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8 January 2007updated 16 Aug 2023 10:52am

Dubbya in denial

The hanging of Saddam failed to provide the lesson in justice longed for by George W Bush. But even

By Andrew Stephen

The week between Christmas and New Year had begun so promisingly for Dubbya. CNN had brought in its own model of a noose tightening around a mock skeleton’s neck, while a doctor answered questions from lip-smacking presenters: whether the man being executed feels any pain (probably not, but we don’t really know), how long asphyxiation lasts even if the spinal cord is severed (two minutes), and how long the heart beats after the drop (eight minutes). By 9pm on the evening of Saddam Hussein’s execution, the 43rd president of America was in bed: surely he had the right to sleep soundly, knowing his image of manliness would gain a notch or two while the nation’s bête noire du jour was being despatched to whatever hell awaited him?

But these days nothing goes right for Bush 43 (as he is, I swear, still known to those working for him). First, America’s 38th president was inconsiderate enough to die and hog all the headlines. It didn’t help, either, that the death of 93-year-old Gerald Ford evoked impressions across the world (not necessarily accurate ones) of a healer rather than divider, and that Bush would be expected to deliver a eulogy for the old wimp. Second, Dustin Donica, 22, from Spring, Texas – damn him! – managed to become the 3,000th US military fatality in Iraq. Not good, as Bush 41 would say.

Most infuriatingly of all, Dubbya was denied the televised spectacle of Saddam dragged kicking and squealing to the gallows that his administration confidently expected. Rather, it was Saddam’s image of manliness that improved when the first (official, silent) video showed him going to his death bravely and with dignity. The second, recorded on a mobile phone and replete with taunts from a Shia lynch mob, could not have illustrated better how the Americans and Iraqis can hardly put together a dog’s dinner, let alone an execution, in Bush’s $8bn-a-month war. No wonder Bush 41 burst into tears the other day when speaking about his sons.

The conventional wisdom these days is that it has all finally got to Bush 43. If not exactly a broken man, he is now a very worried one. I frequently find myself pointing out in these pages, however, that consensus inside-the-Beltway views are invariably wrong. This particular wisdom misunderstands the nature of the alcoholic: that he or she, by definition, is in denial. In the words of Dr Justin Frank, a psychiatrist who has written a book on the president’s psychology, Bush belatedly set out to solve his drinking problems “by externalising the enemy rather than acknowledging that a greater threat than alcohol was the enemy within”. Not long ago I quietly alluded to persistent rumours here (and repeated to me by somebody senior in the British government) that Bush has started drinking again; paradoxically, that could turn out to be good news if it stops Bush from externalising whatever inner demons Frank believes drove him to drink in the first place.

Long march of history

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There is every indication, however, that Bush remains in denial, not only over Iraq, but over how what he describes as “the long march of history” will eventually see him as a truly great US president. Over the holidays, he said that “victory in Iraq is achievable”, contradicting even the bipartisan Iraq Study Group – co-chaired by 76-year-old James Baker, a staunch Bush family retainer for many years – which says the situation there is “grave and deteriorating”.

In response, hitherto loyalist Republicans such as Senator Dick Lugar – a former Rhodes Scholar and gentle Methodist from Indiana – are dropping Bush left, right and centre. Lugar, who is 74, told one of the weekend talk shows here that he saw the debate getting “ugly” if Bush did not listen to the ISG and the Democrat-controlled Congress, which was due to convene on 4 January. To the Republican senator and Vietnam veteran Chuck Hagel, the president’s proposal to send a “surge” of 30,000 more troops is not just “folly” but “Alice-in-Wonderland”. Of the 49 convening Republican senators, Bush will have trouble relying on even a dozen to support him over Iraq.

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President Lyndon B Johnson famously lost sleep over what Doris Kearns Goodwin, the presidential scholar, calls “the unbearable burden” of sending young men and women to their deaths; a tormented Richard Nixon actually went out in the middle of the night to talk to anti-war protesters. Bush, in contrast, says: “I’m sleeping a lot better than people would assume.” Meanwhile, Tony Blair flees to his Bee Gee paradise (if you will allow me to help you next time, Prime Minister, I can direct you to some altogether niftier places in Florida).

So, what next? Bush is in for a turbulent fortnight: he snubbed Ford’s widow and family by refusing to fly back early to DC to receive the late president’s body at the Capitol, preferring to wait until his return the next day. The Democrats are planning to launch themselves into action – first, as proposed by Nancy Pelosi, their House leader, with “100 hours” of legislation: to raise the minimum wage to $7.25, enforce the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, restrict the rights of lobbyists, and so on. This legislative programme is, of course, doomed, because in most cases Bush will veto it, and the Democrats will not be able to muster the majorities to reverse that.

More ominously for the White House – I use the term collectively here, because such people as my friend Stephen Hadley, the president’s national security adviser, are much more in touch with reality than Bush – the incoming Democrat chairman of the Senate armed services committee, Senator Carl Levin, is planning to launch no fewer than three separate hearings on Iraq in this month alone. The Democrats have not wielded truly sharp political knives on Capitol Hill for 12 years and now they can’t wait to draw blood, preferably Bush’s, and lots of it. To pour salt on the wound, the trial on perjury and obstruction-of-justice charges of Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff and special adviser to Bush (aka “Dick Cheney’s Dick Cheney”), begins on 16 January.

But if the Bee Gees fan in Downing Street expects Bush quietly to accept the ISG’s recommendations to reach out to Iran and Syria and batten down the hatches over Iraq, he is mistaken. I suspect that John McCain, still the leading candidate for the Republican 2008 presidential nomination, has skewered his chances by also calling for extra troops to be sent – thus, for once, finding himself having to validate the views of his old internecine enemy, Bush.

Send in the troops

The right-wing American Enterprise Institute has identified 23 enclaves in Baghdad that it says are riven with sectarian Sunni-Shia warfare and which, Bush has been told – I wish I were joking or being ironic here, but I’m not – 20,000 extra US troops can eradicate. The AEI plan envisages four additional army brigades being sent to Baghdad and two marine regimental combat teams to al-Anbar Province. General Peter Pace, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and a feeble yes-man if ever there was one, “has not asked for more troops” but is “not necessarily opposed to the idea”, according to a military spokesman – which says all you need to know.

In the words of Anthony Cordesman, a respected former adviser to McCain who has held various senior posts at the Pentagon and is now at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, “almost every expert agrees that a surge without conciliation can do little more than produce a cosmetic, temporary tactical victory that might mask US withdrawal and defeat”. If such a Machiavellian tactic could be the saviour of his precious historical legacy, Bush would opt for it; but his state of denial, as it stands, leaves no room for mere cosmetic victory masking real defeat.

A week after Libby’s trial begins, Bush will gain a temporary salve to his ego when, on 23 January, he delivers his penultimate State of the Union speech – that peculiarly American ritual where the president walks down the aisle of the House to be greeted with wild acclaim and back-slapping. I do not mean to sound cynical, but his handlers will doubtless produce a military amputee from Iraq in the audience, and perhaps a grieving widow with adorable children. I am repelled by such exploitative imagery, not least because the subliminal Rovian message of it is that Bush cares about such people and that those of us opposed to his war don’t.

Expect, too, some grandiose domestic policies to be revived: the dreams that social security can be privatised, that the No Child Left Behind policy can be successfully implemented, and that America will become significantly less dependent on foreign oil. The few Bush disciples left will briefly chortle with glee on Fox News over what they will pronounce as a great success. But unemployment will rise in 2007 and, as I wrote last month, the economy may even be heading for recession, too. Last year brought the sharpest increase in violent crime since 1991, following Bush’s dismantling of Bill Clinton’s cops-on-the-beat scheme.

The Democrats’ first blood – drawn a month before the new Congress even convened – was that of the less-than-lovable John Bolton, Bush’s former ambassador to the UN, whose most notorious public pronouncement was that the UN building could lose ten storeys without it mattering. With Bolton having been rejected by the Senate once, Bush exercised his power by appointing him temporarily during a recess. This time, moderate Republicans joined Democrats in making it privately clear to the administration that Bolton would be eviscerated if Bush nominated him again.

Another potential foe for the Bushite right is taking office as I write: Ban Ki-moon, the 62-year-old South Korean successor to the hapless Kofi Annan as UN secretary general. Annan lobbied hard that he was the man to clean up UN waste and corruption, but ended his decade in office as a target of vicious racism; I fear the same fate awaits Ban, a diplomat who has also been sucking up to Washington, while frantically trying to brush up his French, a requirement for the UN’s SG. Expect his honeymoon to last less than a year.

My countdown clock, as I write, says that Bush has another 749 days left in office. It takes a woefully incompetent administration to make Saddam Hussein look good, but somehow the Bush bunch managed to do just that at the end of 2006. Not that any of it is Dubbya’s fault. Rereading Frank’s book, I was reminded of the two classic symptoms exhibited by an alcoholic in denial: an insistence on placing blame on others, and a refusal to take responsibility for his or her own actions. Now, does that remind us of anybody we know who lives a few blocks from me at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

Iraq by numbers

655,000 Iraqis have died due to the 2003 military intervention in Iraq

22 US soldiers in Iraq committed suicide in 2005

60% of US soldiers killed in Iraq since 2003 did not reach their 25th birthday

62 of the US soldiers killed in Iraq were women

1,930 Iraqi civilians died in the conflict in December 2006 – three and a half times the figure for January 2006

42% of US personnel on active duty disapprove of Bush’s handling of Iraq

24 of the US soldiers killed in Iraq since 2003 died aged 18

Research by Preeti Jha

Read more on Saddam’s hanging
An illegal hanging Sadakat Kadri
Besides being barbaric, the execution of Saddam Hussein might well be illegal.
A flawed process Chris Stephen
Iraq has blown it’s chance to prove that it has embraced the rule of law.