Reality Catches Up With an Axis of Denial
It's hard to imagine now, but there was a time when George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were regarded as a national-security dream team, three men perfectly suited to perilous times: the President, instinctive and decisive; the Vice President, a sage and tested Washington veteran; and the Defense Secretary, whose brio and charm were rare and reassuring. Or so it was thought.
But in 2006, the dream team died, and its members instead became objects of scorn and emblems of failure. Their signature venture the Iraq war spiraled relentlessly downward into civil war. As it did, Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld sealed their fate by diving deeper into denial about the realities on the battlefield. "We're making progress in Iraq," Bush said on numerous occasions during the year. "Absolutely, we're winning," he said in late October, calling Iraq a crucial battle in the broader war on terrorism. The old Navy pilot Rumsfeld, who in early 2003 said the war might last "six days, six weeks, I doubt six months," was still wearing his rose-colored goggles last February when he was asked if Iraq would be a long war. "No," said Rumsfeld, "I don't believe it is." Ten months later, the U.S. had been fighting in Iraq longer than it took to defeat the Nazis in World War II. On a mid-October morning when 15 U.S. troops had died in the previous 48 hours in Iraq, Cheney told TIME, "We're not looking for an exit strategy. We're looking for victory."
But voters and not just Democrats but independents and even many Republicans were looking for something else. The result: some of the lowest sustained job-approval ratings for the President in the history of polling and a G.O.P. wipeout in the November elections. Exit polls suggested corruption mattered most to voters, but professionals from both parties agree that deep discontent over the Iraq war and a loss of faith in those leading it powered the Democrats to victory.
The dream team, meanwhile, disbanded. Cheney disappeared for a few weeks, and Rumsfeld was fired. Republicans who lost the majority in the Senate were miffed that Bush waited to pull the trigger, particularly because Rumsfeld had long since shed his other allies within the White House when the President finally pushed him from the Pentagon after the midterms. The delay may have had something to do with Rumsfeld's key ally: Bush had chosen Rumsfeld on Cheney's advice over the objections of his dad, the 41st President. So when the younger Bush nominated Robert Gates, his father's CIA chief, to replace Rumsfeld, the move was seen as a repudiation of the Vice President as well. If there was any doubt of that, Gates ended it during his confirmation hearing in early December. With astonishing candor, Gates testified that the U.S. had failed to send enough troops to stabilize Iraq contradicting years of assertions by Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld. Asked if the U.S. was winning the war, Gates replied, "No, sir." For the White House, it was the beginning of wisdom. But only just. Bush and Cheney are a long, long way from either a turnaround in their political fortunes or, far more important, a solution to the Iraq fiasco.