The latest and apparently last theory that Kerry and his media allies have settled on is to attack Bush’s execution of the War on Terror, including both the Iraq war and Afghanistan; the theme of the attacks has been that Bush is incompetent, which is taken now as received wisdom beyond challenge by fact. Go read Greg Djerejian’s long essay on this point, and yesterday’s shorter Wall Street Journal op-ed (for a similar analysis, see Dan Darling on the Washington Post’s effort to argue that the Iraq war and anti-Iran hardliners undermined the al Qaeda manhunt). Both contribute to a few of the key points that need to be borne in mind in evaluating the Bush Administration’s performance:
1. War is a difficult and complex endeavor, requiring the making of scores of decisions large and small. Many of those decisions are, by their very nature, made on the basis of severely incomplete information, fraught with uncertainty and likely to have lethal consequences if they go wrong – and often if they go right, as well. The military acronym SNAFU got that way for a reason. Bush, by leading the nation in wartime, is certain to make more mistakes, and with worse consequences, than any peacetime president.
2. The history of wars, in fact, is almost unbroken in the making of catastrophic misjudgments by even the best of wartime leaders. Certainly if you review the records of Lincoln, FDR and Churchill, three of the models of civilian leadership in war, they and their generals and civilian advisers made numerous errors that cost scores of lives, many of which in retrospect seem like obvious blunders. I’d like the critics who formerly supported Bush and have now abandoned him to at least admit that on the same grounds, they would have voted for Dewey in 1944 and McClellan in 1864.
3. More specifically to the issue at hand, in almost all cases, the decisions by Bush and his civilian and military advisers involved avoiding alternatives that had their own potential bad consequences, and the critics are judging these decisions in a vacuum. The decision to disband Saddam’s army and undergo a thorough de-Ba’athification is a classic example, cited incessantly by critics on the Left. But what if Bush had kept that army together, and they had acted in the heavy-handed (to put it mildly) fashion to which the Ba’athists were accustomed, say, by firing on crowds of civilians? Isn’t it an absolute certainty that all the same critics would be singing “meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” accusing Bush’s commitment to democracy as being a sham and a cover for a desire to set up friendly tyrants to keep the oil pumping, that we’d hear constantly about how we’ve alienated the Iraqi people by enabling their oppressors, how we showed misunderstanding of the country by leaving a minority Sunni power structure in place over the Shi’ite majority? Wouldn’t we hear the very same things we hear now about Afghanistan, about using too few US troops and “outsourcing” the job, or the same civil-liberties concerns we hear when we turn over suspects for interrogation to countries without our restraint when it comes to torture? Don’t insult our intelligence and try to deny it.
The same goes for many decisions. More troops? We’d hear that this is a heavy-handed US occupation. I mean, we heard something like that when Giuliani put more cops on the street in New York, let alone a foreign country. Like most conservatives, my preference would have been to go hard into Fallujauh in April. But even if the alternative decision to hold off until there could be significant Iraqi participation in the assault was wrong, it was not an illogical one, but rather a decision made with the patience and foresight to consider the long-range political consequences in Iraq of differing military approaches.
4. Many of the decisions at issue here, from specific ground commanders’ decisions to secure particular sites to Tommy Franks’ call on Tora Bora, were decisions principally made by people lower in the chain of command, many of them in the military. This is not to say that Bush, as the head of that chain of command, is not ultimately responsible to the voters for those decisions; he is. But it is to remind people that they are not second-guessing solely the judgments of a small coterie of the president and civilian advisers, but the entire chain of command. Tom Maguire makes this point explicitly with regard to Tora Bora:
[I]f the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff chose not to overrule his subordinate, why should Bush? This . . . actually strenghtens Bush’s case – the issue was identified, alternatives were weighed, and a decision was made. We all wish the right guess had been made, but I, at least, am glad that the decision making team was aware of the issues and the alternatives.
If Kerry is campaigning on a promise to make the battlefield decisions and always make the right ones, good for him. Say Anything, John.
5. Much of the criticism has focused on the idea that Bush needs to admit more errors, and that Kerry would be better at recognizing and admitting mistakes. Djerejian zeroes in on an argument made by David Adesnik and Dan Drezner:
[P]eople like Drezner and Adesnik are asking: maybe Kerry’s a gamble–but at least he’s not a proven train wreck. While Adesnik think “accountability”, in the main, is the issue that has gotten waverers on board for Kerry–the real core grievance appears to be best reflected, instead, in this Adesnik graf that Drezner approvingly links too:
As a professional researcher, I think I simply find it almost impossible to trust someone whose thought process is apparently so different from my own.
In theory, I am sure that Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld all believe in evaluating the relevant data and adjusting their decisions to reflect reality. Thus, when I say that I object to the way that this administration makes decisions, I am saying that I do not believe that it has lived up to the intellectual standard it presumably accepts. [emphasis added]
Let’s put all this in plainer English, OK? What Dan and David are saying, I think, is: When this Bush team effs up (and they have effed up a lot), are they able to (on a bare-bones constitutive level, say): a) even recognize they have effed up and b) then move to redress the eff up?
As an initial matter, admitting mistakes, especially in wartime, is overrated, particularly if that means (1) admitting a decision was wrong before you have all the information to reach a final conclusion about it, or (2) making a public self-analysis that gives useful information to the enemy. How often did Churchill, battling daily to keep up the fighting spirit of the British, go on the radio to say, “sorry folks, I blew it again and got a bunch of people killed”? I tend to think that Bush made a big mistake of this kind when he conceded the point last summer on the inclusion in the State of the Union Address of British charges that Saddam was trying to buy uranium in Africa; as it turned out, the Brits stood by their report, and Saddam really did send an envoy there to do precisely that.
The more important point in wartime is the ability to recognize what’s not working and change tactics or, if appropriate, strategies. Djerejian cites several examples of Bush doing precisely that, most notably with the firing of Jay Garner but also extending to expanding the number of troops on the ground.
In any event, where, I would ask, is the evidence that Kerry is better at admitting mistakes than Bush? This is a guy who brought all sorts of political grief to himself by stubbornly refusing for three decades to admit that he was wrong to repeat false charges, under oath and on national televison, that smeared his comrades in Vietnam as guilty of pervasive war crimes. Has Kerry admitted he was wrong to oppose nearly every aspect of the foreign policy strategy that President Reagan pursused to great effect in the closing and victorious chapter of the Cold War? Has he admitted he was wrong to oppose the use of force to kick Saddam out of Kuwait in 1991? Maybe I missed something, but I don’t even recall him admitting he was wrong for trying to slash the intelligence budget in the mid-1990s following the first World Trade Center bombing. Indeed, one of the most common threads throughout Kerry’s behavior in this campaign has been his unwillingness to take any personal responsibility for mistakes, from blaming his speechwriters for things that come out of Kerry’s own mouth to picayune things like blaming the Secret Service when he falls down on the slopes. As Jonah Goldberg notes, Kerry’s “liberal hawk” backers may argue that the decades of bad judgment in Kerry’s past are rendered inoperative by September 11, but Kerry’s stubborn insistence that he hasn’t changed in response to September 11, and that he had the right answers all along even when he wrote a book in 1997 that barely mentioned Islamic terrorism, gives the lie to the notion that Kerry is a model of self-reflection. Even the man’s own supporters can’t seriously defend the proposition – on which many of them heaped well-deserved scorn during the primary season – that Kerry has been consistent from the start on whether Saddam was a serious threat that justified a military response. Yet there Kerry stands, insisting to all the world what nobody believes, that he hasn’t changed his position. Preferring Kerry to Bush because Bush won’t admit mistakes is like preferring fresh water to salt water because salt water is wet.
In any event, will Kerry somehow change, grow in office, shed a lifetime of bad judgments and blanching at the use of American power, suddenly stop valuing diplomacy as an end and the status quo as the highest virtue? Just because Bush changed in office means nothing. First of all, Bush was a guy who had already proven his willingness to change and admit his problems when he quit drinking, had a religious awakening and basically overhauled his whole approach to life in his forties; Kerry can show no similar example of a willingness to change. And Kerry is now in his sixties, six years older than Bush in 2000, and while Bush may count September 11 as a life-changing event, Kerry had already had his, in Vietnam. Kerry’s foreign policy world view was set decades ago, both by the example of his diplomat father and by Vietnam. The fact that Kerry has been malleable and vascillating over the years, clear a pattern though that may be, is no reason to think that he will suddenly re-examine his approach to accept the need for the United States to lead a continuing effort to overturn the corrupt, rotten and deadly status quo in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
6. The final charge is that Bush’s errors would be forgiveable if he had done more, earlier, to explain the risks and burdens of war to the American people. Of course, this has nothing to do with the execution of the war, but political leadership is important, and in many ways it’s much more the president’s job than is the decision to use X number of troops to seal off a particular location. First off, the charge that Bush argued the war would be easy is refuted by virtually all his speeches, in which he said over and over and over again that we were in for a long haul, and there would be difficult times ahead. Of course, that has long since become obvious from events, and in any event we really were not in a position before the war to know precisely how it would all play out. But I will agree that he never gave a Churchillian “blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech specifically about Iraq, and that many hawks in and out of the administration underestimated in their public arguments the difficulties of a post-conquest insurgency (then again, many doves told us that we’d be bogged down with thousands of casualties taking Baghdad). Of course, the war itself, up to and through the fall of Baghdad, was as much of a “cakewalk” as a real life shooting war against a substantial enemy can ever be; the problem is simply that we didn’t broadcast the coming insurgency (which, by the way, would have had the effect of greatly encouraging the insurgents).
In the end, that’s what this argument is all about – not the difficulties of war, which are well-understood, but simply a political argument about the use of speeches to predict the unpredictable. Moreover, on that ground, again, there’s no reason to think Kerry would be better; after all, Kerry is the guy who won’t even admit to this day that his war vote was a vote for war. Kerry’s the guy who wasn’t able to predict that his campaign would have to prepare for attacks by people who’d been holding a grudge against him for 30 years.
No, Bush hasn’t been a perfect war leader, but show me who was. He’s had tough calls to make, and unlike Kerry he can’t shift with the wind without consequence. Progress has been frustrating at times, because our overall enemy – the forces of terror and tyranny, of radical Islamism and fascist gangsterism – have recognized that an American victory in Iraq would be a defeat for them in the war on terror. You know that, I know that, they know that. But that just makes it all the more urgent to stick with a guy who believes in the mission, and who has proven that he will keep on trying new approaches until the job is finished, rather than looking for the door.