Politics & Policy

Presidential Dilemmas

The political dialogue is hardening ever so fast, and crystallizations, even if premature, are worth attempting.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, an intelligent and resourceful liberal, was made to listen to part of a statement he made in 2002. In that statement he spoke of the alarming developments within Iraq, of Saddam Hussein attempting an acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, of the long reach of his aggressive appetites, extending even into Niger in search of yellowcake uranium.

“You want to revise and amend those words, Senator?” Wolf Blitzer asked him on CNN.

“Of course. I mean, I was dead flat wrong. . . . I’m on the Intelligence Committee, and as soon as we did our report on weapons of mass destruction, I realized that I had just been living off this information, this false information. And I went down to the floor of the Senate and I said, Look, I’m wrong. I would never vote for a war knowing what I know now.”

Okay.

Now two questions arise from this experience. The first is: Should President Bush have urged a military operation against Saddam Hussein on evidence which proved to be either wrong or insubstantial; sometimes, both? The second question is: How do we account for the terrible misestimations of our intelligence services? We learned only on Tuesday that we are spending $44 billion per year to gather intelligence. It’s always wrong to assume that there is a correlation between the amount of money spent and productivity, but what reason is there to be confident that critical personnel in CIA and in DoD will go on other than to receive Presidential Medals of Freedom?

But of course there is an overarching irresolution here. If we agree with Senator Rockefeller that we ought not to have gone to war, we are still left with the fact that we did go to war. This imposes on the president a running responsibility to vitalize the argument for going to war. One presidential critic over the weekend objected that an entire year had gone by since President Bush had said anything substantial in the matter of the Iraq war: Why does he not bring us up to date on it regularly?

There is only the obvious answer to that question: What would he say? There are the individual skirmishes, covered by the newspapers–a salient in Husayba, the ambush aborted, the advance towards constitutional order by this or the other Sunni tribe. One supposes that no national leader, in wartime, would feel any need to publicize that day’s defeats. That would make sense only if it served to stress the larger picture that forwarded the national purpose. There are such opportunities, for instance the elections, past and forthcoming, which suggest a corporate Iraqi desire for freedom and civil order. But the regime change the president seeks, and has boasted of, cannot be transcribed in spotty events invigoratingly enough to relay to the republic a sense of purpose-being-achieved. It has to be for this reason that we hear so little from the president on the subject of Iraq. When this is combined with an apparent indifference to recomposing our intelligence community, the idea is given of executive lassitude in wartime, and that is greatly damaging to the public morale.

Granted Mr. Bush has other difficulties. But it is not safe to conclude that they are unrelated to his central problem, which is the Iraq war. He has presided over gratifying months in the national economy and responded to the demands of the judiciary; his efforts include the adroit selection of successors to Alan Greenspan and William Rehnquist. But these are not accomplishments that endow his administration with the kind of international respect the United States deserves, and is forlorn without. His Latin American exposure as advocate of hemispheric free trade was a substantial failure, and not alone traceable to the provincialism of individual Latin American republics, or the passionate socialist demagogy of President Chavez.

It was concluded by some friends of the president that he made a mistake in going to Mar del Plata. National leaders shouldn’t decide where to go, let alone what to do, to avoid student protests. With a little hype you could organize a student protest against the promulgation of the Bill of Rights or the unveiling of the Venus de Milo.

Still, national prestige hangs to an important extent on the figure of the leader, and when he is demeaned, so is our cause. And the challenge is one of leadership.

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