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George W. Bush's Record as Commander in Chief
I heard a talking head on TV say that people would judge Bush's military capabilities not on his "youthful mistakes" but on his record as Commander in Chief.
Let's look at that record and compare it to the standards for competent command. In the first part of this, I will consider Bush's record only as a military commander-in-chief; a President, as chief executive officer, also has responsibility to the nonmilitary citizens, and that will be the focus of the second section.
1) The good commander anticipates threats, makes use of all intelligence sources, does not become fixated on one threat and thus fail to notice others. The good commander ensures that supply, training, etc. are ongoing to ensure readiness to meet any threat.
For the first nine months of his Presidency (as during his campaign), Bush seemed to recognize only nation-status military threats and showed concern only about weapons of mass destruction in nations he identified as "rogue states." His limited interest in this topic focussed on Korea and Iraq; his interest in defense was concentrated on the ballistic missile defense system. Although briefed about terrorism until Ashcroft, his Attorney General, expressed boredom with the topic, Bush did not publicly express any concern about it.
His emphasis during this time was on domestic economic issues, specifically cutting taxes for the rich, which he touted as a cure for the slumping economy, and denying any connection with Enron, a scandal which was breaking news that summer. In August, he was in Texas, holding a meeting of rich "business leaders" to discuss the economy. Most of this meeting was closed to the press (it was held at Baylor University in Waco) but the University was allowed, via a student, to tape part of one session, which was broadcast live on a Waco TV station. In that session, one person bragged about having laid off 2500 workers as soon as the market slumped, and how this made her company stronger. This directly contradicts the notion that tax cuts lead to saving or increasing jobs.
So, as Commander in Chief, Bush ignored a serious threat to this country about which he was repeatedly briefed.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Bush or his immediate subordinates (such as Cheney) made a number of misleading and erroneous statements (including that the Air Force had shot down two airliners.) Bush himself projected weakness and indecision in that first 24 - 48 hours.
2) The good commander responds swiftly to attack. The good commander doesn't boast, brag, or threaten, but performs.
Bush was quick to spout off and slow to act. The window of opportunity for uncriticized response--that period during which the world would have found almost anything we did forgivable, and during which most of the world expressed honest dismay for the events and sympathy for the U.S.--was lost through indecision and Bush's determination to use this as an excuse for a conventional war against Iraq.
3) The good commander is always looking down the road to the consequences of current actions. The higher the rank, the more this ability to see not just the woods but the whole forest ecosystem matters--and at the CINC level, a President must have a grasp of grand strategy, or fail. The good commander builds trust with subordinates and allies by treating them fairly, telling the truth, etc. The good commander is a moral and ethical leader.
Bush ignored the predictable, obvious consequences of his actions. Bush lied to the world, including our allies, about the existence of WMD in Iraq and the connection (which didn't exist but does now) between Iraq and Al Qaeda. In order to gain immediate support, Bush was willing to squander long-term trust and thus ensure that this nation lost status permanently and is now more hated around the world than ever before. Bush's Administration publicly humiliated Turkey, a long-time ally and NATO member, by suggesting that they were only holding out for more money when they refused to allow their territory to be used as a staging base for the Iraqi invasion.
Bush chose to withhold Geneva Convention protection from Afghan prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay on a technicality, and later allowed his subordinates in the Defense Department to believe that he wanted such protection withheld from Iraqi prisoners. The memos which led to this came from the White House Counsel; there is no way for him to escape that responsibility (except by whining like a boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar, something Bush does quite well and his sycophants accept.) Enormous damage was done to our national reputation by the mistreatment of prisoners both in Gitmo and in Iraq. Bush does not seem to recognize that this is a moral issue, not just a matter of legal technicalities, nor does he seem to grasp the implication for American troops and civilians who may be captured in future.
4) The good commander ensures that military forces are sufficient for a mission, with sufficient supplies. The good commander insists on adequate oversight of any civilian contractors, and never allows civilian contractors to enter the chain of command.
Bush went to war with too few troops and insufficient supplies despite warnings that this was not enough. He sifted through the flag officers until he found one compliant enough to agree that the mission could be accomplished with the cut-rate force Bush wanted to use. Naturally, that backfired....more and more forces and supplies have had to be moved in.
Bush did not ensure sufficient oversight of civilian contractors. These contractors, supposedly performing support functions for the military (privatized as a supposed cost-cutting measure) have resulted in enormous known overcharges. Since the worst known case involves the company formerly run by the Vice-President, there is a strong suggestion of favoritism and coverup going on.
Moreover, the intervention of civilian contractors as interrogators and security personnel contaminated the chain of command in a way that no good commander would permit, and contributed to the abuse of Iraqi prisoners.
5) The good commander makes appropriate use of all resources, including human resources, ensuring that soldiers get all the support possible at home and abroad.
Bush's policy has been to use reserve and National Guard personnel for extended overseas tours. Tours have been extended without warning, callups have been unpredictable in some cases, and all this has created great hardship for reservists and National Guard members, and for the communities from which they come. In addition, this policy contributed to the problems at Abu Ghraib, as National Guard personnel with insufficient training were put in a position where they could be coerced into abusing prisoners. Bush has not ensured that these personnel are even paid on a timely basis (resulting, in some cases, in people losing their homes back in the States because their bank accounts weren't credited with pay to make mortgage payments.)
Bush's personal religious beliefs have ensured that military women cannot get good reproductive medical care (including contraception and pregnancy termination), and his political principles have resulted in cutbacks in benefits promised to military personnel when they joined up.
Bush believes in weapons systems more than people, and it shows. His Administration continues to look for ways to cut back the actual numbers of personnel, and reduce their benefits, even though our military is now stretched very thin. Agencies vital to our national security in the age of terrorism (such as the Coast Guard, Border Patrol, Immigration, etc.) are strapped for money and personnel while Bush still pushes forward on the ballistic missile defense system.
6) The good commander husbands resources.
Bush has rationed only information to the American people: he claims to have put the country on a war footing, but instead used the wars he started as an excuse to expand his attack on national resources, from oil reserves to forests. He did not implement any of the supportive programs (such as rescinding the corporate tax cuts or implementing gas rationing) which could have both formed a sense of solidarity and preserved resources for military needs.
7) The good commander accepts responsibility for his actions and those of his subordinates.
Bush has never accepted responsibility for his actions, or those of any of the people he commands. Bush blamed Clinton for the terrorist attacks (incorrectly claiming that Clinton was "soft on terrorism") and the economic slump. Bush continues to deny that he or his Administration was lax in failing to heed warnings about terrorism (despite the clear evidence of such laxity uncovered by both reporters and the 9/11 Commission), continues to deny that he is in any way responsible for the abuse of prisoners (despite the clear evidence that the decisions originated in the White House staff), continues to deny that he was in error about the force that would be needed in Iraq, etc.
Bush and his staff have repeatedly spoken as if the discovery of error, not the error, were the problem. Bush has blamed the media, subordinates and allies when errors were discovered, and then done his best to increase secrecy so that future errors won't be uncovered.
8) The good commander is honest.
Bush has lied repeatedly, and then (in a national television interview) threw up his hands and said "What's the difference?" when confronted with the difference between what he said and what the facts were. His desire to keep secrets--not to protect national security, but to protect himself from criticism--is another clear signal of dishonesty.
9) The good commander hears what others say--is willing to hear things he didn't want to hear. The good commander can accept and deal with the facts as they are, not as he wished them to be.
In a television Christmas at the White House interview in December 2001, Bush said the best thing about being President was that he didn't have to listen to those who disagreed with him. The commander who is not willing to hear adverse facts makes enormous blunders...as Bush has done and continues to do. He didn't want to hear about the threat of terrorism...he didn't want to hear that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction...he didn't want to hear how many troops it would take to fight the Iraq war...he didn't want to hear those who knew that Iraq did not want the US to "free" it...he didn't want to hear that prisoners should be treated according to the Geneva Conventions...he didn't want to hear that allies were unhappy with their treatment...he doesn't want to hear now (as he didn't want to hear before) about the size and scope of the popular resistance.
Considered in his role as Commander in Chief, Bush has failed in every measure. He is a lousy Commander in Chief. He lacks the character, the knowledge, and the skills to do the job.
Contents of these pages ©1996-2016 Elizabeth Moon
This essay ©2004 Elizabeth Moon