Yesterday over at Daily Kos, our friend and frequent commenter emptypockets had a powerful diary chronicling George W. Bush's Thursday. As Iraq teetered on the verge of all-out sectarian/civil war, and the families of seven U.S. soldiers were notified that their sons made the supreme sacrifice for their country, our Commander in Chief couldn't didn't even attempt to exercise exemplary supreme command. While Iraq's religious leaders tried to keep their followers from committing violence against members of other sects, tribes or ethnic groups, Bush attended political fundraising events.
One might think it wasn't supposed to have turned out this way. Back in 2002, while the neocons ramped up the Iraq war propaganda, the White House made it known that Bush was supposedly reading Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership in Wartime by neocon scholar Eliot Cohen. Most of the neocons dilettantes in empirical scholarship, but Cohen is generally considered a serious scholar. In his book, he investigated the wartime leadership of four civilian politicians: Abraham Lincoln, French Premiere George Clemenceau, Winston Churchill and David Ben Gurian. In addition to their propensity for dialouge with military leaders instead of dictating orders, Cohen identified four common traits:
A tremendous amount of common sense. Secondly, they're willing to ask questions about absolutely everything. And they understood that there could be very fine grain matters of detail which, in fact, would be of much larger importance. And finally, they were all great communicators. They knew how to talk to their people, to their parliaments, and of course to their military.
Cohen also believed that these four leaders encouraged candor.
There's one story, which I talk about in the book, where the head of the royal air force found himself at one point yelling at Churchill. Then he suddenly realized what he was doing, and he stopped and apologized. And Churchill glared at him, and said, "in war, you don't have to be nice, you just have to be right."
One could hope that Bush read Supreme Command and learned from it, because it is obvious he did not enter office possessing these skills and habits of thinking and interaction.
Of course, not every nation enters a war with a leader of the caliber of Lincoln or Ben Gurian. In those cases where a leader isn't exemplary,
...the basic ideas still apply, because what you're asking of a political leader is to be serious about war, to be... to take responsibility for all of it, and to apply themselves. As I tried to point out earlier on, the thing that's really so impressive about an Abraham Lincoln, for example, is the enormous amount of common sense. Abraham Lincoln had no background in military affairs. He served for about a month in an Indian campaign, in which he didn't even hear a shot fired in anger. But what he was great at was just asking the very basic questions. "What are we trying to do?" "How are we going to do it?" And I think it's that kind of relentless common sense that we can look for even in an average political leader today...it seems to me the nature of war itself requires that a political leader, if they're going to do even an adequate job, has to be on top of it. And they have to apply themselves. And they have to treat what is, after all, the most serious thing a state can do in a serious way.
As emptypockets showed, Bush certainly isn't treating the situation in Iraq with the seriousness it requires. Even in the “most serious thing a state can do,” the Bush administration is more interested in posturing and marketing than in substance. Thus, instead of learning from and exemplifying the lessons of Cohen's book, it's obvious Cohen's book was simply a prop employed to present Bush as a serious leader. All that mattered was to send the message that the generals and State Department experts would be pushed aside, and the chickenhawks in the administration would show the "playground bullies who's the boss." (“Take THAT, Eric Shinseki, with your loser predictions that it would take over half a million troops to occupy Iraq!”) Unlike Cohen's somewhat “ideal type” wartime leaders, the Bush aparatchiki resorted to their dominant modes of engaging the world: Bureaucratic warfare for the winning but not as measured by any material results on outcomes (just financial inputs), or the graduate-level colloquium, where rhetoric and sophistry can often prevail over pragmatic truth and results measured by empirical results.
As of last July, Cohen hadn't given up his belief that a properly executed war in Iraq could still transform the Middle East. But he was finally realizing, as his own son prepared to ship out to Iraq as a newly commissioned Second Lieutenant, that he had gravely misjudged the capacity and inclination of the Bush administration to properly plan and prosecute the war and occupation:
[A] pundit should not recommend a policy without adequate regard for the ability of those in charge to execute it, and here I stumbled. I could not imagine, for example, that the civilian and military high command would treat "Phase IV" -- the post-combat period that has killed far more Americans than the "real" war -- as of secondary importance to the planning of Gen. Tommy Franks's blitzkrieg. I never dreamed that Ambassador Paul Bremer and Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the two top civilian and military leaders early in the occupation of Iraq -- brave, honorable and committed though they were -- would be so unsuited for their tasks, and that they would serve their full length of duty nonetheless. I did not expect that we would begin the occupation with cockamamie schemes of creating an immobile Iraqi army to defend the country's borders rather than maintain internal order, or that the under-planned, under-prepared and in some respects mis-manned Coalition Provisional Authority would seek to rebuild Iraq with big construction contracts awarded under federal acquisition regulations, rather than with small grants aimed at getting angry, bewildered young Iraqi men off the streets and into jobs.
I did not know, but I might have guessed...
There is a lot of talk these days about shaky public support for the war. That is not really the issue. Nor should cheerleading, as opposed to truth-telling, be our leaders' chief concern. If we fail in Iraq -- and I don't think we will -- it won't be because the American people lack heart, but because leaders and institutions have failed. Rather than fretting about support at home, let them show themselves dedicated to waging and winning a strange kind of war and describing it as it is, candidly and in detail. Then the American people will give them all the support they need. The scholar in me is not surprised when our leaders blunder, although the pundit in me is dismayed when they do. What the father in me expects from our leaders is, simply, the truth -- an end to happy talk and denials of error, and a seriousness equal to that of the men and women our country sends into the fight.
I can only speculate on what Eliot Cohen thinks about George W. Bush packing his day full of political fundraising events while Iraq possibly plunges into sectarian war. But I cannot be convinced that George W. Bush is leading our country with a “seriousness equal to that of the men and women our country sends into the fight.”