January 07, 2009
12 More Days. Obama's Swearing-In Ceremony Can't Happen Soon Enough
If you can stand to relive it, Vanity Fair has put together a comprehensive oral history of the eight years of HELL known as The Bush Presidency. Most of this stuff you probably already know but being able to read it all in one fell swoop makes the last eight years seem like a particularly intense (and improbable) Hollywood crime caper -- one in which the criminals get off scot-free. Some "highlights":
Lawrence Wilkerson, top aide and later chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell: We had this confluence of characters—and I use that term very carefully—that included people like Powell, Dick Cheney, Condi Rice, and so forth, which allowed one perception to be “the dream team.” It allowed everybody to believe that this Sarah Palin–like president—because, let’s face it, that’s what he was—was going to be protected by this national-security elite, tested in the cauldrons of fire. What in effect happened was that a very astute, probably the most astute, bureaucratic entrepreneur I’ve ever run into in my life became the vice president of the United States.I beg to differ with Mr. Dowd. The headline ultimately will be EPIC FAIL.
He became vice president well before George Bush picked him. And he began to manipulate things from that point on, knowing that he was going to be able to convince this guy to pick him, knowing that he was then going to be able to wade into the vacuums that existed around George Bush—personality vacuum, character vacuum, details vacuum, experience vacuum.
Richard Clarke, chief White House counterterrorism adviser: We had a couple of meetings with the president, and there were detailed discussions and briefings on cyber-security and often terrorism, and on a classified program. With the cyber-security meeting, he seemed—I was disturbed because he seemed to be trying to impress us, the people who were briefing him. It was as though he wanted these experts, these White House staff guys who had been around for a long time before he got there—didn’t want them buying the rumor that he wasn’t too bright. He was trying—sort of overly trying—to show that he could ask good questions, and kind of yukking it up with Cheney.
The contrast with having briefed his father and Clinton and Gore was so marked. And to be told, frankly, early in the administration, by Condi Rice and [her deputy] Steve Hadley, you know, Don’t give the president a lot of long memos, he’s not a big reader—well, shit. I mean, the president of the United States is not a big reader?
David Kuo, deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives: I went to a communications meeting the day after Jeffords switched. I remember feeling like I was looking at people who had won a reality-game ticket to head up the White House. There was this remarkable combination of hubris, excitement, and staggering ignorance.
Someone made the suggestion that perhaps the president should call the new majority leader. And it’s like, Well, I’m not sure that’s really necessary. Margaret Tutwiler [assistant to the president and special adviser for communications] was there, and I remember her sitting at the head of the table, her eyes just sort of wide, and she sort of lost it. She’s like, Are you fricking kidding me? She goes, The president of the United States calls the new majority leader. The president of the United States calls the new minority leader, right? The president does these things because, you know, these things have to be done.
And, you know, people around the table—Karl [Rove], Karen [Hughes]—all these people were like, Oh, well, do we have to? It was like an absolutely serious debate.
Richard Clarke: That night, on 9/11, Rumsfeld came over and the others, and the president finally got back, and we had a meeting. And Rumsfeld said, You know, we’ve got to do Iraq, and everyone looked at him—at least I looked at him and Powell looked at him—like, What the hell are you talking about? And he said—I’ll never forget this—There just aren’t enough targets in Afghanistan. We need to bomb something else to prove that we’re, you know, big and strong and not going to be pushed around by these kind of attacks.
And I made the point certainly that night, and I think Powell acknowledged it, that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. That didn’t seem to faze Rumsfeld in the least.
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise. It really didn’t, because from the first weeks of the administration they were talking about Iraq. I just found it a little disgusting that they were talking about it while the bodies were still burning in the Pentagon and at the World Trade Center.
Matthew Dowd, Bush’s pollster and chief strategist for the 2004 presidential campaign: He was given a great, great window of opportunity where everybody wanted to be called to some shared sense of purpose and sacrifice and all that, and Bush never did it. And not for lack of people suggesting various things from bonds to, you know, some sort of national service. Bush decided to say that the best thing is: Everybody go about their life, and I’ll handle it.
There’s this West Texas thing in him, which is the—you know: Bad people are comin’ to town. Everybody go back to their house. I’ll take the burden on. Which, you know, may work in a Western town, but doesn’t work for a country that wants to be part of that conversation.
Mary Matalin, assistant to the president and counselor to the vice president: There was so much to do that was more important than—I mean, looking back, the national-unity thing is important, but it was way more important to re-structure the intelligence communities, way more important to harden targets. Know what I mean? It was all hands on deck. We were working on other shit. Everyone’s pulverized and beat, and there’s 24 hours in a day, so woulda, coulda, shoulda, but, you know, there was no office to do “feel-good” stuff.
John Bellinger III, legal adviser to the National Security Council, and later to the secretary of state: A small group of administration lawyers drafted the president’s military order establishing the military commissions, but without the knowledge of the rest of the government, including the national-security adviser, me, the secretary of state, or even the C.I.A. director. And even though many of the substantive problems with the military commissions as created by the original order have been resolved by Congress in response to the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hamdan case, we have been suffering from this original process failure ever since.
Bob Graham, Democratic senator from Florida and chairman of the Senate intelligence committee: In February of ‘02, I had a visit at Central Command, in Tampa, and the purpose was to get a briefing on the status of the war in Afghanistan. At the end of the briefing, the commanding officer, Tommy Franks, asked me to go into his office for a private meeting, and he told me that we were no longer fighting a war in Afghanistan and, among other things, that some of the key personnel, particularly some special-operations units and some equipment, specifically the Predator unmanned drone, were being withdrawn in order to get ready for a war in Iraq.
That was my first indication that war in Iraq was as serious a possibility as it was, and that it was in competition with Afghanistan for matériel. We didn’t have the resources to do both successfully and simultaneously.
Rick Piltz, senior associate, U.S. Climate Change Science Program: At the beginning of the Bush administration, Ari Patrinos, a very senior science official who had run the Department of Energy’s climate-change research program for many years, and a half-dozen high-ranking federal science officials were brought together and told to explain the science and help develop policy options for a proactive climate-change policy for the administration. They moved into an office downtown, and they worked very hard and were briefing at the Cabinet level, in the White House. Cheney was there, Colin Powell was there, Commerce Secretary [Don] Evans was there. They were making the case on climate change.
And one day they were told: Take it down, pack it up, go back to your offices—we don’t need you anymore.
Paul Pillar, national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia at the C.I.A.: The makers of the war had no appetite for and did not request any such assessments [about the aftermath of war]. Anybody who wanted an intelligence-community assessment on any of this stuff would’ve come through me, and I got no requests at all.
As to why this was the case, I would give two general answers. Number one was just extreme hubris and self-confidence. If you truly believe in the power of free economics and free politics, and their attractiveness to all populations of the world, and their ability to sweep away all manner of ills, then you tend not to worry about these things so much.
The other major reason is that, given the difficulty of mustering public support for something as extreme as an offensive war, any serious discussion inside the government about the messy consequences, the things that could go wrong, would complicate even further the job of selling the war.
Jay Garner, retired army general and first overseer of the U.S. administration and reconstruction of Iraq: When Shinseki said, Hey, it’s going to take 300,000 or 400,000 soldiers, they crucified him. They called me up the day after that, Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld. They called me the next day and they said, Did you see what Shinseki said? And I said yes. And they said, Well, that can’t be possible. And I said, Well, let me give you the only piece of empirical data I have. In 1991, I owned 5 percent of the real estate in Iraq, and I had 22,000 trigger pullers. And on any day I never had enough. So you can take 5 percent—you can take 22,000 and multiply that by 20. Hey, here’s probably the ballpark, and I didn’t have Baghdad. And they said, Thank you very much. So I got up and left.
Kenneth Adelman, a member of Donald Rumsfeld’s advisory Defense Policy Board: I said to Rumsfeld, Well, the way you handled Abu Ghraib I thought was abysmal. He says, What do you mean? I say, It broke in January of—what was that, ‘04? Yeah, ‘04. And you didn’t do jack shit till it was revealed in the spring. He says, That’s totally unfair. I didn’t have the information. I said, What information did you have? You had the information that we had done these—and there were photos. You knew about the photos, didn’t you? He says, I didn’t see the photos. I couldn’t get those photos. A lot of stuff happens around here. I don’t follow every story. I say, Excuse me, but I thought in one of the testimonies you said you told the president about Abu Ghraib in January. And if it was big enough to tell the president, wasn’t it big enough to do something about? He says, Well, I couldn’t get the photos. I say, You’re secretary of defense. Somebody in the building who works for you has photos, and for five months you can’t get photos—hello?
Joschka Fischer, German foreign minister and vice-chancellor: The big problem was that the administration was in a permanent state of denial—that they are doing the job for Tehran. That’s another irony, a very tragic one. Because if you look to the basic parameters of Iran’s capability or strategic strength, this is not a superpower—they’re far from a superpower. They never could have achieved such a level of dominance and influence if they would have had to rely only on their own resources and skills. America pushed Iran in that way.
I was invited to a conference in Saudi Arabia on Iraq, and a Saudi said to me, Look, Mr. Fischer, when President Bush wants to visit Baghdad, it’s a state secret, and he has to enter the country in the middle of the night and through the back door. When President Ahmadinejad wants to visit Baghdad, it’s announced two weeks beforehand or three weeks. He arrives in the brightest sunshine and travels in an open car through a cheering crowd to downtown Baghdad. Now, tell me, Mr. Fischer, who is running the country?
Lee Hamilton, former Indiana congressman and vice-chair of the 9/11 commission: When you have a disaster strike, you have to have someone in charge. They didn’t have anybody in charge in New York during 9/11. They didn’t have anybody in charge in Katrina. And you get a mess.
Politically it’s a very difficult thing. You’ve got the counties, the cities, and the federal government and all the rest to work it out. Nobody wants to give up authority prior to the fact. The governor of Louisiana wants to be in charge. The governor of Mississippi wants to be in charge. The mayor of New Orleans wants to be in charge. You’ve got 50 other cities that want to be in charge. I have come to the view in these massive disasters—like Katrina or New York on 9/11—that the federal government has to be in charge because they’re the only one that has the resources to deal with the problem.
But presidents don’t like to stomp on governors and override them. When these kinds of problems are not resolved, people die.
Alan K. Simpson, former senator from Wyoming and a member of the Iraq Study Group: It was an early-morning session, seven a.m., I think, breakfast, the day we trotted it out. And Jim and Lee said, Mr. President, we will—and Dick was there, Cheney was there—just go around the room, if you would, and all of us share with you a quick thought? And the president said fine. I thought at first the president seemed a little—I don’t know, just maybe impatient, like, What now?
He went around the room. Everybody stated their case. It just took a couple minutes. I know what I said. I said, Mr. President, we’re not here to present this to vex or embarrass you in any way. That’s not the purpose of this. We’re in a tough, tough situation, and we think these recommendations can help the country out. We’ve agreed on every word here, and I hope you’ll give it your full attention. He said, Oh, I will. And I turned to Dick, and I said, Dick, old friend, I hope you’ll gnaw on this, too. This is very important that you hear this and review it. And he said, I will, I will, and thanks.
Then the president gave an address not too far after that. And we were called by [National-Security Adviser Stephen] Hadley on a conference call. He said, Thank you for the work. The president’s going to mention your report, and it’ll be—there will be parts of it that he will embrace, in fact, and if he doesn’t happen to speak on certain issues, you know that they’ll be in full consideration in the weeks to come, or something like that. And we all listened with a wry smile.
We figured that maybe 5 of the 79 recommendations would ever be considered, and I think we were pretty right.
Anthony Cordesman, national-security analyst and former official at the Defense and State Departments: We can all argue over the semantics of the word “surge,” and it is fair to say that some goals were not met. We didn’t come close to providing additional civilian-aid workers that were called for in the original plan. And often it took much longer to achieve the effects than people had planned. But the fact was that this was a broad political, military, and economic strategy, which was executed on many different levels. And credit has to go to General Petraeus, General Odierno, and Ambassador Crocker for taking what often were ideas, very loosely defined, and policies which were very broadly stated, and transforming them into a remarkably effective real-world effort.
It’s important to note that we made even more mistakes in Afghanistan than we did in Iraq. We were far slower to react, but in both cases we were unprepared for stability operations; we had totally unrealistic goals for nation building; at a political level we were in a state of denial about the seriousness of popular anger and resistance, about the rise of the insurgency, about the need for host-country support and forces; and we had a singularly unfortunate combination of a secretary of defense and a vice president who tried to win through ideology rather than realism and a secretary of state who essentially stood aside from many of the issues involved. And in fairness, rather than blame subordinates, you had a president who basically took until late 2006 to understand how much trouble he was in in Iraq and seems to have taken till late 2008 to understand how much trouble he was in in Afghanistan.
Ari Fleischer, Bush’s first White House press secretary: [The housing bubble] was not on my radar screen. Now, after everything broke with Fannie and Freddie, I guess the White House released some document that, if I remember it, said the president 17 times cited Fannie and Freddie problems going back to the initial budget that we submitted in 2001. So the wonks were onto it, but in the post-9/11 world and then the Iraq-war world, all the visible focus, all the news, was on other issues. I think it just got drowned out and it didn’t get met with any sense of urgency from people in both parties.
Jake Boritt, filmmaker and Gettysburg tour guide: We’re standing in front of the Virginia monument, which is more or less where Robert E. Lee ordered Pickett’s Charge from. When Lee invaded the North, his hope was that he could get far enough in, win a great battle, demoralize the Northern will to fight, and then there would be pressure on Lincoln to stop the war. Everybody in the North was terrified. Lincoln was not. He was looking at it as an opportunity, because finally Lee was going to be off his home turf in Virginia. Lincoln was actually excited at the possibility that the Confederate Army was invading Pennsylvania. And Bush said, Well, did the president say, “Bring it on”?
David Kuo, deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives: It’s kind of like the Tower of Babel. At a certain point in time, God smites hubris. You knew that right around the time people started saying there’s going to be a permanent Republican majority—that God kinda goes, No, I really don’t think so.
Matthew Dowd, Bush’s pollster and chief strategist for the 2004 presidential campaign: You know, the headline in his presidency will be missed opportunity. That is the headline, ultimately. It’s missed opportunity, missed opportunity.