Sunday, October 10, 2004

Bush's Pivotal Decision: I Haven't Made a Mistake

The New York Times
October 10, 2004

Bush's Pivotal Decision: I Haven't Made a Mistake

ST. LOUIS — Until sometime early in the summer, President Bush and his advisers sporadically wrestled with a fundamental choice: Was it smarter to go into the final months of the election campaign confessing to considerable error in decisions leading up to the invasion of Iraq, and in early calculations about how best to occupy the country? Or would the president - "not a man given to backward-looking introspection," as one close aide put it - be better off conceding only the smallest errors of judgment, and focusing the electorate on the hope of a bright future for Iraq and the whole Middle East?

Mr. Bush chose the second option. To choose otherwise, one of Mr. Bush's advisers said the other day, would be "to give John Kerry the opening he was waiting for."

But now, in the final 23 days of the campaign, that decision has come to look far riskier than it did in the flush of handing Iraq back to Iraqis. Win or lose, when the history of the 2004 Bush campaign is written, it may turn out that the bet about how to talk about the war will prove pivotal. Mr. Bush held his bet through the presidential debate Friday, declining a questioner's invitation to describe any mistake he had made.

The bet was a mix of political and military calculation, of Mr. Bush's own temperament, and of what proved to be an overly optimistic projection of what Iraq would look like in early October.

By Friday, aides at the White House were talking about the decision in the way Silicon Valley engineers talk about a piece of technology that didn't roll out as planned.

"It's been a really, really bad week," a senior White House official conceded after three successive days in which the news seemed to be eroding the sand under some of the president's justifications for the war, and his explanations of its aftermath.

It started with a concession by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who said at the Council on Foreign Relations that he was never convinced by the evidence that Saddam Hussein had deep ties to Al Qaeda.

That day, the former head of the coalition authority, L. Paul Bremer III, thinking he was speaking off the record, insisted that he had long thought that America needed more troops early in the occupation to prevent lawlessness. Outraged, White House officials denounced him in background conversations with reporters. And by week's end, Mr. Bremer was backing and filling.

"The press and critics of the war have seized on these remarks in an effort to undermine President Bush's Iraq policy," he wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed article. "This effort won't succeed."

But by the time Mr. Bremer's explanation appeared, Mr. Bush was dealing with a 918-page report of the C.I.A.'s top weapons inspector, Charles A. Duelfer, who had been chosen by the White House. His conclusion: that Saddam Hussein had no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, and his capability to produce them, or wage war, had seriously weakened since 1991. Or, as Mr. Duelfer's predecessor as weapons inspector, David Kay, put it on NBC's "Today," Saddam Hussein "had a lot of intent; he didn't have capabilities. Intent without capabilities is not an imminent threat."

Yet Vice President Dick Cheney looked at the same report and came to the opposite conclusion. "To delay, defer, wait wasn't an option," he insisted Thursday. "The president did exactly the right thing."

In June, just before reluctantly appointing a commission to investigate what had gone wrong with the intelligence about Mr. Hussein's weaponry, Mr. Bush chose not to issue a mea culpa of his own. "We discussed it, but no one could quite figure out the words," a senior adviser said. "How do you do that, without seeming to undercut the troops who are out there every day? Do you say, 'if we had known he had no stockpiles, we wouldn't have invaded?' I don't think so, and it's not something that the president believes."

The closest Mr. Bush came to conceding having made any mistake was when he used the word "miscalculation" in an interview with The New York Times in late August. But even then, he said he was referring only to having misjudged the speed with which Iraqi forces would collapse, which he said allowed Mr. Hussein's sympathizers to melt into cities and towns and fight another day.

Back in June, it also looked as if the situation in Iraq would look better by autumn. The Iraqis would be racing toward elections, the calculation went, and the American military forces, in support of a new Iraqi force, would be coming up with plans to root out the insurgency. In fact, White House officials say, in the first days of July they were hoping to issue new orders to American troops that would eliminate all-American patrols on the streets, thus significantly reducing casualties and making it clear that Iraqis were providing their own security.

"It never happened," one senior official said, "because the Iraqis were not ready."

The American military may be getting ready for such measures now, but perhaps not in time for Election Day. Rather, American casualties have risen every month since early summer, a fact that softened the political ground for the new questions about how prepared Mr. Bush was for the realities of Iraq. And that ended up obscuring, at least for the moment, Mr. Bush's punch line that "Senator Kerry has a strategy for retreat, and I have a strategy for victory."

Mr. Bush's decision to hang tough has echoes of the strategy used by another president from Texas. In the 1968 campaign, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey began edging back from the Johnson Administration's plan to admit no fault with its policy in Vietnam. He got an angry call from his boss, who threatened to "dry up every Democratic dollar from Maine to California."

"In retirement, Johnson insisted to friends that it was Humphrey's speech at Salt Lake City that lost him the election," said Michael Beschloss, the presidential historian, "because it conceded that the administration that Humphrey was a part of may have been wrong."

"There weren't many others who agreed with Johnson," Mr. Beschloss notes.

Now, the 2004 election may hinge on how many Americans agree with Mr. Bush's take on the history of the past two years.