The Bush-Is-An-Idiot Camp Grows

The other day I crossed paths with a conservative talk show host. We chatted about current events. He noted that he was quite pissed off at the neocons for suggesting that American blood should be spilled to benefit the Iraqis. Let the Iraqis take care of themselves, he huffed. I asked, "Are you in the Bush-is-an-idiot camp?"

This was a reference to a recent segment on Joe Scarborough's MSNBC show during which Scarborough, a former Republican congressman from Florida, posed the question, "Is our president an idiot?" After playing a montage of video clips showing Bush at his tongue-tied worst ("Fool me once, shame on you -- fool me -- you can't get fooled again"), Scarborough said that an former close aide to President Bush had recently told him that Bush is "intellectually shallow and one of the most incurious public figures this man has ever met." Scarborough claimed that Bush is "getting worse instead of better" and that when it comes to presidential stupidity Bush is "in a league by himself." He added, "I don't think he has the intellectual depth."

My conservative interlocutor fidgeted, as he considered how to respond. After a moment or so, he said softly, "Well, he can be moronic."

I have long thought it was not politically wise for Democrats to deride Bush as dumb. And I believed it was wrong to assume -- as did many Bush-bashers -- that W. was not intelligent. After all, he managed to become president -- which is not an easy task (even if Karl Rove is your master strategist). He also managed, against the odds, to change the tax code to benefit folks like him. How stupid is that? But watching Bush grapple with the mess in Iraq -- a problem entirely of his own making -- it's hard to sidestep the conclusion that his own, let's say, information-processing abilities are profoundly affecting national security, and not for the better.

I am haunted by an exchange that occurred at Bush's press conference last week. ABC News' Martha Raddatz asked Bush if it was time for "a new strategy in Iraq." That's a reasonable question. The recent surge of violence there -- about 10,000 civilian deaths over the course of three months -- should give anyone pause, especially the decider-in-chief who thought invading Iraq was a fine idea in the first place. Replying to Raddatz, Bush said, "The strategy is to help the Iraqi people achieve their objectives and their dreams, which is a democratic society. That's the strategy."

Forgive me, if you've heard or read me making this point previously, but that's not a strategy. That's a goal. A strategy is a game plan for achieving a goal.

Bush went on to note that he has changed tactics on the ground -- by moving troops from one area to another. This has led to less violence in one area but more in another. This was not responsive to Raddatz's query. Tactics are what you use to make a strategy happen. Bush didn't seem to know the difference between the two.

Raddatz pressed him and said that Bush had not answered her question about his strategy. "Sounded like the question to me," he said.

If the commander in chief cannot talk more articulately about his strategy for winning an elective war he initiated, the problem is serious. It's become a truism tossed about by partisan Democrats looking to score political points, but it actually is true: Bush has little to offer but stay-the-course-ism. And he shows no signs of considering other options. His plan once was rather simply stated: The United States would train Iraqi security forces and when the Iraqis can take over the United States would leave. But as sectarian violence spreads -- and the security forces become part of the conflict -- that basic plan becomes thinner by the day.

Let's compare Bush with Sen. Joseph Biden, the Delaware Democrat. A few days after Bush's press conference, Biden published an op-ed article in The Washington Post that reiterated a plan for Iraq that he had previously developed with Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. I am not endorsing the plan, but here's what was refreshing about it: It was a plan. It had five points. It was internally consistent. It was an effort to deal with the dilemmas at hand. The Biden-Gelb plan calls for a unified but decentralized Iraq with Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis essentially controlling their own regions. A central government would be in charge of the really important national responsibilities: protecting the country and divvying up the oil revenue. (The Sunnis, who generally live in areas not loaded with oil, would be guaranteed a share of the pot.) The plan has a reconstruction component, which includes a massive jobs program, and calls for withdrawing most U.S. troops by the end of 2007.

It may or may not be the right plan, but it's a plan. After reading the op-ed, I could not help but wonder, why can't Bush describe a plan of his own in such concrete terms?

Bush's partner in his plan-less Iraq project -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki -- doesn't inspire great confidence either, at least not when he's granting an interview to an American cable network through an interpreter. Speaking with CNN's Wolf Blitzer a few days ago , Maliki said, "The violence is not increasing ... We're not in a civil war. In Iraq, we'll never be in a civil war."

It's understandable that the leader of a nation near (or in) civil war would not want to acknowledge in public that his country is on the brink. But to say the violence is not increasing? Americans ought to hope Maliki is not imitating Bush's previous practice of insisting progress is under way whatever the reality may be.

But Bush is the problem -- at least, our problem -- not Maliki. I sense that more and more conservatives are unnerved by Bush's stewardship of the war they wanted. On a television show this past weekend, I asked conservative commentator Linda Chavez and the Weekly Standard's Matthew Continetti if the absence of any meaty Bush plan for Iraq discomforted them. "It does worry me, David," Chavez responded. "As a supporter of the war in Iraq, it does worry me. I think it worries Matthew, too. I mean, I think everybody recognizes we do not have enough troops. The question isn't pulling troops out. We need more troops, not fewer."

Continetti predicted that more Republicans in Congress might start calling for the same -- after the elections and if they retain control of the House. That would be a true profile in courage. Continetti was essentially accusing GOPers of playing political games at the expense of American and Iraqi lives.

In the meantime, the plan-free war continues, and the Bush-backers mainly duck that uncomfortable issue: whether this war is too much for the man who launched it. That does appear to be the big elephant in the room. And it seems that even conservatives and Republicans are finding it difficult to ignore its smell.

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