The Stranger

There’s another excerpt from Robert Draper’s Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush at Slate. The Creature reveals the secret of his success.

He had flung himself into his chair like a dirty sweatshirt and continued to pop pieces of cheese into his mouth. Stress was hammered into his face. The subject was himself—how his leadership skills had evolved over time, and how he had dealt with disappointment and defeat, going back to his loss to Senator John McCain in the New Hampshire primary of 2000 and now, once again, in 2006.

Bush, as always, bridled at the request to navel-gaze. “You’re the observer,” he said as he worked the cheese in his mouth. “I’m not. I really do not feel comfortable in the role of analyzing myself. I’ll try. But I don’t spend a lot of time. I will tell you, the primaries strip you down to your bare essence, and you get to determine whether or not you’re willing to fight through—to prevail. It’s a real test of will, I agree to that. I think the whole process was responsible for testing my will. No question getting defeated was a powerful moment.”

For some people, life is all about avoiding themselves. Everything they do — especially their relationships with other people — is driven by the desire to suppress and deny whatever psychological wounds and existential fear are coiled around the core of their being. And the greater that desire, the more aggressive and belligerent they are about avoiding themselves. Because vulnerability is terrifying, they must control and dominate. Everything becomes a competition they must win. As much as possible they surround themselves with people and objects that assuage the pain and keep it submerged beneath consciousness. When that isn’t possible, they are doubly aggressive and probably abusive toward anyone they consider a subordinate — a spouse or child, perhaps, or an employee. They are likely to anesthetize themselves with drinking or drugs or some other compulsive behavior. And they growl and snap like a wounded dog if you so much as suggest introspection or therapy.

Of course, the New Hampshire primary didn’t strip Bush down to his bare essence. However, I’m sure the loss pushed his vulnerability button and caused waves of pain and panic to reverberate throughout his many layers of psychic defenses. Then — again in wounded dog mode — he became dangerous. He made sure his opponent was crushed in the next primary.

This interview took place shortly after the 2006 midterms and the Iraq Study Group report. And you’ll remember what Bush did — he came up with the surge strategy, the purpose of which was to kneecap the ISG and congressional opposition to the war and allow him to stay in control. That’s his true Iraq goal — to be the one in control of the military and whatever bowl of mush he’s calling a “strategy” at the time. Nothing terrifies him more than not being in control.

His hot dog arrived. Bush ate rapidly, with a sort of voracious disinterest. He was a man who required comfort and routine. Food, for him, was fuel and familiarity. It was not a thing to reflect on.

“The job of the president,” he continued, through an ample wad of bread and sausage, “is to think strategically so that you can accomplish big objectives. As opposed to playing mini-ball. You can’t play mini-ball with the influence we have and expect there to be peace. You’ve gotta think, think BIG. The Iranian issue,” he said as bread crumbs tumbled out of his mouth and onto his chin, “is the strategic threat right now facing a generation of Americans, because Iran is promoting an extreme form of religion that is competing with another extreme form of religion. Iran’s a destabilizing force. And instability in that part of the world has deeply adverse consequences, like energy falling in the hands of extremist people that would use it to blackmail the West.

Notice he doesn’t reflect for a moment on the instability he caused by invading Iraq.

And to couple all of that with a nuclear weapon, then you’ve got a dangerous situation. … That’s what I mean by strategic thought. I don’t know how you learn that. I don’t think there’s a moment where that happened to me. I really don’t. I know you’re searching for it. I know it’s difficult. I do know—y’know, how do you decide, how do you learn to decide things? When you make up your mind, and you stick by it—I don’t know that there’s a moment, Robert. I really—You either know how to do it or you don’t.

See how the decision-making process is not about making considered judgments after weighing many factors. It’s not even about outcome. It’s about Bush. I’d call it a faux mystical process, and you have to be Bush to know how to do it. Some impulse floats to the surface of his internal La Brea Tarpit of unresolved issues and becomes a decision. Once he has made a decision it must not be unmade, or even second-guessed, because to do so would be an admission of inadequacy. And inadequacy is vulnerability. His entire psyche rebels at allowing vulnerability.

I think part of this is it: I ran for reasons. Principled reasons. There were principles by which I will stand on. And when I leave this office I’ll stand on them. And therefore you can’t get driven by polls. Polls aren’t driven by principles. They’re driven by the moment. By the nanosecond.”

If anyone can infer what those “principles” are, do speak up.

Bush added, “I’m also sustained by the discipline of the faithful experience. I don’t think I’d be sitting here if not for the discipline. I was undisciplined at times. Never over the edge, but undisciplined. I wouldn’t be president if I kept drinking. You get sloppy, can’t make decisions, it clouds your reason, absolutely.”

Laughing, he said, “I remember eating chocolate in the evenings after I quit drinking, because my body was saying, ‘Where’s that sugar, man?’ And so—I can still, interestingly enough, I still remember the feeling of a hangover, even though I haven’t had a drink in twenty years.”

It’s all about will. Because he had the will to stop drinking and replace alcohol with other compulsions, he is a good president. He is a good president because he wills himself to be a good president.

“I tell people—I read an interesting book by [Richard] Carwardine—I’m on my eighty-seventh book this year.” With rueful admiration, he added, “Rove’s on, like, a hundred two. Anyway, this book [Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power] talks about the constituency that Lincoln had. And one was religious people who were going through this Second Awakening, that loved Lincoln’s position that all men are created equal: there is a God, and all men are created equal by that God, and so it’s a moral position. And the military loved Lincoln to the point where,” and Bush offered up a sly politician’s grin, “Lincoln made sure that they were able to get to the polls in 1864.

“There’s a parallel here. And that’s that our military understands this. And a key constituency in the global war is for our military to be appreciated and respected, starting with the commander in chief. And they look at me—they want to know whether I’ve got the resolution necessary to see this through. And I do. I believe—I know we’ll succeed. And I know it’s necessary to succeed. And anyway. There wasn’t a moment when I knew you were supposed to do that,” he said, returning of his own volition to that irritating first question about the evolution of his leadership abilities. “I can’t tell you the moment. I can tell you—that, uh … that, uh …”

For the first and only time in that seventy-minute monologue-dominated conversation, Bush fell silent for several seconds. “Yeah, well,” he finally said. “When you’re responsible for putting a kid in harm’s way, you better understand that if that kid thinks you’re making a decision based on polls—or something other than what you think is right, or wrong, based upon principles—then you’re letting that kid down. And you’re creating conditions for doubt. And you can’t give a kid a gun and have him doubt whether or not the president thinks it’s right, and have him doubt whether or not he’s gonna be suppportive in all ways. And you can’t learn that until you’re the guy sitting behind the desk.”

And you’re creating conditions for doubt. Doubt is vulnerability. Doubt is terrifying.

His next visitor, Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, would not be terribly receptive to talk of “some progress” in that country. Hashemi’s brother and sister had been assassinated in Baghdad earlier in 2006. A few weeks ago, another one of his brothers had been gunned down as well.

And Bush could not show doubt to this man, either. I know we’ll succeed—he had to show that confidence, which would not be difficult, because he did know: America would succeed in Iraq because it had to succeed.

America would succeed in Iraq because Bush had to succeed. To fail in Iraq would be an unthinkable assault on the miles-deep edifice of psychological armor that is George Bush.

Earlier this week another part of Draper’s book appeared in news stories — Edmund Andrews writes in today’s New York Times about the disastrous decision to dismantle the Iraqi army —

In an interview with Robert Draper, author of the new book, “Dead Certain,” Mr. Bush sounded as if he had been taken aback by the decision, or at least by the need to abandon the original plan to keep the army together.

“The policy had been to keep the army intact; didn’t happen,” Mr. Bush told the interviewer. When Mr. Draper asked the president how he had reacted when he learned that the policy was being reversed, Mr. Bush replied, “Yeah, I can’t remember, I’m sure I said, “This is the policy, what happened?’ ”


A previously undisclosed exchange of letters shows that President Bush was told in advance by his top Iraq envoy in May 2003 of a plan to “dissolve Saddam’s military and intelligence structures,” a plan that the envoy, L. Paul Bremer, said referred to dismantling the Iraqi Army.

Mr. Bremer provided the letters to The New York Times on Monday after reading that Mr. Bush was quoted in a new book as saying that American policy had been “to keep the army intact” but that it “didn’t happen.”

Bremer’s documentation reveals that Bush, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith, Lt. Gen. David D. McKiernan (then head of the American-led coalition forces in Iraq) and the Joint Chiefs of Staff received a draft of the order before it was issued. Bremer says he talked it over with Rumsfeld several times.

Andrews’s article also reveals — once again — that there are no clear lines of communication or decision making within the Bush Administration. Everyone is starring in his or her own drama; interaction with Reality World seems to happen by default.

Christy’s commentary
on this bit of news takes us back to the Glenn Greenwald post I linked to yesterday.

As Altemeyer acknowledges, everyone of every type is prone to contradictory and self-interested reasoning. But, as his research demonstrates, those whose primary allegiance is to authority figures and whose identity is centrally grounded in their authority-based political movement have, as their overarching goal, a defense of their movement and attacks on the enemy. Holding blatantly contradictory thoughts at the same time, like the ones expressed here by Sowell, become normalized — mere tools for achieving the only goal that matters.

I’m sure many of them are not consciously aware of their own contradictions. They’ve poured their lives into building and defending the box they live in, and now the defense is just reflex. It feels right to them, of course, so it must be right. They can’t see how nonsensical they are. By the same token, it’s entirely possible George Bush cannot — or will not — remember being briefed on the dismantling of the Iraqi Army. By now his conscious recollections of what happened have been reworked into his ego defenses. In his mind, he is not to blame. But neither can he bring himself to go back to that moment and look at it closely. So he dissembles lamely — “I can’t remember.” He’s dissembling to himself as much as to the interviewer. If this had been a conscious lie he would have had a better story.

Update: Actual Wall Street Journal headline from today — “The Tide Is Turning in Iraq.” The tide has been turning pretty steadily since 2003, hasn’t it?

Share Button