All Writings
May 16, 2004

Crisis Of Leadership

Although presidential historians may disagree about whether there is a correlation between presidential greatness and the use of force, many of President Bush's advisors believe that, despite the setbacks in Iraq, the war there will still be a major advantage in his re-election campaign. It is clear that Mr. Bush, who relishes being called the War President, has used, and continues to use the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to gain popularity and burnish his historical reputation. The question is: has Mr. Bush used the presidential "bully pulpit" to lead the nation to war because he really believed that the invasion of Iraq was undisputedly linked to the war on terrorism and also necessary to eliminate weapons of mass destruction allegedly stockpiled there, or has he deliberately misled the public to serve his own political and personal agenda? From everything known so far, he has failed both to justify the war and to meet the test of leadership, as measured by four cardinal principles: a real vision, a rallying cause, sound judgment, and credibility.

The Middle East is not an homogenous world: it is characterized by cultural, religious, tribal, and factional differences. The different needs, hopes, and aspirations of the people living in the region present a most complex set of issues, whose resolution has defied time, logic, and circumstances. President Bush's vision of a free and democratic Iraq which, he stated, if realized would have a domino effect on the entire Middle East, was not only unrealistic, it was a beautiful cloak to cover the administration's designs to overthrow Saddam Hussein at all costs. As instability and violence mount, it has become obvious that the United States can not force its vision of freedom and democracy on the Iraqis according to our terms, style, or schedule. Instead, we need to offer a vision of these values and then help the Iraqis and the rest of the region over time to develop their own home-grown versions that suit their needs. It took the United States 50 years to win the ideological war against communism, but we triumphed because we offered a set of ideals that remained constant and backed them up by credible force. Whereas a vision should be a source for strength and a hope for the future, one that ignores reality, as in the case of Iraq, is a pipe dream and thus misleading and dangerous. Moreover, a vision that is based on the absolutism of "you're either with or against us" will inevitably fail the test of time. Mr. Bush's moral crusade to right the wrong in Iraq remains wanting and superficial because it lacks the truth that Mahatma Gandhi said, "is the substance of all morality."

The President also failed to mobilize our European partners because he refused to take seriously their genuine and constructive concerns and criticism. Rather than listening to them, the administration relied — except for the unflagging support of the British government — on the so-called "coalition of the willing," a bunch of weak nations that were coerced or bribed into joining the war effort. Among the results is that we have squandered in short order the incredible good will extended to us after 9/11, and now are increasingly mistrusted by our traditional allies in Europe as well as by many "sensitive" countries like Turkey, Indonesia, and India. Our global leadership, which should be based on our moral, cultural, technological and economic leadership, areas where we could exert the most influence, is instead based on unilateralism and coercive diplomacy that rely on the threat or use of force. We can maintain our global leadership only through international consensus, even in cases where we must intervene for humanitarian reasons. If the war on terrorism is indeed global, we have neither the means nor the freedom — in terms of being able to act independently of other nations–to go it alone, not to mention win single-handedly. And, if the war in Iraq is part of this larger war, as the President insists it is, he should have immediately enlisted the aid of the international community. But this administration displayed nothing but arrogant disrespect for the UN and our traditional allies. Now our government is begging the UN to provide it with "cover" to get it out of a morass of its own making and transfer some authority to an Iraqi government yet to be formed. Even under these circumstances, Mr. Bush and his advisors continue to resist the multilateral approach of allowing the UN to exercise all the authority it needs to bring about a semblance of stability to a torn nation. The worst is yet to come.

On the question of whether the decision to go into Iraq was based on sound judgment, there is no doubt that the war was a terrible and costly mistake. We are not any safer than before 9/11; in fact, we are more vulnerable both at home and overseas. The war has undermined the campaign against terrorism, making it much harder to win, not only because Iraq is draining our resources, including manpower, but because we have lost so much international credibility and good will. Bin Laden is for all intents and purposes is forgotten, while our debacle in Iraq and the intensified hatred of America in Arab and Muslim lands provides Al Qaeda with all the recruits it cares to enlist. The President's judgment in deciding to go to invade Iraq was clouded by his predetermined decision to remove Saddam Hussein without carefully weighing the repercussions on either the region or the Iraqi people. Prudence dictates that we seek information and verify our assumptions in order to make sound judgments. This administration sought intelligence to support its predetermined policy and acted on its assumptions while deliberately preventing any attempts to verify them. Thus, in the case of WMD, the administration ended support of UN inspections because these got in the way of its invasion preparations. The propensity toward bad judgment continues to this day. Regardless of the mounting mistakes and the revelations about the inhuman abuse of Iraqi prisoners, neither the President nor any of his subordinates has once admitted to a single lapse in judgment.

Integrity and truthfulness, the other cardinal requirements of leadership, continue to be glaringly absent in this administration. It has used lies to justify misguided policies that are obviously not producing the desired results. The lies, which are blatant, have permeated every level of policy making. Their purpose is to maintain a facade and preserve a consensus for the war and its horrific aftermath. For example, the President and other top officials, including his discredited Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, continue to insist that WMD will still be found, this after 14 months of intensive searching. This insistence amounts to nothing less than an admission that the so-called evidence of WMD, on which the President made his case for war, did not exist at the time. Like everything else about the war, reality has given way to rhetoric, and the obsession with perception and image making in this administration has reached new heights. Because Mr. Bush has not presented the case for American intervention in Iraq honestly to Congress or the American people, our young men and women are still dying for a cause that has never been sustained morally. Karl Rove, the President's top political advisor, has set the tone: only one thing counts–Mr. Bush's re-election.

This President like any other has the solemn responsibility and obligation to lead our nation with truth and integrity if we are to remain true to the values on which this republic was founded and not squander what is left of our international standing. But that solemn responsibility falls equally on the shoulders of every American to speak up in a time of crisis. To silence critics of this war, the administration accuses them of being unpatriotic. Not so: it is the administration that employs patriotism as political cover for its misdeeds in Iraq, brandishing the need to support our men and women in uniform as a whip against those who dare to question the President's wisdom. As historian Ralph Barton Perry once observed, "If patriotism is ‘the last refuge of scoundrels,' it is not merely because evil deeds may be performed in the name of patriotism . . . but because patriotic fervor [the kind that this administration like to wrap itself around] can obliterate moral distinctions altogether."