Sunday, October 22, 2006

From Baghdad to Washington: How the war came to the White House

The President is bunkered in the Oval Office trying to plan his way out of a bloody mess of his own making. A mess, says Rupert Cornwell, that has its origins in his complicated relationship with his father

By Rupert Cornwell
The Independent

"As I write, the President is closeted in the Oval Office with General John Abizaid, his top commander for the Middle East, trying to sort out the appalling mess. More US troops or fewer, a phased withdrawal, the splitting of the country into some form of confederation (partition lite), or even talks with Syria and the arch-enemy Iran (the one indisputable beneficiary, along with radical Islam, of the mess)? Who knows? Maybe none of the above. As everyone but the White House acknowledges, there are no good options; there are only less bad options.

My point, however, is that without the complex feelings of Bush junior towards Bush senior, the mess might not have happened at all. Normally I am not one to seek an explanation of contemporary political riddles in the teachings of Sigmund Freud. But the Bush case is an exception.

In 1991, having driven Saddam from Kuwait, Bush senior could have conquered Baghdad in days. But he didn't, as he wrote in A World Transformed, co-authored by his former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, because he knew invasion could lead to chaos and sectarian violence, leaving Americans as the unpopular occupiers of an Arab country, with no available exit strategy: "Had we gone the invasion route, the United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land." Junior either didn't read those words (published in 1998, five years before his war of choice), or he wilfully ignored them.

That his father opposed the 2003 invasion is surely beyond doubt. For one thing, he hasn't, to the best of my knowledge, come out in support of it - and what father wouldn't speak up for his son if he possibly could? Then there is the glancing reference in Woodward's latest best-seller, State of Denial, to former First Lady Barbara Bush confessing that her husband was "losing sleep over it" and "up at night worried". Mr Scowcroft is said by Woodward to have been distressed that "41", his old friend and boss, was "in agony, anguished and tormented" over the war.

But none of this seems to have had much impact on the son, locked in his Oedipal struggle with the father whose achievements for so long eclipsed his own. Mr Scowcroft again, in Woodward's account, has an answer. "In his younger years, Scowcroft thought, W couldn't decide whether to rebel against his father or try to beat him at his own game. Now he had tried at the game and it was a disaster. Scowcroft was sure that '41' would never have behaved in this way - 'not in a million years'."

The same may explain the son's astounding refusal to change his Defense Secretary, despite the war going from bad to worse. Of course, to sack Donald Rumsfeld would be taken as admission that the war, or certainly the handling of its aftermath, had been a mistake. But there may be a deeper reason. Bush senior detested Mr Rumsfeld, and thought little of his abilities. Is the son's faith in his Defense Secretary another way of getting back at the father?

But now the long-silent "41" may be getting a form of revenge."

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