Is it Bush's War?


"The buck stops here." President Truman's famous line, embedded there on his desk for all to see, lingers still today. Specifically, in the presidency of George W. Bush.

Not in the sense that W. embraced that philosophy. On the contrary, he seems to have been eager to pass that buck back down the chain of command. Or, more likely, he was never given the buck in the first place. Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld held on to that buck like it was a shotgun on a captive grouse farm.

But the title of Frontline's recent two-part, four-and-a-half hour report on the Iraq War might be misnamed. It's called "Bush's War," and certainly George W. Bush can rightly be held responsible for what went on during his tenure as Commander-in-Chief. But the program also makes it clear that Bush, as a whole, was an ineffective and largely absent president during the lead-up to and exacting of the Iraq War. That it was his cabinet, and their endless bickering, that brought the war and its failures about.

Perhaps bickering is the wrong word to use in this case, since it might evoke more charming examples. This was no Moonlighting, no Honeymooners, no Pride and Prejudice. (Well, not the Jane Austen version, anyway—in terms of lower-case pride and prejudice, there seemed to be plenty of that to go around.)

Central to Frontline's program is the infighting that took place in cabinet meetings, the jockeying for position and control, the buck-struggle to see whose influence would win out over an apparently eminently swayable POTUS. It's an exacting moment-by-moment look at the conflict (both internal and external) over Iraq policy that defines this part of American history in impressive—if frightening—detail. It's the sort of thing that kids will be watching in American History class for the next twenty years, and rightfully so.

But the questions that Bush's War doesn't cover are equally intriguing. What kept George W. Bush from participating more fully in these decisions of war? Was it blind trust of these, his king-makers? Was this the presumptive bargain before he was put in the highest public office, that he'd defer to the plans and policies of his cabinet? How much of this just happened because of the alchemy of personalities in Bush's cabinet, and how much of it was a deliberate manipulation of the political system?

None of this, it needs be stressed, holds George W. Bush innocent of what's happened in Iraq, nor what this war has meant to the US economy, American status in the global community, or the radical division of the public that Bush "the Uniter" has wrought. Bush is worse than complicit in this debacle (along with all his others), since he was—or was supposed to be—the captain of the ship of state at the time.

Plato was the one who came up with the metaphor of "ship of state," in Book 6 of his Republic. He went on to argue that "philosopher kings" were best suited to governance, something that's of course inherently opposed to our democratic society. But perhaps there's something that the US still can take from Plato's ideas. That the aim of leadership is the common good. That benevolence is the manner in which decisions should be made, and that philosophical and rational thought is the method through which to arrive at those decisions.

Radical ideas from the 4th Century BC. And perhaps something to consider as we exit the Bush (and company) regime, armed with the information that we now have about the mistakes that our leaders—and we as a nation—have made. And allowed to be made for us.
-- Teague Bohlen

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