Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 12:27 | SYDNEY
Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 12:27 | SYDNEY

Bush: Even a stopped clock...


Michael Fullilove


25 June 2008 15:12

David Brooks has a powerful op-ed in today's New York Times about George W. Bush's Iraq troop surge. Brooks argues that '(e)very personal trait that led Bush to make a hash of the first years of the war led him to make a successful decision when it came to this crucial call.' He continues:

Bush is a stubborn man. Well, without that stubbornness, that unwillingness to accept defeat on his watch, he never would have bucked the opposition to the surge.

Bush is an outrageously self-confident man. Well, without that self-confidence he never would have overruled his generals...

Bush is also a secretive man who listens too much to Dick Cheney. Well, the uncomfortable fact is that Cheney played an essential role in promoting the surge. Many of the people who are dubbed bad guys actually got this one right.

The additional fact is that Bush, who made such bad calls early in the war, made a courageous and astute decision in 2006. More than a year on, the surge has produced large, if tenuous, gains. Violence is down sharply. Daily life has improved...

The whole episode is a reminder that history is a complicated thing. The traits that lead to disaster in certain circumstances are the very ones that come in handy in others. The people who seem so smart at some moments seem incredibly foolish in others.

It's a classic Brooks column, pithy and fresh despite the heavily traversed subject matter. And yet the more I think about this piece, the less I am convinced by it. I don't accept Brooks' implication that the two decisions — to invade Iraq in 2003 and to insert more combat troops in 2007 — were somehow equivalent. They were not.

The decision to invade Iraq and displace its regime in the absence of either a clear casus belli or comprehensive post-conflict plans represented a massive discontinuity for US foreign policy and the international system, from which a thousand sorry consequences have flowed. The decision to deploy additional troops, while undoubtedly gutsy, was only one of several phases of the war launched by the prior decision. Even assuming the new strategy continues to succeed (and it is not certain that it will, or that the patience of the American public will last the distance), it doesn't get Bush out of gaol for his initial offence.

Furthermore, Brooks gives us little reason to respect the process by which Bush reached the decision to surge. Sure, he stuck to his guns, ignored the experts, trusted his gut and listened to Dick Cheney — and it worked out better than most people expected. Maybe this just proves that eventually one of Bush's gut calls had to come good, just as heads will eventually come up if you keep flipping the coin. I certainly don't get the sense from Brooks' column that, notwithstanding this partial defence of Bush, he would like to see the next president takes the same approach to governing.