News & Politics

Bush May Be Stubborn But He’s Not Tough

Here's how the President, with good intentions and bad ideas, is making a mess of national security.

Without intending it, President George W. Bush has overseen a decline in this country’s military capability. The tough going in Iraq has exposed systemic flaws and long-term weaknesses that are not being addressed.

Bush may have been right—especially given the conclusions of most intelligence services in the world—to dethrone Saddam Hussein before Saddam could add nuclear weapons to the chemical ones he once had used. Not to mention that Saddam, like Hitler, delighted in his own version of genocide.

Reasonable people can disagree on whether the successful 2003 invasion should have happened. Few will dispute that the next four years of unscripted blundering by inadequate forces are a different story—and produced plenty of blame to go around.

But here we are. Colin Powell called it the Pottery Barn principle: You break it, you’ve bought it. This country now cannot walk away from Iraq without destroying US credibility to deter conflict in the world, boosting our most dangerous enemies, surrendering influence over necessary oil resources, and ensuring revenge murders and conflagration throughout the Middle East. And this year at least the generalship and strategy are better.

So Bush deserves credit for refusing to write off Iraq in the face of opposition that is far too partisan and often media-generated. Bush’s resolve in the face of a serious military threat is not unlike Lincoln’s in the early months of 1864, before Sherman took Atlanta. He displays more character than most politicians.

But the war in Iraq has exposed failings by this administration that are going to mean problems for our defense in years ahead.

It was a cliché, going back at least to Eisenhower in the 1950s, that Republican presidents were the best managers of US security. Now, because of the limitations of George W. Bush, there are plenty of doubts about Republican competence to manage national security. The only consolation for Republicans is that if this administration is disappointing, the Democratic leadership as now constituted is frightening.

Organizing government is not this president’s long suit. In May, Bush announced a war “czar” in the White House not only to issue orders to Cabinet departments, including the Department of Defense, but to deal directly with military officers in Iraq and Afghanistan, bypassing their superiors.

For the Washington Post, the story angle was that several retired generals had been offered the job but turned it down. It goes to show, the Post spinners concluded, that even the generals don’t like George W. Bush.

The real issue is less political and more important. What has happened to defense policy when the President sets up a uniformed officer, answering to no one but the President, to be “execution manager”—to bypass the Secretary of Defense and go directly to commanders in the field? How could Robert Gates, who is supposed to be running the Pentagon, have acquiesced in such a notion? How could Stephen Hadley, assistant to the President for national-security affairs, have endorsed it? Or was he happy to escape duties he could not handle?

It isn’t as if “czars” leading “wars” have been effective.

Remember Bill Bennett, who as Reagan’s drug czar accomplished nothing? Remember General Barry McCaffrey, an otherwise able soldier, who managed to equal Bennett’s record? Bill Simon, Nixon’s energy czar? The AIDS czar? The healthcare czar? Remember L. Paul Bremer, maybe a viceroy if not a czar, who with a stroke of his pen converted the Iraqi army into gangs of armed insurgents?

If you assume that there are good reasons for placing the country’s armed forces in a Department of Defense, headed by a Cabinet officer who must by law be a civilian, then why does the President want to tell the busiest part of those forces that they must respond out of channels to a military officer in the White House? Is the White House the place to run a war?

By the Constitution, the President is commander in chief of the armed forces, so legally he can set up command arrangements under him—however risky or dumb—pretty much as he chooses. But presidents going back to the Eisenhower era, with congressional blessing, have required a chain of command reaching from the President to the Secretary of Defense, and only then down to the generals and admirals who head the major commands.

The civilian Secretary of Defense has been the key link in this chain. Now the lines—and the responsibility—are blurred. When asked, “Is the President adding a new layer of bureaucracy,” press secretary Tony Snow called that “an interesting way of putting it.” He described the czar as an “officer who can actually deal with the people involved on the ground.”

The war-czar idea is the latest example of how this president, with good intentions, has been mutilating national security.

Foreign intelligence is another area where this president has resorted to organizational contortions. Looking for votes in the 2004 campaign, both George W. Bush and John Kerry promised to adopt the dubious recommendations of the 9/11 Commission for reorganizing the world of intelligence. That commission wrote a gripping narrative of how the Al Qaeda attacks of 2001 happened. But, as Judge Richard Posner has devastatingly pointed out, the commission’s recipe for reorganizing the country’s intelligence system was pulled out of thin air and was not connected to the facts it collected.

Nevertheless, with the President’s blessing, Congress created a big new government job, director of national intelligence, to preside over the 16 scattered agencies that collect or analyze foreign intelligence.

But there already was a head of the “intelligence community.” He was created in 1947 and called the Director of Central Intelligence, and his other job was to head the CIA.

Skeptics argued that the new legislation would just create a new and unnecessary bureaucratic layer, confuse responsibilities, paper over disagreements, and make it harder for policy makers to make wise judgments from intelligence data.

What happened? Just what the skeptics predicted. Bush appointed John Negroponte, a career State Department officer, as the new director of national intelligence. He was not expert in intelligence but was skilled in bureaucracy. Negroponte amassed a new layer of 1,600-plus intelligence bureaucrats, still growing, to tell the existing intelligence bureaucrats what to do and to filter their products. Having produced another layer of government, Negroponte soon departed to become deputy to Condoleezza Rice, who was floundering trying to run the State Department.

Negroponte’s successor as director of national intelligence, retired vice admiral J. Michael McConnell, then set about grabbing turf in a way that would have done any bureaucrat proud. He called together a group from all the pieces of agencies that work or dabble in intelligence—ranging from giants like CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency to small corners of Treasury and Homeland Security—and told them that from then on, they would be an “executive committee” to decide how to distribute intelligence resources and tasks. They would do it democratically: one agency, however tiny, one vote.

When consternation was expressed to the Secretary of Defense, it turned out that he already had sold out his department. McConnell told reporters that he had obtained Gates’s agreement to the plan in advance. In fact, McConnell said, without that prior capitulation of Gates, he would not have accepted the DNI job.

Defense secretaries since at least the Carter administration had successfully fought off such incursions on defense-intelligence capabilities and missions. DCI Stansfield Turner used to spend long Friday afternoons trying unsuccessfully to arm-wrestle Defense secretary Harold Brown to hand over space cameras and other costly military assets. Donald Rumsfeld would have been orbiting higher than most satellites at such a proposal. But he, like Colin Powell, another independent figure, is gone.

For this administration, when officeholders fail, the solution is to pile on more organization.

Which brings up the next big worry about Bush’s national-security policy: the people he selects to run it.

Republicans often have a harder time than Democrats in finding able government appointees. For most Democrats, government is the highest calling, and regulating other people’s lives is great fun. By contrast, able Republicans tend to dream about things like business and to send more prayers in the direction of Wall Street than K Street. To the extent government gives away money—which it lavishly does—that can attract a certain class of Republicans but not many of the best.

Certainly there are good people in both parties. But for six years Bush has shown how overvaluing people who say yes can be costly.

Bush assembled for his administration four overlapping sets of advisers and implementers: personal loyalists, mostly from his governorship in Texas, who were not up to their jobs (Alberto Gonzales, Harriet Miers, Scott McClellan); politicians who soon disappointed (John Ashcroft, Porter Goss); some Cheney picks (Cheney, Rumsfeld, and some neocons); and staffers from his father’s administration (Rice, Gates), whose loyalty to this president ranges from lots to not much. When Bush has needed to circle the wagons, he sometimes has rented them from his father.

Quality problems exploded when in the second term Bush started moving staffers out of the White House into the Cabinet Departments. On the domestic side, there was Gonzales, the empty-suit attorney general from his Texas world; the bright side is that we no longer have to worry about Gonzales showing up one day in black robes on the Supreme Court.

Not much better, but receiving a free pass both from the President and the press, is Condoleezza Rice. Like Gates a Soviet specialist and staffer in the Bush I administration, she gave candidate George W. Bush comfort as his tutor on national-security issues before the 2000 election. Her reward was to become assistant for national-security affairs—a job whose duty is to make sure that the big decisions of national-security policy are carefully thought through and then effectively coordinated and executed by the departments, especially State, Defense, and the intelligence agencies.

What did she do? The postinvasion history in Iraq is littered with more dropped balls than a Cub Scout baseball game. By inside accounts, Rice as national-security adviser went into shock on 9/11. Then she allowed the Iraq situation to fester, Rumsfeld to wash his hands of it, Powell to be excluded, and the disastrous L. Paul Bremer in Iraq to parody the rule of General Douglas MacArthur in Japan, matching MacArthur’s ego and grandiosity but without his wisdom or success.

With such stunning failures to provide competent supervision, wouldn’t it be time to get rid of such a national-security adviser? President Bush promoted her to Secretary of State and gave her old job to Stephen Hadley, who as deputy had presided with her over the previous feckless years. Their legacy of interagency chaos on national security is now supposed to be repaired by Lieutenant General Douglas Lute, the war czar in the White House.

Completing the new national-security team is Robert Gates, the new Secretary of Defense. That Gates has been willing to dissipate some of his office’s powers is not out of character. Unlike any previous Defense secretary, he spent his career at the CIA, eventually becoming deputy to Brent Scowcroft, the Bush I national-security adviser, and then briefly during the waning days of Bush I, director of central intelligence.

Then he was anointed president of Texas A&M University, site of the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum. He brings no institutional loyalty to Defense, and it shows. Asked about having his war duties handed over to a White House general, he said with a smile, “I don’t want to be the czar of anything.” Nor, perhaps, does he want the blame if events go badly.

Since arriving at the Pentagon, Gates has not been sticking his neck out to support the President’s war policy. One wonders whether he supports it at all. His former boss, Scowcroft, loudly and persuasively made the case against going into Iraq. Gates before his appointment was a member of the Iraq Study Group, dominated by Bush I powerhouse James Baker; that commission’s report, urging withdrawal in 2008, helped further undercut the President’s war policy.

Gates is no Rumsfeld, committed to reforming the Defense Department and persevering in Iraq. There is every reason to believe that Gates would be happy to liquidate the Iraq war as soon as possible at any convenient price. Instead of cheers for General David Petraeus, Gates offers a fishy eye and wields a stopwatch. There is plenty of daylight visible these days between Gates and Petraeus—and also between Gates and the President. No one should expect this Defense secretary, who at times seems to be winking at his Democratic questioners, to be taking any bullets for the President.

Others worked their way onto the Bush II team but not for the right reasons. George Tenet, a Democratic Senate aide and White House staffer and Bill Clinton’s director of central intelligence, knew how to please a new boss who wanted to be pleased and who kept him on long enough to leave a mess.

There is a memorable photograph of Bush in December 2004 presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom to three culprits for much of what went wrong in Iraq. Tenet was joined by Bremer and by General Tommy Franks, who when he was Centcom commander did as he was told and not one bit more, abruptly quitting in Iraq as soon as the time came to clean up the war’s debris. In harsher societies, all three might have been taken out and shot. Some interpreted the bizarre Medal of Freedom event as Bush buying silence. All three now have written books. Franks’s is bland, Bremer’s pompous, Tenet’s self-absorbed and whiny. None of these books is directly critical of Bush.

Presidential loyalty did not stop there. General John Abizaid, successor to Franks, and General George Casey Jr., the Iraq commander, brought to life the description of mental derangement as doing the same thing again and again while expecting a different result. Their tactics in Iraq—described by some as “clear and then leave”—accomplished little. Abizaid finally retired. But after judging Casey a good man at a private dinner, Bush has elevated him to Army chief of staff—replaying Lyndon Johnson’s promotion of General William C. Westmore­land to the same job after years of unsuccessful command in Vietnam.

The Iraq war has exposed yet another set of national-security problems, which Bush did not invent but that he has not addressed and that have been festering with the encouragement of his party for a generation. The current military establishment, particularly the land forces, is too removed from civilian society and far too small.

Back in 1969, to buy time to extract the country from the Vietnam War, President Nixon decided to end the draft. He figured—correctly—that with that worry gone, unruly college students would stop protesting so much. Free-market theorists, most prominently Milton Friedman, provided intellectual cover, arguing that the government had no right to conscript labor below the market value and that if market value were paid, then by definition conscription would be unnecessary.

A few critics worried that the costs of paying for volunteers would inevitably lead to smaller armed forces, especially in wartime, and that the armed forces might become too separate from civilian society. The draft was replaced by the all-volunteer army. After initial resistance, the generals decided they liked the new idea: more professionalism, fewer dullards, less grumbling in the ranks. And for a generation now, the volunteer armed forces have exceeded the expectations of skeptics, becoming the best professional military in the world.

But not the biggest. It is seldom explained that our armed forces, particularly the land forces, have dwindled since the end of the Cold War. The Clinton administration was all too happy to spend the Cold War peace dividend on things other than defense. And unlike Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush did not face a Soviet military threat and did nothing to stop the downward trend, even after the attacks of 9/11.

In 1991, when the Gulf War was won with heavy armored and mechanized divisions, the active-duty armed forces numbered about 2 million, 780,000 of them in the army. This year’s active-army goal is 512,000 (15 percent of them “noncombatant” women) with hopes for 547,000 five years from now. By comparison, during Vietnam the active army reached 1.5 million.

After 1991 the army shrank from 18 active divisions to ten. Now is the first time that this country’s volunteer force has had to face prolonged combat, and the results are not reassuring.

Using that combat force—what he called “the army you’ve got”—Donald Rumsfeld’s strategic direction of the six-week defeat of the regime in Iraq was brilliant, a low-cost military success that will be admired in the war colleges for decades. The invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein could scarcely have been executed better—not without flaws, but about as perfectly as one can expect in a war. Rumsfeld’s efforts to redesign 20th-century military forces to meet 21st-century threats were needed, and in those respects he was a farsighted and effective Secretary of Defense.

Often he faced resistance from the generals, many of whom choose to view questioning from a civilian boss as disrespectful. But to accuse Rumsfeld of not listening to military advice is incorrect. He listened, but he did not always accept it. Nothing wrong with that; a Secretary of Defense is not paid to be a rubber stamp. Military advice sometimes is ill considered, and more often than not Rumsfeld was right.

But Rumsfeld, like Robert S. McNamara, was brought down by a war that did not show progress and by a cleanup mission he treated as an afterthought. In Rumsfeld’s case, the problem was not using too many troops but too few. Rumsfeld had been a successful businessman who turned companies around by adopting new technologies and cutting the costs of overhead, inventory, and personnel. He had long ago bought into the Nixon administration’s volunteer-army idea and the traditional Republican defense policy of small ground forces and salvation through technology, preferably from the sky. Such policies are designed to spare the electorate from the personal pain and inconvenience of defense.

Today US military capability is stressed to the limit by dangerous and frustrating combat duties in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are no other large missions our military can take on right now, and with units and soldiers deploying back and forth from Iraq as often as every other year, constant reserve call-ups, and equipment wearing out, the old “hollow army” problem of the post-Vietnam years is looming.

In 2007 a president’s menu of military options around the world offers few choices other than dropping bombs or shooting missiles. Those are not the kind of credible threats needed for effective diplomacy. The leaders of hostile states like North Korea and Iran are well aware of this weakness.

President Bush, unlike Reagan, has not attempted to move beyond the traditional defense attitudes of his party. Beginning with Eisenhower and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, Republicans were the party of “massive retaliation,” favoring airpower and nuclear bombs (relatively cheap) over land forces (very labor-intensive). Except for the Reagan interruption that brought down the Soviet Union, Republicans have not wanted to spend money for defense.

Democrats, the party of big government, used to be the party of big defense and big land forces, as under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. That changed when George McGovern won the nomination in 1972. Jimmy Carter waffled, and Bill Clinton had no hesitation to slash military and foreign-intelligence capability while sending US armed forces on errands around the world.

Republicans today are an uneasy coalition of conservative churchgoers, neocon former Democrats, and big business. One pictures Karl Rove each morning reading the Wall Street Journal in one hand and the Watchtower in the other, with Commentary and the “Limbaugh Letter” nearby.

The Democratic Party is in the hands of sentimental baby boomers of the McGovern era, who stretch in ideology from left to far left. The best one can say about the congressional Democrats is that they are irresponsible. Nancy Pelosi undercuts national policy by visiting the dictator of Syria and seeks to redirect intelligence resources to global-warming causes.

It is sobering to consider that the Democratic Party’s least reckless defense candidates for 2008 appear to be Hillary Clinton and Bill Richardson. Strong-defense Democrats, who once ran Capitol Hill, have mostly vanished. Richard Russell, John Stennis, Henry Jackson, Sam Nunn—long gone. Joe Lieberman? Excommunicated. The Democrats have amputated their right wing. None of the Democrats is willing to acknowledge the disasters that would follow a pullout from Iraq. So US military forces unhappily face a world less stable and predictable but with a president who is unable to address long-term military needs and an opposition party that is no help at all.

A final failing of this president on national security is visible leadership. He is not as bad as he sounds, but how he sounds is pretty bad. George W. Bush displays the oral equivalent of dyslexia. Ronald Reagan was accused of reading words from three-by-five cards, but he mouthed them surpassingly well. And Reagan, as history is confirming, knew very well what he intended.

After 9/11, George W. Bush extemporized effectively with a bullhorn in New York and read a magnificent address to the Congress. But from then on, it has been downhill in rhetoric as well as management.

Part of a president’s job is to motivate. John F. Kennedy was a second-rate president with inspirational speechwriters. George W. Bush has focused on the biggest and most dangerous issue of our time and has sacrificed popularity to address it. But lacking words to express himself, he fails to inspire. Bush comes across not as a strong president but as a stubborn one.

His thrashing about for some new war arrangement exemplifies all these failings. Victory in Iraq—meaning tamping down the level of violence so that it is safe to live there, maybe with a plausibly democratic-style government in place, but at least with a friendly one—is attainable. But as with crushing other armed insurgencies, it is likely to take several years. Our army stayed busy putting down the Philippine Insurrection between 1899 and 1913. The Brits took a decade to defeat the Communists in Malaya.

In General David Petraeus the administration appears to have found a capable military leader and a new strategy, something the Democrats refuse even to acknowledge. Why should anyone expect the messy situation in Iraq, fighting fanatics, to vanish in time for an election? If the majority of people of this country are unwilling to do what is necessary, the fault is theirs—but also the President’s for not persuading them. To inspire is not an easy task. Seldom have wars stayed politically popular in this country unless they are short, obviously necessary, and visibly being won.

This President has talked about a “war on terror.” Some military officers started to use “the long war” but then thought better about a term that did not project an easy future. Even less salable would be to call this a war against aggressive Islamic fanatics, but that is what it is. So now Bush leads a war on . . .something.

And it doesn’t feel much like a war when relatively few have to sacrifice and the Dow serenely tops 13,000. When Hitler was the enemy, Americans rationed food and gasoline, crushed cans to recycle steel, and saved bacon grease to be converted into lubricants and explosives.

In the current war effort, taxes that could reduce gasoline consumption—our enemies’ source of funds—are taboo, as are more drilling and nuclear power in this country. For most Americans, the Iraq fighting is an abstraction—like military service itself.

For six years this president, apparently unaware of the veto power, let his own party give away public money as if its elected officials were Democrats and worried about the war only when it threatened their reelection.

Blurring everything further, George W. Bush tells the country that Islam is a religion of peace. But Islam today too often is not a religion of peace or of compassion or of tolerance. For too many it is a dangerous metaphysical obsession drawn from tribal hatreds and medieval mysticism. Such believers do not thirst for freedom or democracy, and the last thing they envision is separation of church and state. On the contrary, they demand sharia, Muslim law, enforced by theocracy, as in Iran. And they don’t value lives of infidels. It has become difficult for the governing elites in this country—so fashionably secular—to understand motivations that are at root not rational or economic or political but religious and by fair measures evil.

Bush exults about democracy. But bringing democracy to people who may not crave it will not inspire Americans to sacrifice. He has needed to explain why substantial armed forces and intelligence capabilities are needed to keep North America from being attacked. But the message has been garbled. The big mistake was not in going into Iraq but in Bush’s mismatch of ends, effort, and rhetoric.

It is no pleasure to pile on a president whose strategic goals are basically correct and whose political opponents offer only a future far worse. But Bush will be gone in a year and a half, and his personal management shortcomings should not blind Americans to the real choice.

Our cities are in greater danger of nuclear attack today than at any time in our lifetimes. What the country will need is not a repudiation of the Bush administration but a leader who can do a better job of directing the government and mobilizing the country for a future filled with danger.