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Those who like government least govern worst

From the Iraq War to the coronavirus: why Republicans fail at governance.

President Donald Trump attends Mike Pence’s acceptance speech for the vice presidential nomination during the Republican National Convention on August 26, 2020.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The GOP stands for Grand Old Party, but there is no past on display at the 2020 Republican National Convention: No previous Republican presidents, or previous Republican presidential nominees, are speaking. History, for this Republican Party, began on June 15, 2015, when Donald J. Trump descended a golden escalator. That suits both sides just fine. The Bush family, and the Republicans who admire them, view Trump and his followers with horror. In turn, Trump and his allies look upon the Bush wing of the party with contempt.

Trump’s rise has driven a rehabilitation of the George W. Bush brand. Bush’s personal decency, his impulse toward tolerance and inclusivity, glows against the backdrop of Trump’s casual cruelty and personal decadence. But the catastrophic misgovernance in which Bush ended his presidency, and Trump ends his first term, reveals the continuity between the two administrations.

When Bush left the White House in 2009, the Iraq War was a recognized debacle, with thousands of Americans, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, casualties of its chaos. The global economy was in collapse, driven by a calamitous void of regulatory oversight of Wall Street, and the disastrous decision to let Lehman Brothers fall. Less than 10 years later, the next Republican president is ending his first term with nearly 200,000 Americans dead of the coronavirus — the worst pandemic performance, by far, of any rich nation — and an economy in shambles.

Bush and Trump are so personally different, and their administrations so temperamentally opposite, that it feels awkward to compare them, like trying to find the symmetries between a car crash and a spontaneous combustion. But in his new book, To Start a War, Robert Draper chronicles the internal deliberations and dynamics that led the Bush administration into Iraq. In doing so, Draper reminds us of the throughline between the two administrations: a toxic contempt for the government itself.

Draper’s narrative starts in the hours after 9/11 when Deputy Secretary for Defense Paul Wolfowitz demands an assessment of Iraqi involvement in terrorism since the Gulf War. The missive, time-stamped 1:26 am on 9/12, was carried to Gary Greco, a senior Defense Intelligence Agency officer, by a deputy, who asked, “What the hell does it mean?” Greco knew exactly what it meant. “It means we’re going to war in Iraq,” he replied.

Draper conducted interviews with more than 300 people involved in the runup to the Iraq War, and the stories they tell, assembled one after the other, find a grim, repetitive tempo. Over and over, intelligence analysts and regional experts tried to talk Bush administration leadership out of their belief that Iraq was somehow involved in 9/11, that it sought an alliance with al-Qaeda, that it posed a threat to the United States, that it would be easy to invade and rebuild, that there was firm evidence of weapons of mass destruction. And over and over again, Bush administration leaders dismissed them as hidebound bureaucrats whose obsession with process blinded them to the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.

Vice President Cheney With President George W. Bush
President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney sit in the Oval Office of the White House, in 2002.
Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Take the links, or lack thereof, between Iraq and al-Qaeda. The intelligence community kept shooting down the theories — and the frequently fabricated pieces of evidence — connecting the two entities. Senior Bush officials asked again and again, and the answer kept coming back the same. To Doug Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy, it was proof that “no one at the CIA had an open mind.”

His colleague Wolfowitz reached out to the UK’s Ministry of Defense. “Surely your intelligence people have got stuff on this,” he begged. They turned him down. So Wolfowitz and Feith formed their own small team to make the argument that the intelligence agencies wouldn’t. Their team put together a briefing to show Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who loved it — in part because one slide accused the CIA of neglecting a favorite adage of his, that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” — and asked that it be shown to the CIA.

The meeting between the actual intelligence analysts and the ad hoc team assembled to come to the conclusions they wouldn’t is darkly comic. “This is your intelligence,” Feith tells the assembled CIA analysts — the implication being that the CIA gathered the data, but they were either too dim or too cautious to understand what it said. “They were connecting dots that weren’t even there — things we’d dismissed and which, in hindsight, never took place,” recalled one analyst in attendance. Bureaucrats, right?

Draper’s book is full of stories like this, where the catalytic ingredient is contempt for the government employees who actually had the expertise — the State Department officials who knew what it would mean to leave a power vacuum in Iraq, the United Nations weapons inspectors who had scoured suspected WMD sites in the country, the generals who understood that keeping the peace would be harder than routing Saddam’s forces, the foreign intelligence agencies who had discredited the sources the administration was relying on, the regional experts who warned against disbanding Iraq’s army and civil service. Tragically, the Bush team’s contempt for the weapons inspectors was such that when they didn’t find weapons, it became, inside the administration, part of the case for war: It just showed how canny and deceptive Saddam really was, and how little you could trust the UN to contain him.

In some cases — particularly speeches given by Dick Cheney — the Bush team was simply lying about what was known, or not known. On this, Draper’s reporting is clear: Key members of the Bush administration were obsessed with invading Iraq long before 9/11. There was no intelligence, no argument, that would have shaken their conviction. But often, the truth really was unclear, the intelligence really was uncertain, the decision-maker at least somewhat open to persuasion. In those cases, trust became the crucial question, and the Bushies always found it easy to mistrust anyone they could dismiss as a bureaucrat.

This was particularly true in the Defense Department, where Rumsfeld saw any dissent as evidence of the military’s fear of his modernization agenda. “The second a question is raised about any current policy or any current process, the response is immediate and violent,” he wrote in a memo. “‘You must not change anything.’” There was likely truth to this assessment when it came to abandoning old weapons programs, but it proved disastrous in planning for a postwar Iraq.

2016 Concordia Summit Convenes World Leaders To Discuss The Power Of Partnerships - Day 2
Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld speaks at the 2016 Concordia Summit.
Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Concordia Summit

In February 2002, Army chief of staff Eric Shinseki told the Senate Armed Services Committee that occupying Iraq would require “several hundred thousand soldiers.” Furious, Rumsfeld deployed Wolfowitz to the Hill to rebut Shinseki. Wolfowitz said the four-star general’s estimate was “wildly off the mark” (it wasn’t) because the Iraqis “will greet us as liberators, and that will help us to keep requirements down.” He added the war would be near costless, because Iraq’s oil exports would pay for the bulk of reconstruction. Shinseki was shortly thereafter forced into retirement.

Wolfowitz’s rebuttal reflected Bush’s views. The president thought the bureaucrats misunderstood human nature. They were obsessed with how to rebuild bureaucracy, share power, deliver services. Bush believed all people yearn for freedom, and warnings of a bloody aftermath were an insult to the Iraqi spirit. Planning for postwar governance wasn’t needed because America wouldn’t need to engage in much postwar governance.

Liberals often wonder how conservatives can think the government too inefficient to offer health insurance but capable of invading and rebuilding foreign countries. The answer to the riddle is simple: Bush, at least, didn’t think the American government would have to do the hard work of governance in a foreign land. All it had to do was destroy the existing government.

The Bush team’s contempt for government took a different form than the Trump team’s contempt for government. The Bushies saw themselves as reformers who knew better than the government they led. They were capable, experienced, steeped in the values of the private sector. They wanted to remake the government in their own image. But their administration was a disaster in part because they didn’t know better than the intelligence officials they dismissed, the financial regulators they later ignored, the FEMA staffers they left under incompetent leadership. They didn’t respect the institution they ran enough to listen to what it knew.

The Trump team is more outrightly hostile to the government they lead. They fear “the deep state” too much to try and reform it. They don’t want to remake federal agencies so much as corrupt them for their own gain. Where the Bush team was, at times, too interested in the minutia of the agencies they led, second-guessing even the smallest decisions from civil servants, the Trump team is detached from the agencies they run, unaware, annoyed, or threatened by the workings and responsibilities of the executive branch.

But the coronavirus disaster highlights the way different manifestations of contempt for the government can end in the same place. Like the Bush administration before it, the Trump administration is led by a president who thought he knew better than the experts, and didn’t. Like the Bush administration before it, the Trump administration sidelined internal critics, silencing those who said the administration was doing insufficient planning and committing insufficient resources. Like the Bush administration before it, the Trump administration has been dismissive of the concerns and models offered by foreign governments and contemptuous of international organizations. And like the Bush administration before it, the Trump administration’s misjudgments have led to a shocking casualty count and an economic crisis.

There are many differences between Bush and Trump as individuals, and many differences between their administrations. But both of them represent a Republican Party soaked in contempt for, and mistrust of, the federal government. When you don’t respect, or even like, the institution you lead, you lead it poorly. When that institution is incredibly, globally important — as the US government is — leading it poorly can invite global catastrophe. And sure enough, under the last two Republican administrations, it has. There is continuity here, of the most consequential sort: a continuity of terrible outcomes.

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