Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Fineman: The Saga of Saddam and the Bushes

Fineman: The Saga of Saddam and the Bushes
By Howard Fineman

Jan. 8, 2007 issue - Evil was on the loose in the world, President George W. Bush had told the country, and on his first Thanksgiving in office—November 2001—he was on his way to Fort Campbell in Kentucky to dine with newly trained troops heading out to fight the (evil) Taliban in Afghanistan. In the conference room aboard Air Force One, we talked about evil. "Is Saddam evil?" I asked. Glancing across the table at his aides, he demurred. I asked again; again, a demurral. We went on to other topics. Several exchanges later, Bush interrupted an answer to blurt out a declaration: "By the way, Saddam is evil!"

When the history is written, the saga of the Bushes and the Butcher of Baghdad will be a central thread of the family's story—and of America's at the millennium. It is not personal in the literal sense; neither President Bush ever met Saddam. True, intelligence sources (not all of them necessarily reliable) said Saddam tried to have Bush 41 killed in 1993. And in 2002, drumming up support for the approaching second gulf war, Bush Two called Saddam the "guy who tried to kill my dad." Still, there is no evidence that the Bushes loathed Saddam, and I am told that Dad remains skeptical about the purported assassination plot. "It's not like 'the Hatfields and McCoys'," says a family friend who doesn't want to risk his relationship being quoted by name.

But it is "the Realists and the Neocons." For both Bushes, dealing with Saddam became a way to measure presidential manhood—and to express profoundly different views about the world.

For Bush One, manhood meant a hard-boiled (critics said cynical) restraint. He always made it his business to know all things geopolitical, long before—and certainly after—he took over as head of the CIA. As Ronald Reagan's vice president, he hewed to the CIA view of Saddam, which was that, as sadistic as he was, he had his uses as a counterweight to fundamentalist Iran. When Saddam turned bellicose in 1989, Saudi friends advised the new president to ignore him. Only when Saddam invaded Kuwait did Bush crank up the rhetoric—branding him "another Hitler"—but that was not really Bush One's style. When advisers told him to tone down the apocalyptic language, he did, even as he shrewdly led the Coalition forces that ousted Saddam from Kuwait.

The Hitler reference stuck, however, and it had consequences. Scholars say that it diminished Bush One, and hurt his popularity among conservatives. If Saddam indeed was another Hitler, should Bush not have gone to Baghdad to take him out? That was an argument the Neocons made throughout the '90s, and made to Bush Two as he went through his precampaign tutorials in Austin in 1999. That, together with the younger Bush's evangelical Christian faith, made Saddam an inviting target. Bush Two had little understanding of the nuances of the Middle East, which his father had spent a lifetime learning, and Bush Two had a lack of interest bordering on contempt for diplomatic nuance. He viewed it as a lack of will, of confidence, of power.

That was his father's game. He would play another.

Those close to the family say there is little evidence that father and son have ever had a detailed discussion about the Iraq war—either before it began or since. When Bush Two visited his father in Kennebunkport, Maine, at the start of the 2000 campaign, he said that if he did not win, he would have a lot more time to go fishing with his dad. Father and son may yet get their chance for fishing trips. They will both be relieved that Saddam is gone, but I bet that the subject won't come up.