Bush’s Mangled Iraq Policy

After four years of virtual media aversion, President Bush celebrated his inaugural week with a gush of interviews with Washington’s best and brightest who cover him. As a result, we know at last the president’s real thinking and invaluable insights into the problems that plague us now more than ever.

For example, this Q&A from President Bush’s interview with two Washington Post correspondents aboard Air Force One:

The Post: “Why do you think (Osama) bin Laden has not been caught?”

Bush: “Because he’s hiding.”

There were, of course, follow-ups, of sorts, that also went nowhere.

The Post: “Our allies have done all they can do to help catch him?”

Bush: “We’re on the hunt.”

The Post: “Do you think others are on the hunt, too? Are you happy, content with what other countries are doing in that hunt?”

Bush: “Yes.”

The Post: “Anyone you’re not happy with?” (Laughter.)

Bush: “I can’t think of anybody in the world who is our ally who isn’t willing to do what is necessary to try to find him.”

Which begs the unasked follow-up: Has America done all that was “necessary” to get bin Laden and his al Qaeda operatives who, U.S. intelligence experts say, are still a threat to attack us again?

Unexplored in this interview and all the others this week were the real options the president could have followed _but chose not to.

For example, since America’s military has proven itself so powerful, so often:

  • Does President Bush think we could have better crushed al Qaeda and captured bin Laden if – before invading Iraq – we had first deployed the 150,000-plus troops we sent to topple Saddam to instead go all-out to defeat bin Laden?
  • Did the president ever consider ordering massive U.S. forces into Afghanistan (where we had less than 10,000 troops) to track bin Laden and his gang into the ungovernable northern Pakistan, where al Qaeda’s leader is believed to be hiding and harbored untouched by Pakistan’s military that has proven itself incapable in that part of its own country?
  • Wouldn’t Americans be safer at home today if the president had used massive force first against the enemy who attacked us?

These questions have new validity, even urgency, because of a milestone that Bush marked, sotto voce, in the last week of his first term as commander-in-chief. The president had his lower minions whisper the word that his administration had ended its search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq without finding any. None of the nuclear, biological or chemical weapons that Bush wrongly assured Congress were the main reason America had to rush to invade Iraq.

Which begs the unasked question that once so befuddled Bush’s opponent, John Kerry: If he knew then what he knows now – that no WMDs would be found – would he have still favored a congressional resolution for invading Iraq?

(We remember how Kerry blew that question and perhaps the presidency with his one-word answer: Yes. In his micro-thinking way, Kerry fretted he’d look once again like a flip-flopper. His common-sense, one-word answer had to be: No! Maybe two words: Hell no! Followed by: Republicans and Democrats would never have approved the invasion if we knew no WMDs were in Iraq _ and the president wouldn’t have even asked us to vote on it if we’d known then what we know now.)

But we can guess that Bush’s answer would be yes, he’d still want to invade Iraq because Saddam Hussein was a bad man who threatened the world.

Which would beg the obvious follow-up: What would you have told Congress and the world was your evidence that justified a rush to invade Iraq?

The Washington Post reporters did ask the president why no official has been held “accountable, either through firings or demotions” for mistakes or misjudgments that lead to all that has gone so wrong in Iraq. To which the president replied: “Well, we had an accountability moment, and that’s called the 2004 election. And the American people … chose me, for which I’m grateful.”

Not quite. After voting for him, 56 percent of the American people voted against his Iraq policy, telling this month’s Gallup Poll they disapprove of Bush’s handling of it and 59 percent think things are going badly in Iraq.

Bush made it to this week’s inauguration not because Americans ratified his bungling of Iraq, but because Kerry so bungled his campaign that he lost the confidence of just enough traditionally Democratic-voting women in Ohio to give America four more years of George Walker Bush.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.)