How Bush Misleads Himself

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George W. Bush ducked the first question he was asked during a joint press conference with Tony Blair after the British Prime Minister's brilliant speech to Congress last Thursday. The question had two parts. Did he take responsibility for the false claim in his State of the Union message that Iraq had recently sought to buy uranium in Africa? And why were the allies having so much trouble finding other countries to help us in Iraq? The President — who seemed a mite tetchy, as he often does when things aren't going well — glowered: "I take the responsibility for making the put together a coalition to remove Saddam Hussein, because the intelligence...made a clear and compelling case [that Saddam] was a threat to security and peace."

Right, but that wasn't the question, and one wonders why Bush didn't simply say, "Yep. My fault. Some hard-working guy at the National Security Council got a little overenthusiastic and stuck in that sentence. I didn't take it out. Won't do that again." End of story. Instead, we have the two-week spectacle of Bushies on the run and the President undermining his reputation as a straight shooter by forcing his CIA director, George Tenet, to take the fall. Clint Eastwood would never do that.

Why has the uranium story puffed up so huge? It wouldn't have been a very big deal without the deepening crisis in Iraq. But it also has ballast because it clarifies an aspect of George W. Bush's essential character — specifically, the problem he has with telling the truth. I am not saying Bush is a liar. Lying is witting: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." This is weirder than that. The President seems to believe that wishing will make it so — and he is so stupendously incurious that he rarely makes an effort to find the truth of the matter. He misleads not only the nation but himself. Every worst-case Saddam scenario just had to be true, as did every best-case post-Saddam scenario. Bush's talent for self-deception extends to domestic and economic policy. He probably believes that he's a compassionate conservative, even though he has allowed every antipoverty program he favors to be eviscerated by Congress. This week's outrage is the crippling of AmeriCorps, which he had pledged to increase in size. He probably believes that his tax cuts for the wealthy will help reduce the mammoth $455 billion budget deficit (which doesn't include the cost of Iraq), even though Ronald Reagan found that the exact opposite was true and had to raise taxes twice to repair the damage done by his 1981 cuts. And Bush probably believed, as the sign said, that the "mission" had been "accomplished" in Iraq when he landed on the aircraft carrier costumed as a flyboy. He may even have believed that he was a flyboy.

But the country can no longer afford the President's self-delusions. He is entering the most crucial six months of his presidency. As a team of experts hired by the Pentagon reported last week: "The window for cooperation may close rapidly if they [the Iraqis] do not see progress." Which brings us back to the second part of the question the President didn't answer last week: Why is no one helping us in Iraq? A simple answer: Why on earth should they? The situation is a mess, in large part because of American arrogance. We insisted on doing the reconstruction on our own (only 13,000 of the 148,000 troops on the ground are British). It seems plain now that going it alone isn't working. Even Donald Rumsfeld came very close to admitting that on Meet the Press a few weeks ago. Asked if we should turn Iraq over to the United Nations, he said, "At some point, I think that—" and then he caught himself and said, "They're already playing an important role."

In fact, the current military situation is extremely dangerous, not just to the troops on the ground but to our national security in general. We are pinned down in Iraq and will be for years. We don't have the forces to meet another challenge — in North Korea, or Afghanistan, or anyplace else. We don't even have the forces necessary to relieve our tired troops in Iraq. Last week India made clear — as France and Germany have — that it won't help us without the U.N.'s imprimatur. And now there is serious talk within the White House about going back to the U.N. and asking for help.

Help will not come easily. "You can't have burden sharing without power sharing," a diplomat told me. The U.N. was humiliated, and its weapons inspectors denigrated, by the Bush Administration before the war. Some public groveling from the President may now be in order. Indeed, Bush also owes the American people a speech explaining just how difficult the situation is, how long it's likely to remain that way and how much it will cost. Last week he took "responsibility" for the war. Now he must take responsibility for the peace.