It would look like an even less bad approach if the forces were actually available for action if needed, rather than bogged down fighting a growing insurgency.

    Ah yes, the “growing” insurgency. DO read Wretchard over at Belmont Club for an analysis of the insurgency. It is, as it has always been, confined to a very small portion of Iraq. That portion grows smaller over time. Don’t confuse effective media manipulation with a growing insurgency.

    That said, while our troops are busy in Iraq they are not available for use in, say, Iran. However, two things to ponder:

    First, our troops could never be used to pressure Iran directly if we were not in Iraq. Look at a map, and tell me which neighboring country which (a) would permit a major buildup has (b) terrain suitable for invasion. Troops tied up in Iraq are not available for invading Iran, but they are a hell of a lot closer to being available than troops stationed anywhere else in the world.

    Second, our troops will not be tied up forever in Iraq. So long as we retain the will to see it through, the insurgency will be beaten down, and/or the Iraqis will take over the job.

    The current Iraqi situation is not ideal for dealing with Iran, but it beats any of our alternatives. Its easy to list the difficulties, but much harder to come up with anything better.

  12. Hey Jason,

    It was obvious to me. Perhaps you were mislead. And please don’t double-click the post button, moron.

  13. “Lemann pegs Bush as a Nolan Ryan-worshipping, elite-hating, grudge-carrying guy with ADD. That sounds about right.”

    “elite-hating” sounds about right ?!! The man is President of the USA, heir to H.W Bush, jokes about have-mores being his base & yet people will see him as “anti-elitist” just coz of his aw-shuckisms & bantering with sports royalty ? Amazing sociology here ! I suspect he is no more an elite-hater than Franklin D. Roosevelt; they only become so when you pre-emptively define as elite anyone who disagrees with their policies. Who are the American elite anyway ?

  14. “The invasion of Iraq had zero impact on whatever efforts were made in the Soviet Union.” This is true. The decision to cut back on Nunn-Lugar (which kept Soviet nukes from being sold on the black market), and the decision to handle the Iraq situation in such as a way as to increase terrorism and allow nuclear material to be looted, are two entirely seperate screw ups.

    “As for the nuclear materials in Iraq, are we now admitting that Saddam had them? And if so, that they were more secure and less likely to find their way to the terrorists he harbored and financed than they are now?” There was never any question that there were materials suitable for making “dirty bombs” in Iraq, from labs, hospitals, and nuclear plants. There is also no question that these sites have been looted, that they were not guarded after the collapse of the regime, and that this did not happen before the invasion.

    “It is, as it has always been, confined to a very small portion of Iraq. That portion grows smaller over time.” Those little, tiny portions are known as “cities.” If you learn a little geography, you’d know that in urbanized countries, they are a lot more significant than the big, empty areas. Sadr City is 40% of Baghdad’s population, which is 25% of Iraq. That’s 10% of the country, virtually all of whom hate us, and either actively or passively support the insugency – that’s one neighborhood in one of those “tiny portions.”

    Did you read about the bomb planted in the cafe inside the Green Zone last week? Or the three dozen children killed at a ribbon cutting for a sewage plant? Damn that librul media for not squashing those stories! Damn facts keep getting in the way of the Truth!

    “Troops tied up in Iraq are not available for invading Iran, but they are a hell of a lot closer to being available than troops stationed anywhere else in the world.” No, RC, troops in Iraq that cannot be taken away from their operations are a hell of a lot less available than troops sitting in based in Kuwait and Qatar, or floating in the Gulf. We don’t have enough troops to even guard the border with Iran, some Guardsmen have had their tours extended twice, and you think we could actually put together enough forces to carry out a major mission in Iran without dropping the ball somewhere in Iraq?

    “Second, our troops will not be tied up forever in Iraq.” Uh huh. Because we’re turning the corner this time. Really. Six months ago, the attacks on US troops were almost all IEDs planted by the road. Now, groups of insurgents are standing and engaging in firefights. Please, trot out the “that just shows they’re desperate” from three, six, and 12 months ago.

  15. “The current Iraqi situation is not ideal for dealing with Iran, but it beats any of our alternatives.”

    How about encouraging and supporting local Iranian opposition to the theocracy?

  16. You really should consider taking the comedy act on the road, Dean.

    The US has commited only $10 billion over the next 10 years to nonproliferation efforts under Nunn-Lugar:
    http://www.bellona.no/en/international/russia/nuke-weapons/nonproliferation/27911.html

    This is program that has, to-date, deactivated or destroyed 6,312 nuclear warheads:
    http://lugar.senate.gov/nunnlugar.html

    Meanwhile, using even the mid-range estimate of costs for the Iraq war is just under $140 billion:
    http://www.costofwar.com/

    And of course, the number of nuclear warheads deactivated or destroyed by that nonproliferation program is a big zero. Money flushed down the rathole of Iraq is money that cannot be used for the far, far more effective non-proliferation effort of Nunn-Lugar.

    In regards to your sneer, “As for the nuclear materials in Iraq, are we now admitting that Saddam had them?” I don’t know of anyone who claimed Iraq didn’t have nuclear materials. The UN weapons inspectors were fully aware of that. However, Iraq was entitled under the UN resolutions at the end of the Gulf War to keep low-enriched and natural uranium, only highly-enriched uranium and plutonium had to be turned over:

    http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/world/iraq/tuwaitha.htm

    In regards to the Belmont Club, is there a particular posting you’re referring to? I skimmed the front page and didn’t see anything that clearly resembled what you described (the analysis of the WaPo story simply said the insurgents are divided into factions and were also killing alot of Iraqi civilians, which is no proof that the insurgency is getting smaller, just that it’s not as effective as it could be).

    “So long as we retain the will to see it through, the insurgency will be beaten down…” Yep, you and Pol Pot, Dean: “Nothing is impossible for a people with sufficient revolutionary will.”

  17. Sorry, joe hadn’t posted yet when I started writing my response.

  18. “The current Iraqi situation is not ideal for dealing with Iran, but it beats any of our alternatives.”

    What about an “alternative situation” in which our troops didn’t have to worry about a major Iraqi Shi’a insurrection in the aftermath of a strike on the Iranian nuclear facilities? Along with some additional trouble in the Sunni triangle? In which all the Iranians could do is launch conventional attacks against our forces in the Persian Gulf region, something that they’d be averse to doing because of the inevitable response.

    I think such an environment would be a far more preferable one in which to fire some cruise missles at Bushehr and Natanz.

  19. Spirit,

    You should consider posting under your real name. The next time I need clarification on how the post button works when the screen is frozen, I’d like to be able to ask for guidance.

    Similarly, if I ever need some self congratulatory criticism from someone so deluded that they believe they actually knew what was going on in Iraq prior to the invasion (or perhaps someone so intellectually dishonest that they are comfortable pretending that is the case), it would be nice to be able to look you up.

  20. I see all of the Iran hawks are out today. Good to know you are willing to fight.

    SR: I note that Nunn Lugar has a poor efficacy history in countries run by despots who are actively hostile to the US. One line of argument might be that those areas are at least as important as the ones addressable by programs like Nunn Lugar.

    Joe is right in his assessment of our failure to secure nuclear material during the invasion. I fail to see how the material was secure before we invaded, though. If we are saying we could have invaded better, I’m on board, but I don’t get using this as an argument against invading at all.

  21. Jason,

    “I fail to see how the material was secure before we invaded, though.” There was no, zero, zilch evidence that any of Saddam’s nuclear materials or know-how had been transferred to terrorists before the invasion.

    “If we are saying we could have invaded better, I’m on board, but I don’t get using this as an argument against invading at all.” No, we can’t know for certain that Saddam would never have nuked up a terror group, because we can’t prove a negative. But we do know that it was very, very unlikely. This is not so much an argument against the invasion, as a refutation of an argument often made in support of the invasion.

  22. “There was no, zero, zilch evidence that any of Saddam’s nuclear materials or know-how had been transferred to terrorists before the invasion.”

    Probably in Saddam’s hands = secured from our perspective? Why bother saying that he can’t have WMD, then? Besides, didn’t I see you argue a few days ago that Saddam could have been acting oddly becuase he actually didn’t know what the state of his weapons program was?

    I just can’t follow the reasoning that since we don’t know anything other than that Saddam was obfuscating, we assume he did as he was told.

  23. These “deep profiles” can be a splendid way of wasting time – they’re usually red herrings. Does anyone know who is truly *pressing* Kerry to sign Form 180?

  24. I read somewhere that Saddam told his generals he had WMD. Apparently he was quite concerned about matching Iran’s capabilities, or at least appearing to. It seems to me, it is easy to understand why the CIA thought he did (I am no CIA fan). And who cares anyway? So it was presented that way, big deal, the bigger picture is that region of the world is a problem, democratic friends in the area are a good thing, and in time historians will ascribe the benefits to the administration.

  25. Jebus all teh Libs got neoconned. WTF!?

    The neocons wanted to invade iraq since 98–this is known. They want to use US force to spread democracy to mideast. They think democracy will foster a more friendly and stable mid east. I only agree with them on the last part but I don’t really think we can concoct it (neocons do). I can’t believe libs are going for coercion to foriegn nations as a policy?!@# Did I read all the Austrian econ, science, logic and Liberatarian books for nuttin? What I really think is happening is folks fall bakc on the anti-statist / anti-democrat view as first resort so any messin with the republicans is like messin with them. I hope thats all it is.

    Regardless if he was a threat or connected to terror–doesn’t matter. If you want to remove WMD bomb it like Desert Fox–easy enough and cheap. Then get rid of nukes and materials–spend the money on Nunn lugar than on occupation and cleanup.

    I can’t believe peeps didn’t see this coming 50 miles away. When he got Cheney, Wolfie, and Rumsfeld you had to know. In afghanistan I remember when the spin started about Iraq WMD, blah blah–I called my bro and we started shouting to anyone who would listen. No WMD–no sh1T. No nukes–no duh? Israel would jsut bomb em if they did anyway–they have a bigger interest in Iraq/WMD than we did. No one is asking–what was the Israeli intel saying?
    (seeing as you are all neoconned the Isreal appeal might get to ya).

  26. Nicholas Lemann’s article in The New Yorker (linked above) is a great article. I recommend it to all – go read the whole (long) thing.

    The best endorsement of Bush I have ever read.

    Of course, it wasn’t intended that way, but this is how I read it. Go and see.

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