First, it's nothing new that he's confused about things. Let's look at a few of his public statements:
- On May 1, 2003, he told the American people that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended." At the time, 138 American soldiers had died there; since then, the death toll has risen to over 1000.
- More recently, in late September, he claimed that "as a result of the United States military, the Taliban is no longer in existence." Meanwhile, squads of them by the hundreds are attacking government outposts.
- In the debate, he said that the new Iraqi state has "100,000 troops trained" in its armed forces. It has 100,000 recruits, but Pentagon documents obtained by Reuters show that 90,000 of those are police, not troops, and only about 8,000 of those have been through a full eight-week training course. If you total the numbers up, less than 23,000 have any training at all, and the true loyalties of even those are very much in doubt.
- Iyad Allawi, the head of the Iraqi interim government, had a joint appearance with Bush on Sep. 23, at which Allawi gave remarks which were prepared in part by Bush campaign staff. Unfortunately, they didn't do much better for him than their usual boss. Among many dubious claims from Allawi, a particular standout was that there are "no problems" in Samarra. A week later, the U.S. mounted a massive assault on that city, involving thousands of troops, to root out entrenched resistance.
And while the situation in Iraq gets worse -- more dead in August than July, as Kerry noted, and more in September than August -- and Bush ignores the downward spiral, he's also ignoring real problems in our direct fight against the actual terrorists who attacked us:
- Bush claimed at the debate that "Seventy-five percent of known al Qaeda leaders have been brought to justice." Unfortunately, most of the people he's talking about are replaceable underlings who have, in fact, been replaced. Results with al Qaeda's senior leadership are dramatically worse; the State Department produced a list of 22 "most wanted terrorists" in October, 2001, and as of last August, Bush's efforts had secured the arrest of only three.
- While al Qaeda regroups, adapts, and finds new allies, the CIA can't be bothered to fully staff its al Qaeda unit.
- The FBI's overworked translators are running behind. So far behind that they've deleted al Qaeda intercepts untranslated because they're out of disk space.
The same goes for even the most basic security strategy, where the Bush administration just does not sweat the details; there's show to their efforts, but not much substance.
- When Democrats originally proposed the Homeland Security Department, Bush fought it for months. Then when it became inevitable, he flip-flopped (and somehow convinced a lot of people that it had been his idea all along). But he appointed a director, Tom Ridge, whose main qualification for this new and very demanding job is being Bush's good friend from the Governor's Conference; his official bio lists his tax cuts, education and health care programs as governor of Pennsylvania, but no experience related to security.
- Anyone who has been through an airport over the past few years is all too familiar with the new screening procedures which have been added for passengers. That looks like a really impressive security program -- but it's only on the passenger entrances. As of this summer, a GAO investigation found that thousands of airport workers with fake credentials were still not being screened before entering secure areas, where, as airport workers warn, they could easily sneak a bomb on a plane.
- The situation at seaports is even worse; security efforts there are chronically underfunded.
- And, as Sen. Kerry pointed out in the debate, first responders, police and firemen, are also being starved for funds by this administration. Bush's response was to wonder where the money would come from. That's a question he never seemed to ask about his hundreds of billions in tax cuts.
But, Bush might say, the real response to terrorists is in Iraq. In fact, on Sept. 11th, hours after the attacks, when no one knew who was responsible, Donald Rumsfeld was already asking his generals for plans for an Iraq attack. But that was a very peculiar response, for a whole bunch of reasons.
- There was no persuasive evidence connecting Iraq or Saddam Hussein with the attack. A state department map from November, 2001 shows Iraq as one of a very few countries in the Middle East where al Qaeda did not have substantial operations. And according to the report of the 9/11 commission, there still isn't any evidence now.
- The same, regrettably, cannot be said of the allies that Bush has chosen. Most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi nationals, and at least two received Saudi government assistance to relocate to the U.S. -- a matter that the Bush administration has refused to investigate, and tried to cover up. In fact, Prince Bandar, the Saudi Arabian ambassador -- a man with such close ties to the Bush family that they sometimes affectionately call him "Bandar Bush" -- has himself been caught wiring money to charities with suspicious terrorist links.
- Our other major ally, Pakistan, is the one whose intelligence services largely created the Taliban, and according to some reports, still has elements which are sympathetic to it (which may be one of the reasons why, as noted above, it's making a comeback). They say they're cooperating with us to reduce terrorism, but that's what they say about nuclear proliferation as well, and on that score too, as I'll get to in a bit, there are very grave doubts.
This brings me to the other half of Bush's case for war on Iraq -- that Saddam Hussein was trying to get weapons of mass destruction. As are a lot of tinpot dictators, all over the planet. But Bush's case that Saddam was close to actually getting them was based on very shaky evidence:
- The case for "mobile biological labs" was based on reports from a single defector, with very shaky credentials.
- Administration officials repeatedly cited Saddam's purchase of aluminum tubes. They said in public these tubes were for enriching uranium to weapons grade, ignoring reports from the government's own nuclear technology experts said that they would have made an absolutely dreadful centrifuge -- inferior material, improperly prepared, and Saddam already knew how to make a better one had he ever wanted to.
- They also cited memos supposedly showing that Saddam was trying to get uranium ore from Africa. Those were crude forgeries which didn't pass a laugh test -- at one point referring to a government official who had been out of office ten years.
This is just a brief survey of the flaws in the case, many more of which were apparent to careful observers before the war.
Bush said in the debates, by the way, that Kerry looked at the same intelligence as Bush, and came to the same conclusions. Kerry, perhaps not wanting to look as if he was played for a chump, has not publicly demurred. But the fact is that Senators outside of the intelligence committee -- on which Kerry does not serve -- do not have access to sensitive intelligence, and like most of the public, have to take the integrity of the analyses of the evidence on faith. And like us, he was betrayed.
This case looks particularly shaky when you examine other WMD proliferation threats in the world today.
- Let's first, once again, consider our friends in Pakistan. In the debate, Bush said that Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan had been "brought to justice" for proliferating nuclear technology. In fact, Khan has received a full pardon from the Pakistani government, and has refused to discuss his collaborators within the government (he absurdly claims he was flying solo). And Pakistan is refusing to allow international investigators to talk to him.
- Meanwhile, as Bush was ramping up to war in Iraq, the North Korea (one of the A.Q. Khan network's clients) was taking the seals off their nuclear reactor, and resuming plutonium production. While Bush was taking out Saddam Hussein -- who didn't have nukes, and couldn't get them -- North Korea's Kim Jong Il was building nukes right under our noses. They now say they have six.
Some Bush supporters see this all and they say it doesn't bother them. That a lot of American wars were initially a muddle, and we fixed the problems and muddled through. But that was with leadership that acknowledged the problems and worked to fix them. Washington adapted, invented new tactics -- and didn't scorn help from the French. Lincoln fired the generals that wouldn't fight. Bush, by contrast, won't hear any talk about problems in the war, and when he has fired people -- like General Shinseki, who tried to tell him and the country before the war that tens of thousands of troops would not be enough -- it's for telling unpleasant truths that he doesn't want to hear. And as a result, he hears unpleasant truths so little that he doesn't seem to even be aware of them. At his last formal press conference, he was asked what mistakes he had made with the war -- and he was unable to identify a single one.
How is it that Bush can make these kinds of mistakes? It isn't necessarily that he's a bad guy, but he just doesn't seem to take the job seriously. In his first campaign for the presidency, he promised to bring a new seriousness to the job, as opposed to Clinton's casual attitude. But as president dealing with what he describes as an unprecedented threat to the republic, he had already taken 250 days off -- between the family compound in Maine, the private dude ranch in Crawford, and Camp David -- as of last summer, which is about a hundred more days off than Clinton took in two full presidential terms. He promised to bring a new seriousness to the White House -- but what he actually meant was that unlike Clinton, whose administration was sometimes business casual, he'd wear a suit.
Bush seems to be trying to fake his way through his presidency the way he faked his way through Yale. And his efforts to keep American citizens safe show it -- they're C-student work, with parts designed to look flashy and impressive, but his administration just doesn't sweat the details that actually matter. And the country is suffering because of it.