From Baghdad to Washington: How the war came to the White House

The President is bunkered in the Oval Office trying to plan his way out of a bloody mess of his own making. A mess, says Rupert Cornwell, that has its origins in his complicated relationship with his father
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The Independent US

What is it that turns the modern American presidency into a family psychodrama? We saw it with Bill and Hillary Clinton and the endless speculation over this marriage of two extraordinarily talented people. A marriage , depending on your point of view, either made in heaven or a mere alliance of convenience -especially after Monica Lewinsky. But, pace America's mighty army of conservative moralisers, even that scandalous dalliance, and the visible distress and fury of the humiliated Hillary, made little difference to the state of our planet.

Not so, however, the other psychodrama that has been playing out here for four years, and whose climax may be yet to come - the relationship between Bush the elder and Bush the younger - "41" and "43" as they like to call each other - the first father and son to become president since John Adams and John Quincy Adams ("2" and "6" in Bush parlance) almost 200 years ago. It is a tangled tale of love and rivalry, of admiration and intense competition. And it may have brought us the disaster of Iraq.

The past few days have been dreadful even by the standards of this dreadful war. US troop casualties jumped sharply, but to nowhere near those caused by the sectarian bloodletting between Sunnis and Shias. In Baghdad, the US commander has admitted that the two-month old effort by Iraqis and Americans to re-establish order in the capital has failed.

Republican grandees are breaking publicly with the White House. Belatedly, even George Bush has put aside his historical blinkers to admit that, yes, there might be a parallel between Iraq and Vietnam.

As I write, the President is closeted in the Oval Office with General John Abizaid, his top commander for the Middle East, trying to sort out the appalling mess. More US troops or fewer, a phased withdrawal, the splitting of the country into some form of confederation (partition lite), or even talks with Syria and the arch-enemy Iran (the one indisputable beneficiary, along with radical Islam, of the mess)? Who knows? Maybe none of the above. As everyone but the White House acknowledges, there are no good options; there are only less bad options.

My point, however, is that without the complex feelings of Bush junior towards Bush senior, the mess might not have happened at all. Normally I am not one to seek an explanation of contemporary political riddles in the teachings of Sigmund Freud. But the Bush case is an exception.

First, the hermetic secrecy of this administration makes normal fact-gathering especially difficult. What clues to the father/son relationship that have emerged have done so as passing references in books, either by licensed court historians such as Bob Woodward, or in the memoirs of disgruntled former officials. Second, there seems no other answer to the question that baffles me even now: why precisely was Bush junior bent on war with Iraq, almost from his first day in office?

One reason, recounted in the just-published Hubris by reporters Michael Isikoff and David Corn, is the son's desire to avenge the assassination attempt by Saddam's intelligence services on his father during the latter's visit to Kuwait in 1993: "He tried to kill my dad," the President used to fume to visitors. But there is far more to it than that.

In 1991, having driven Saddam from Kuwait, Bush senior could have conquered Baghdad in days. But he didn't, as he wrote in A World Transformed, co-authored by his former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, because he knew invasion could lead to chaos and sectarian violence, leaving Americans as the unpopular occupiers of an Arab country, with no available exit strategy: "Had we gone the invasion route, the United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land." Junior either didn't read those words (published in 1998, five years before his war of choice), or he wilfully ignored them.

That his father opposed the 2003 invasion is surely beyond doubt. For one thing, he hasn't, to the best of my knowledge, come out in support of it - and what father wouldn't speak up for his son if he possibly could? Then there is the glancing reference in Woodward's latest best-seller, State of Denial, to former First Lady Barbara Bush confessing that her husband was "losing sleep over it" and "up at night worried". Mr Scowcroft is said by Woodward to have been distressed that "41", his old friend and boss, was "in agony, anguished and tormented" over the war.

But none of this seems to have had much impact on the son, locked in his Oedipal struggle with the father whose achievements for so long eclipsed his own. Mr Scowcroft again, in Woodward's account, has an answer. "In his younger years, Scowcroft thought, W couldn't decide whether to rebel against his father or try to beat him at his own game. Now he had tried at the game and it was a disaster. Scowcroft was sure that '41' would never have behaved in this way - 'not in a million years'."

The same may explain the son's astounding refusal to change his Defense Secretary, despite the war going from bad to worse. Of course, to sack Donald Rumsfeld would be taken as admission that the war, or certainly the handling of its aftermath, had been a mistake. But there may be a deeper reason. Bush senior detested Mr Rumsfeld, and thought little of his abilities. Is the son's faith in his Defense Secretary another way of getting back at the father?

But now the long-silent "41" may be getting a form of revenge. Quite where James Baker, secretary of state to the first President Bush and longstanding family consigliere, fits into our Sophoclean cast is arguable. Tiresias, the blind prophet and seer for the Kings of Thebes perhaps comes closest, but the fit is far from perfect. More important, Mr Baker heads the Iraq Study Group (ISG), a bipartisan commission of distinguished Democratic "formers" set up last March to make policy recommendations on Iraq.

Ever the diplomat, Mr Baker has been far too circumspect to say the war was wrong. Undoubtedly, however, he disapproved of the way this Bush White House trampled on the United Nations in its determination to invade. And in his new memoirs, Mr Baker largely blames poor planning by the Pentagon, as well as infighting between the Pentagon and the State Department, for the inept handling of the aftermath. But the only person in a position to stop such squabbling among courtiers is the monarch himself.

The ISG has consulted 130 experts, in the military, the administration, in Congress, as well as academics, journalists and outside specialists, both American and foreign, including many senior Iraqis - in short, a far wider spectrum of opinion and knowledge than ever drawn upon by the White House in its calamitous rush to war.

The group will publish its conclusions after November's mid-term elections. Just possibly, they will give Bush junior a way out of the débâcle he created. But why, oh why, didn't he listen to his father in the first place?


"I personally believe in talking to your enemies. Neither the Syrians nor the Iranians want a chaotic Iraq."

James A Baker III, Co-Chairman of the bi-partisan Iraq Study Group

"The strategic goal is to help this young democracy succeed in a world in which extremists are trying to intimidate rational people in order to topple moderate governments and to extend the caliphate."

President George W Bush

" We've heard over and over that as Iraqis stand up, our troops will stand down. Well, there are now hundreds of thousands of Iraqi troops and security forces, and yet we have not seen any reduction in violence. "

Susan Collins, Maine Republican, Chair of Senate Homeland Security Committee

"Iraq at best will remain messy for years to come, with a weak central government, a divided society and sectarian violence."

Richard N Haass, Council on Foreign Affairs, in the 'Financial Times'

"We've lost the hearts and minds of the people and we've become caught in a civil war."

John Murtha, Pennsylvania Democratic Representative