THERE IS a famous “Twilight Zone” episode about a little boy in a small town who has fantastical powers. Through the misuse of his powers, the little boy has ruined the lives of everybody in the town â€” for instance, teleporting them into a cornfield, or summoning a snowstorm that destroys their crops. Because anyone who thinks an unhappy thought will be banished, the adults around him can do nothing but cheerfully praise his decisions while they try to nudge him in a less destructive direction.
This episode kept popping into my head when I was reading about President Bush and the Baker-Hamilton commission. Bush is the president of the United States, which therefore gives him enormous power, but he is treated by everybody around him as if he were a child.
I’ve been thinking of that same episode. I think a lot of people are thinking about that same episode.
Consider a story in the latest Time magazine, recounting the efforts â€” before the commission was approved by Congress â€” of three supporters to enlist Condoleezza Rice to win the administration’s approval for the panel. Here is how Time reports it:
“As the trio departed, a Rice aide asked one of her suitors not to inform anyone at the Pentagon that chairmen had been chosen and the study group was moving forward. If Rumsfeld was alerted to the study group’s potential impact, the aide said, he would quickly tell Cheney, who could, with a few words, scuttle the whole thing. Rice got through to Bush the next day, arguing that the thing was going to happen anyway, so he might as well get on board. To his credit, the President agreed.”
The article treats this exchange in a matter-of-fact way, but, what it suggests is completely horrifying. Rice apparently believed that Bush would simply follow the advice of whoever he spoke with. Therefore the one factor determining whether Bush would support the commission was whether Cheney or Rice managed to get to him first.
The GOP still has plenty of apparatchiks to appear on the cable television politics talk shows and explain to us solemnly that this president is thinking this or considering that or wants some other thing, blah blah blah, and you know it’s a farce, and I assume they know it’s a farce, yet the GOP propaganda machine continues to play pretend that this president is actually doing the job of president and is not, in effect, spending his days in search of a missing quart of strawberries.
And now that the Baker-Hamilton report is out, the commissioners are carefully patronizing the commander in chief. As this newspaper reported, “Members of the commission said they were pleased that Bush gave them as much attention as he did, a full hour’s worth. ‘He could have scheduled us for 20 minutes plus 10 minutes for the cameras,’ said former Atty. Gen. Edwin M. Meese III.” Wow, a commission devoted hundreds or thousands of man-hours to addressing the central conundrum of U.S. foreign policy, and the president gave them a whole hour of his time!
Buried near the bottom of Dana Milbank’s account of the meeting —
Leon Panetta counseled Bush to “look at the realities of what’s taking place.” Eagleburger said after the event that when the group met with Bush, “I don’t recall, seriously, that he asked any questions.”
For a moment let’s skip over to a Eleanor Clift web commentary at Newsweek. She writes (emphasis added),
Itâ€™s a statement of the obvious, but when you have a collection of Washington wise men, plus retired Supreme Court justice Sandra Day Oâ€™Connor (perhaps doing penance for her vote that put Bush in the White House during the disputed 2000 race), itâ€™s the equivalent of last rites for Bushâ€™s Iraq policy, along with his presidency. Itâ€™s not a plan for victory because that doesnâ€™t exist except in Bushâ€™s fantasy. The recommendations Baker and company offerâ€”of more international engagement and shifting U.S. troops to a backup role to Iraqi forcesâ€”may help the administration manage and mask defeat. Even so, that may be hard for Bush to accept. His body language when receiving the report, while polite, was dismissive, thanking the eminences assembled for breakfast at the White House for dropping off a copy.
This president has lost all capacity to lead. Eleven American servicemen died in Iraq on the day Bush was presented the report, which calls the situation there â€œgrave and deteriorating.â€ Events on the ground threaten to overtake even this grim assessment. And weâ€™re left to analyze Bushâ€™s tender ego and whether he can reverse course on the folly that is killing and maiming countless Iraqis along with U.S. troops.
My only quibble with Clift is that when she says “This president has lost all capacity to lead,” she implies that he had a capacity to lead at some point in the past.
Bush said he talked about “the need for a new way forward in Iraq” in his morning session with leaders from both parties and chambers of Congress, “and we talked about the need to work together on this important subject.”
But some Democrats came away unconvinced that major changes were coming.
“I just didn’t feel there today, the president in his words or his demeanor, that he is going to do anything right away to change things drastically,” Senate Majority Leader-elect Harry Reid, D-Nev., said following the Oval Office meeting. “He is tepid in what he talks about doing. Someone has to get the message to this man that there have to be significant changes.”
Instead, Bush began his talk by comparing himself to President Harry S Truman, who launched the Truman Doctrine to fight communism, got bogged down in the Korean War and left office unpopular.
Bush said that “in years to come they realized he was right and then his doctrine became the standard for America,” recalled Senate Majority Whip-elect Richard Durbin, D-Ill. “He’s trying to position himself in history and to justify those who continue to stand by him, saying sometimes if you’re right you’re unpopular, and be prepared for criticism.”
Durbin said he challenged Bush’s analogy, reminding him that Truman had the NATO alliance behind him and negotiated with his enemies at the United Nations. Durbin said that’s what the Iraq Study Group is recommending that Bush do now – work more with allies and negotiate with adversaries on Iraq.
Bush, Durbin said, “reacted very strongly. He got very animated in his response” and emphasized that he is “the commander in chief.”
Let’s see — Bush is not interested enough in the ISG report to ask questions, but don’t you dare tell him he’s not Harry Truman or he goes postal. What does that tell us about this president’s priorities?
Most analysis of the ISG report that I’ve seen says pretty plainly that it gives the President about as much butt covering — a way to exit Iraq without looking like a flipflopper — as he is likely to get. In fact, it’s obvious that the report was crafted more as a political gift to Bush than an actual Best Possible Plan for getting out of Iraq (clearly, it isn’t). I can’t think of any president in American history who has been given such a gift when he’s been in trouble.
As Jonathan Chait explains,
In return for these considerations, the commission generously avoided revisiting the whole question of who got us into this fiasco and how. As the Washington Post put it, “The panel appeared to steer away from language that might inflame the Bush administration.” Of course, “inflame” is a word typically associated with street mobs or other irrational actors. The fact that the president can be “inflamed” is no longer considered surprising enough to merit comment.
If Bush had more smarts than he has narcissism he’d find a way to embrace the ISG report and work with what supporters in Congress he still has. Instead, it’s obvious he’s going to blow it off and continue to do whatever it is he’s doing.
A few days before the midterm elections I predicted that Bush would ignore the ISG report recommendations, whatever they were. I also predicted that Congress and the rest of the nation, including most Republicans, would not be willing to sit on their hands for two years while Bush continues his disastrous “course” in Iraq. Sure enough, John Broder and Robin Toner report in today’s New York Times that the Baker report has revealed a rift in the GOP over Iraq. I expect that, once the new Congress goes to work in January, more and more Republicans are going to be moving away from Bush and toward a plan for withdrawal.
In fact, I won’t be surprised if there’s a bipartisan congressional majority agreement on a withdrawal plan before May 1 (Mission Accomplished Day).
The federal government is facing a constitutional crisis. The original idea behind the separation of powers is that Congress sets war (and other) policy and the President executes it. The Founders worked out a plan for governance that was supposed to prevent any one individual from wielding the power that Bush has assumed. Now it’s up to Congress to take back the powers it rightly has.
And if he resists — impeach the bastard. And his veep, too.