From Liberty Street: Purposeful Innocence

John Turner

Wading through Bob Woodward's State of Denial has forced me to ask myself whether it has caused me to alter my thinking about George Bush and his administration. The answer seems to be: somewhat, but not fundamentally.

I have generally been guided by Hendrik Hertzberg's brief assessment in the New Yorker of March 13, 2006, where Mr. Bush was described as "a feckless President who seems fated to remain forever inexperienced." That's good as far as it goes, but it doesn't tell us why the president is destined to that condition. Woodward's main contribution is that he can help a reader understand the cause.

I noted to myself a couple days ago that ignoring evidence is the trademark of both Bush and his administration. It's as though for them evidence is a sort of intellectual deception, a kind of elitism. In their minds, real people don't rely on facts or information.

Woodward tells us that throughout the whole of 2003, as the difficulties in Iraq piled up, Bush functioned mainly as a cheerleader. He took little interest in the details of policy. He never knew, for example, that prior to the invasion the CIA had carried out an extensive program to gather intelligence on Iraq's weapons. He didn't know because he didn't ask. He never made an effort to discover what methods the CIA had employed to analyze the threat posed by Saddam. All he wanted was assurance that he was right to start the war. And George Tenet, director of the CIA, seeing what he wanted, gave it to him, and nothing else.

After Bush decided to replace Jay Garner with Paul Bremer as the de facto ruler of Iraq, the president brought Garner to the White House, presumably for a debriefing. But Bush didn't probe into what Garner thought was going on in Iraq and, consequently, Garner didn't mention what he considered to be fatal mistakes made by Bremer in the the opening days of his rule, particularly with respect to the new envoy's radical program of de-Baathification, which left Iraq with no experienced operatives in the middle ranks of government. Bush continually rails  about the inability of the appointed Iraq officials to take hold of the country's problems, but he never asks anyone why they can't do it.

In truth, Bush seems to have been unaware of the bitter quarrels that were going on within his own administration. He never knew how deeply discouraged the military leadership in Iraq was. He didn't know that General Abizaid, commander of the whole military operation in Iraq said, "These bastards in Washington have got no idea what they're doing, and I think I'm going to retire. I don't want any more part of this." And unless he has read Woodward's book, which is hard to imagine, he probably doesn't know it even now.

There is such a mountain of evidence, we have to conclude that Bush doesn't know because he doesn't want to know. And that leaves us with the question of why not.

It's easy enough to conclude that Bush is intellectually lazy. That's true, but it's just another way of saying that he doesn't want to know, that he regards knowledge as his enemy. It doesn't explain anything.

We have to try to fathom a man's self image before we can know why he takes the stance he does on something as fundamental as knowledge. It seems clear that the president views himself as a person who has the right to get what he wants. He probably doesn't know why he thinks he has such an extraordinary right but it's still an essential element of his makeup. And somewhere, on the border of his consciousness, is the recognition that if he knew he could neither get what he wants nor continue to see himself as he does. Knowledge would destroy the psyche that George Bush has become, and that psyche is precious to him above all else. In that, he's not unusual. We all want to defend and justify who we are. But most of us have not constructed self-images that put us so at odds with knowing -- or, at least, I hope we haven't.

Psychologizing is not generally an attractive pursuit in political analysis. We are wise to stay away from it when we can. But in unusual circumstances we have to face the results of strange personality traits. I don't know why Mr. Bush has the aversion to knowledge that he does. As a member of the public I don't think I have the right to know. But I do have the right to react to its consequences. Probably the most common characterization of the president by those who have encountered him is his radical lack of curiosity. What we have not grasped is that this is not merely the absence of something. It is rather the driving force of his personality. And it results in a widening gap between policy and reality. Bob Woodward describes this as a state of denial. In a way he's right. But it's a denial that is by its nature an aggressive thing and, therefore, more dangerous than even he imagines.

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Harvard Square Commentary, October 9, 2006