THE UNMAKING OF A WAR PRESIDENT

Professor Gregory J. W. Urwin
Associate Director


Since September 11, 2001, George W. Bush has frequently called himself a “war president.” History will indeed remember him as such, but as a commander-in-chief who knew how to start wars, not win them. Unlike our greatest war presidents — Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt — Bush failed to unite the American people with a sense of common purpose and a willingness to pay whatever price victory requires.

Initially, it looked like fate had thrust greatness on Bush. The 9/11 attacks momentarily silenced the divisive politics that had gripped Washington, D.C., for nearly a decade and instead filled all Americans with a burning desire to catch Osama bin Laden and destroy al-Qaeda.

The Bush administration responded to that sentiment appropriately by launching Operation Enduring Freedom against the Taliban in Afghanistan. After all, the Taliban had granted al-Qaeda a secure base and would not cooperate in bringing the terrorist organization to justice. Our allies and most of the rest of the world could not fairly criticize an American incursion against that repressive outlaw regime. Best of all, Operation Enduring Freedom succeeded at low cost. A judicious use of airpower, special operations forces, and aid to the Northern Alliance (the Taliban’s Afghan opposition) succeeded in effecting regime change.

To the chagrin of America’s military leadership, however, President Bush decided to exploit the fears generated by 9/11 to justify invading Iraq. Starting a second war before you win the first has never been good military policy. That contributed to Adolf Hitler’s undoing during World War II when he invaded the Soviet Union without first conquering Great Britain — and then declared war on the United States before he subdued the Soviets. Dividing America’s military resources has permitted bin Laden to remain at large and al-Qaeda survives. It has also led to a resurgence of the Taliban.

Bush and his advisors, fooled by their easy success in Afghanistan, compounded their miscalculations by trying to conquer Iraq with an inadequately sized force. Realizing that an expensive war would cause political backlash and prevent granting tax cuts to the rich, the Bush administration insisted on placing too few boots on Iraqi ground to do the job right. An Army strategist expressed his frustrations on the eve of Operation Iraqi Freedom when he remarked: “Clinton used to say he despised the military, but at least he listened to us. Bush says he loves the military, but he never listens to us.”

President Bush’s frugal approach to making war exposed American troops to unnecessary danger and death. It did the same thing to the people of Iraq and produced an environment where foreign terrorists and home-grown malcontents could mount a robust insurgency that shows no signs of flagging more than three years later.

As the Iraqi war dragged on and the cost mounted, the very legitimacy of the enterprise came into question. The administration’s original justification — that Saddam Hussein either possessed or was close to developing horrendous weapons of mass destruction — proved to be either highly exaggerated or deliberately fabricated.

President Bush and his spokespersons then switched messages by claiming the war was really intended to turn Iraq into a beacon of democracy in the Middle East. While that is a noble goal and many Iraqis have given their lives to make it happen, it has lost much of its potency with American voters.

One of the latest arguments that Bush and the Republicans have offered for staying the course in Iraq is the flimsiest. It asserts that if the United States cuts and runs, that will free terrorists to attack us at home. Such thinking defies logic. If Islamic fanatics flew jet liners into major American buildings because our troops were quartered in Saudi Arabia, a Muslim country where they were invited — what kind of reaction could be expected if we invaded and occupied a Muslim country without a compelling reason?

The worst thing about that position is that it casts America in the role of a coward — callously using twenty-five million Iraqis as human shields for the bombs and other weapons the terrorists might direct at us. This is not the way a great and powerful nation ought to behave. Regardless of Bush’s manifold follies, America’s prestige and future safety are now inextricably tied to what happens in Iraq. The damage has been done. Defeat will embolden our enemies and undermine America’s ability to shape events in an increasingly perilous and unstable world.

The burning question is whether there is any way to extract victory from the mess Bush created. One possible course, as endorsed by Senator John McCain, is to enlarge our armed forces and send enough troops to Iraq to suppress the insurgency and make the Iraqi people feel reasonably safe in supporting their new government. McCain calls us to follow a path of continued sacrifice for long-range goals, but the time to adopt such a plan may be long past.

Even if President Bush suddenly decided to embrace a truly serious approach to winning the war, he has forfeited the confidence of the American people. That much is clear from the outcome of the 2006 congressional elections. Our current war president lacks the credibility to call Americans to make the extra effort that anything resembling victory might require. Unlike Franklin Roosevelt, who added prominent Republicans to his cabinet in 1940 to run the Army and the Navy, Bush chose to turn his war to partisan political advantage, squandering multiple opportunities to enlist Democratic support. In light of the poisoned atmosphere that now prevails in Washington, it does not seem likely that the Democrats would work closely with Bush if he decided to mend his ways and conduct foreign and military policy in a genuine bi-partisan spirit.

Incredibly, one of the most important repercussions of Bush’s botched Iraq policy has been largely ignored by the American people. The president not only lost the support of the majority of America’s voters, but also much of his military. In subtle ways during the lead-up to the Iraqi war – and increasingly since that conflict transformed itself into an insurgency – numerous officers have devised means to register their disapproval for how Washington has been running military affairs. Beginning with the usual anonymous leaks, this campaign escalated to retired officers acting as proxies for their brothers still in active service by issuing public denunciations of the Defense Department’s civilian leadership. Just before the Army Times and affiliated publications called for Donald Rumsfeld’s removal, the Army chief of staff openly rebelled against the defense secretary by refusing to submit a budget. One of the things that the media has failed to emphasize is that the military’s efforts to get rid for Rumsfeld actually constituted a slightly less mutinous way to challenge the president himself. Many of those who lead America’s warriors have demonstrated that they no longer believe in this country’s war president. America is facing an unprecedented crisis in civil-military relations, and the fact that conflict has entered a lull should not blind us to its existence.

When George W. Bush led the American people to war in 2003, he doubtlessly believed that he was making history. He was right about that, but history will not judge him kindly. In the meantime, the United States faces a perilous future exacerbated by presidential arrogance and clumsy missteps. It will take the concerted efforts of the politicians, civilian and military public servants, academics, and other intellectuals interested in national security to chart a course that will propel the ship of state to safer waters without any further serious damage.