It's the incompetence, stupid

When Osama bin Laden reappeared on our television screens a mere four days before Election Day, he did indeed deliver the much-anticipated "October Surprise." But contrary to the predictions of paranoid liberals and optimistic conservatives, his reappearance did not mark the veritable coup de grace for the Bush re-election campaign.

The sight of a well-rested, healthy bin Laden — with no dialysis machine in sight and sporting a tan that he clearly could not have acquired in an underground cave — was a poke in the eye of a White House that has done its best to frame him as a desperate fugitive of justice. The videotape was instead a sour reminder of the administration's unqualified failure in fighting terrorism: bin laden, still standing strong and tall after three years of the much-touted "war on terror."

It's no accident that bin Laden's turn in the spotlight came at the end of a week marked by a furious political debate over the missing 360 tons of explosives from the Al Qaqqa facility in Iraq. The White House variously tried to pin the blame on Saddam Hussein (They were moved before Baghdad fell!); revive its tattered justifications for the Iraq War (Aha! We thought liberals said there were no WMDs!); minimize the situation (What is 360 tons in the grand scheme of things?); or simply pass the buck (Liberal New York Times targets Bush). In other words, the Bush administration did everything except admit its mistake — in this case, errors in its post-war planning, or rather, the lack thereof.

bin Laden’s reappearance and the missing munitions are part of the same story. It's the story of a president who has consistently mistaken blind conviction for strength. It's the story of a man who, irrespective of partisanship, lacks the most important quality of a good leader: judgment. Each time George W. Bush has been faced with a set of choices on Iraq — before, during, and after the war — he has unerringly picked the worst option available.

As Bill Maher observed on HBO a couple of weeks ago: "It's the incompetence, stupid!"

Unilateralism, the New American Way

Four years ago, Candidate Bush pledged to create a "humble" U.S. foreign policy based on international cooperation, and scoffed at the idea of "nation building." Those turned out to be the proverbial famous last words as the rhetoric of the campaign was replaced by the radical foreign policy of the Bush presidency.

The transformation required the right trigger, the right justification. And al Qaeda provided it on Sept. 11, 2001.

The radical reorientation of U.S. foreign policy manifested itself almost immediately after the attacks, made plain in the president's now infamous assertion: "(E)ither you are with the United States or you are with the terrorists." It marked the birth of what would come to be known as the Bush Doctrine. Nine months later, he clarified the tenets of this uber-aggressive philosophy to West Point graduates: preemptive strikes, military unilateralism, preservation of the United States' status as the sole superpower, and a crusade to spread "democracy" around the world, by any means necessary.

It was a doctrine in search of a war. And that the war came to be with Iraq was hardly surprising. It was no secret that senior ranking officials in the administration were itching to finish the job that they perceived as left undone by the President’s father in the first Gulf War. As former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke and Bush’s own Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill would later attest, Vice President Dick Cheney was eager to use the Sept. 11 attacks as an excuse to move against Iraq within hours of the tragedy.

George Bush was faced with a clear choice: Option A, crack down on al Qaeda at a time when its members were on the run; Option B, pursue a war that would at best deliver an ideological victory of dubious value. He chose war with Iraq.

Once the president made that one bad decision, he committed himself to the series of lies and misrepresentations that would be required to justify it. His advisors proceeded to "cherry pick" unreliable intelligence to make the case for war, which included claims about Saddam's arsenal of WMDs, links to al Qaeda, and the imminent threat he posed to the United States. According to a study by U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), Bush and his top four advisors made 237 misleading statements about Iraq to the American public, elected officials, and international diplomats in the run up to war. Secretary of State Colin Powell sat before the UN Security Council and presented mountains of "evidence" on Iraq’s weapons stockpiles to the world that has since been discredited.

The Bush administration chose to risk the United States' reputation and credibility in the world to pursue a war of its choosing simply because it could. To make matters worse, committed to his unilateralist stance, Bush did not take the required measures to ensure international support for the United States in the impending conflict. He cavalierly cut short the UN weapons inspection process that was underway in Iraq and declared war on the strength of a shaky coalition, which included only one other significant military ally, the United Kingdom, and was made up of nations whose own people opposed the war.

The irony is that if the Bush administration had chosen instead to allow the UN inspections to continue, we would have learned exactly what Charles Duelfer, head of the Iraq Survey Group, told us last month: There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

On March 6, 2003, just 14 days before the invasion of Iraq, Bush chose to deride the UN: "If we need to act, we will act, and we really don’t need United Nations approval to do so." The Bush administration stuck to its go-it-alone approach in the aftermath of the invasion by choosing to exclude companies from countries that did not participate in the war from receiving reconstruction contracts.

Bush also turned down the opportunity to change course when he rejected the UN’s offer to play a central role in post-war security and reconstruction. Rather than share power and control with "outsiders," Bush relegated the UN to the job of providing food, medicine and other humanitarian needs. It's a job that the UN soon found itself unable to do as Iraq's security continued to deteriorate and the United States found itself faced with a defiant insurgency.

Today, it's the Iraqi people and the U.S. soldiers who are paying the price for this outright rejection of the UN charter and the willingness, as UN Secretary General Kofi Annan recently said, to violate international law.

As reconstruction has ground to nearly a halt and security has deteriorated in Iraq, the motley number of the "coalition of the willing" is steadily declining. In recent months, nine countries have either pulled their troops from Iraq or withdrawn from the coalition. At the war’s start, the coalition countries represented 19.1 percent of the world’s population; that number now stands at a paltry 14 percent.

More importantly, the U.S. is now courting the very countries it excluded from the reconstruction, and asking them for financial aid to help rebuild Iraq and maintain security on the ground.

Among the most tragic results of the Bush administration's decision to ignore and even violate international law is the torture in the Abu Ghraib prison. According to Human Rights Watch, "The pattern of abuse resulted from decisions made by the Bush administration to bend, ignore, or cast rules aside." While Bush tried to cast the perpetrators’ behavior as an aberration, over 300 allegations of abuse have been filed against soldiers involved in post 9/11 military operations.

The Abu Ghraib revelations dealt a mortal blow to the already failing efforts to win the trust of the Iraqi people, who, along with most other people in the Middle East, viewed the torture as yet more confirmation of American bad faith toward Arabs in particular, and Muslims in general. They also outraged many former generals who warned of future consequences for American prisoners of war.

Yet the President shows no signs of reversing his policies toward the use of torture. Recent news reports reveal that the Justice Department may also have violated the Geneva Convention when it gave a green light to the CIA to secretly transport prisoners captured in Iraq out of the country for interrogations. In the process, the CIA concealed detainees from the International Red Cross and other authorities. On Oct. 27, Amnesty International released a new report which concluded that the Bush administration failed to substantially change the policies and practices that led to torture and ill-treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib and other detention facilities.

Even today, the United States could still take a different approach — a conciliatory, and yes, even humble, approach to reach out to its allies and the Iraqi people. But the president instead chooses to keep charging down the road to international isolation.

Plan? What Plan?

In the summer of 2002, Secretary Powell — now resigned to the Bush administration's determination to go to war despite his repeated warnings — led a State Department initiative, titled The Future of Iraq Project, to bring together Iraqi exiles from around the world to put together a comprehensive plan of reconstruction. Its recommendations, based on almost a year's worth of planning, were dismissed outright by the Department of Defense.

Told over and again by a wide array of experts — including conservative think tanks such as the Council on Foreign Relations, overseen by former Republican defense secretary James Schlesinger — that the war would require more troops for peacekeeping, the Bush administration chose instead to stick to the fanciful idea that intensive bombing (shock and awe) would be sufficient to cow Iraqis into submission — the few who wouldn't be celebrating in the streets.

Despite overwhelming intelligence from the CIA, the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, and the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research that chaos could erupt after Saddam’s overthrow, the United States invaded Iraq with 140,000 soldiers, who were poorly informed or trained to deal with the chaos that would follow.

Commenting on the immediate aftermath of the invasion, Army Secretary General Thomas White said, "We immediately found ourselves shorthanded in the aftermath. We sat there and watched people dismantle and run off with the country." Former U.S. Administrator in charge of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, echoed this mistake more recently saying, "We never had enough troops on the ground."

The error would have far-reaching repercussions, sowing the seeds of the intractable insurgency that would soon ensue.

The failure to create a comprehensive and effective post-war plan is perhaps the best example of the president's lack of judgment. Rather than heed the caution of his veteran advisers, George Bush chose instead to rely on the rosy prognostications of the hawks in his administration. Their plan: Simply walk into Baghdad, bask in the adulation of cheering Iraqis, handoff the country to the U.S.-anointed heir, the now discredited Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi, and leave. It was less a plan than ideological fantasy.

The result: widespread looting that alienated the Iraqi people; unguarded arsenals of weapons that would enable the insurgents to inflict a bloody toll on both soldiers and civilians. Yet at the time, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would dismiss the looting with a throwaway comment: "Freedom is messy."

Already hamstrung by insufficient troops, the Bush administration soon compounded its error when it bypassed the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and approved CPA chief Paul Bremer’s decision to disband the Iraqi army and dismiss tens of thousands of Iraqi civil servants. In one fell swoop, the United States dismantled the Iraqi state but without the resources or the will to replace it. Not only did the decision exacerbate the near state of anarchy in Iraq, it also created thousands of unemployed, disaffected, and often armed Iraqis, immediately boosting the insurgent ranks. The Iraqi resistance has since quadrupled in strength from 5,000 to 20,000.

A Failed Reconstruction

Having made a misguided decision to go to war and botched the post-war planning, the Bush administration could still have saved the situation in Iraq by winning the proverbial "battle for the hearts and minds." The support of the Iraqi people would have gone a long way in helping the U.S. military secure and stabilize Iraq.

The president, however, proved more willing to promote the interests of his corporate supporters than the welfare of the Iraqis. The Bush administration chose to award lucrative reconstruction contracts to U.S. and "coalition of the willing" companies instead of investing in qualified Iraqi firms. and building Iraq’s local resources. As companies such as Halliburton received no-bid contracts, it confirmed many Iraqis' suspicions that their nation was merely a cash cow to be milked for U.S. corporate interests.

Those suspicions were only confirmed by the CPA's spending patterns. When Bremer left Baghdad on June 28, the U.S. had spent less than 2 percent of its funds to repair Iraq’s shattered infrastructure. The U.S. reconstruction schemes bred further distrust when the CPA allocated $19 billion of the $20 billion in Iraqi oil revenue to pay U.S. private contractors. Unlike most U.S. reconstruction funds, the Iraqi oil fund did not require competitive bidding or transparency measures and the U.S. kept almost full control of the funds. Twenty-six criminal investigations into the CPA’s fraud, waste, and abuse are now underway.

The sluggish pace of reconstruction also became one more factor fueling the insurgency. Having promised 250,000 jobs to the Iraqis, the U.S. managed to employ only 30,000 as part of its various projects. Disaffected unemployed Iraqis, eager for any type of income to feed their families, became vulnerable to insurgents who offered them up to $500 to participate in attacks on U.S. forces, their perceived Iraqi sympathizers, and U.S.-led reconstruction projects.

The rising strength of the resistance in turn stalled most reconstruction efforts. Most foreign run reconstruction projects ground to a halt when the risk of kidnappings spiked in April 2004. To address the security crisis, the Bush administration further shifted $3.5 billion of the $18.4 billion that Congress approved for Iraq reconstruction away from restoring essential services such as water, sewage, and electricity and toward security and oil-related areas.

As sabotaged water, sewer, oil, and electricity projects remain in disrepair, frustration on the streets grows as does support for the insurgency to drive out the United States. The result is an entrenched cycle of failure: the insurgency diverts resources toward security, which in turn creates greater popular anger, which then strengthens the insurgency.

To earn the trust of the Iraqi people, President Bush could have directed reconstruction funds through a UN supervised public works program that prioritized building the institutional capacity of Iraqi businesses and employment of Iraqi citizens. He chose instead to favor his closest corporate allies and squander the remaining opportunity to win the peace.

Today, only 2 percent of Iraqis consider the U.S. as "liberators." Faced with this rising tide of popular anger, Bush has chosen to try and bomb it out of existence. He waited a mere four days for negotiations to work in Fallujah before he returned to bombing its residents on Oct. 13 — just two days before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. And this even though the negotiations between U.S. and interim government representatives and prominent Sunnis revealed a rift between the local Iraqi insurgents and foreign "jihadists" operating in Fallujah. Instead of seizing an opportunity to isolate foreign fighters, the president instead chose to pursue a course of action that will surely be viewed on the streets of Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East as confirmation of America's war on Islam.


The Bush Definition of Democracy

"Freedom" is one of the president's favorite words. It's also the word he employs these days to justify the war, now that his other rationales have proven hollow. Yet his administration's track record in establishing democracy in Iraq is poor, to say the least.

In the past 18 months, the Bush administration has shown little inclination to let Iraqis rule themselves. Following the fall of Baghdad, the CPA appointed Iraqi expatriates with no established local political support as members of the Iraqi Governing Council, even as it sidelined popular local leaders. The Bush policy has been crystal clear: Block Iraq’s radical religious leadership from attaining power and ensure a government sympathetic to American political and economic goals.

The policy has backfired. The very constituencies Bush sought to exclude are now more popular than ever. For example, when the Bush team shut down the newspaper of cleric Moqtada al Sadr in April 2004, support for al Sadr grew rapidly as did violent street attacks on the U.S. military. The result: American soldiers suffered the highest death toll in that month since the invasion.

The "transfer of sovereignty" on June 28, 2004 to the interim government has been almost entirely symbolic. The U.S. maintains control of almost every aspect of Iraqi life through its 138,000 troops, 20,000 U.S.-funded private foreign national contractors, and 100 official orders issued by the CPA that are designed to benefit U.S. interests — orders that cannot be undone even by a democratically-elected Iraqi government.

While the U.S. orders may lock in policy, they cannot control public opinion. According to a new U.S.-financed poll by the International Republican Institute, the very same religious parties that the U.S. has tried to marginalize in Iraq would win a national election if it were held today. At the same time, U.S.-backed interim government candidates are losing support and credibility with each passing month.

Despite daily abductions, assassinations, ambushes, and bombings, Bush insists that the elections will proceed as scheduled in January 2005. Rumsfeld, on the other hand, has told reporters that violence may lead authorities to exclude certain "hot spots," like Fallujah, from voting.

A plan for democracy that relies on disenfranchisement for success is a recipe for disaster. Yet the president is determined to "stay the course."

The Price of Incompetence

If the president continues to make the wrong choice over and over again, it's perhaps because he does not have to pay the price for his decisions.

A report published by the Lancet Medical Journal on its Web site last Friday reveals that 100,000 people, nearly all of them Iraqi civilians, have been killed in Iraq since the U.S. invasion in March 2003. The numbers of wounded are likely to be far, far higher.

As for the U.S soldiers, the numbers only tell half the story. The Pentagon only counts the 1,500 dead and 7,500 plus injured in direct combat. There are tens of thousands more who have been disabled for life by injuries that are non-combat related. Since the ceremonial transfer of power on June 28, U.S. military casualties (dead and wounded) have risen to 747 per month — up from 415 during the 14-month period under the CPA.

The burden has grown heavier as the tours of over 20,000 troops have been extended in Iraq beyond their active duty contracts, amounting to a de facto back door draft. The harsh realities on the ground are taking their toll: 52 percent report low morale and one in six show signs of a mental health disorder.

The president's poor planning has been borne by the 51,000 U.S. soldiers and contractors who found themselves in a war zone without proper body armor. This month, soldiers from the 343rd Quartermaster Company are facing potential court martial for refusing orders to transport a fuel convoy because their vehicles were unsafe and they were not provided the standard armed escort for the mission. The army referred to the defiance as "a temporary breakdown in discipline," yet a growing number of soldiers, who have come home disillusioned and angry, are now breaking ranks to speak out against the president's Iraq policy.

The war that was supposed to pay for itself now rivals the average monthly cost of the Vietnam War at $5.1 billion per month. The astronomical price tags for Bush’s war and Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy have plunged the U.S. into record deficits that will top $422 billion this year. Looking ahead to the projected three-year occupation, the bill for each American taxpaying household will add up to approximately $3,500.

In December 2002, White House Economic Advisor Lawrence Lindsey was fired for predicting that an Iraq war would cost between $100 billion and $200 billion. It turns out that his estimate actually erred on the conservative side. The president, if re-elected, plans to ask Congress for another $70 billion, putting the cost of this war thus far at more than $200 billion.

George Bush's errors have been many and their consequences deadly. Yet if re-elected, there is little hope that he will choose differently or better. Why, he hasn't even learned to listen to his own advisors. In September, the president dismissed his own National Intelligence Council’s warning that the current path in Iraq is likely to lead to civil war as "just guessing."

George W. Bush is the man who won’t ask for directions. Sitting in the driver’s seat, his gaze is fixed on the horizon, ignoring danger signs along the road and refusing to yield. Every time his passengers suggest they are lost and need to change course he shoots them that famous Bush glare, shifts his puckered lips to the right and bears down on the gas.

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