Haunted by the Past
Many Republicans have been tut-tutting about the author of “The Audacity of Hope” having the audacity to hope.
“I think people might want a little more experience than that, given the nature of the times we live in,” Dick Cheney told Sean Hannity.
Charles Krauthammer wrote that, despite Senator Barack Obama’s charms, he could not win in ’08: “The reason is Sept. 11, 2001. The country will simply not elect a novice in wartime.”
But if there’s one thing W.’s reign proves beyond a shadow of a doubt, it is this: Experience, like affectations, can be dangerous.
They will fill up history books with all the myopic misjudgments made by a war council with a couple of centuries of experience, blunders that undermined America’s security and integrity, wrecked Iraq, loosed Osama, and made the world more dangerous.
Those on the president’s “dream team” of foreign policy advisers were haunted, not strengthened, by their years of past service in top jobs. When they got the chance to run the country again under W., all they wanted to do was finish unfinished business, misapplying old ideas to new crises, like those who sabotage new romances with baggage from old relationships.
On his initial tour as defense secretary, for Gerald Ford, Rummy felt that Vietnam, Watergate and then Jimmy Carter robbed him of his opportunity to rein in the military brass, who were always impudent enough to have opinions about the military. Determined to banish America’s post-Vietnam fears about using force, he ended up creating another Vietnam that spurred more fears about using force.
As Bush 41’s defense secretary, Mr. Cheney prepared the ’92 Defense Planning Guidance draft with his aides Paul Wolfowitz and Scooter Libby. It called for swaggering world domination in the wake of the cold war, asserting that America should intervene to stop any countries — allies or foes — from challenging its supremacy.
A decade later, with a more jejune Bush as president and a more jittery post-9/11 America, Cheney & Co. brought back the loony plan and renamed it the Bush doctrine.
Vice and Rummy corroded the Constitution by using the terrorist attacks as a pretext to correct the past: as Ford administration big shots, they felt emasculated by the post-Watergate reforms; three decades later, they saw a chance to shoot some steroids into executive branch powers.
Condi Rice had been a Russia expert in Poppy Bush’s White House, so she and the older cold warriors like Rummy and Cheney readily saw the red menace under every rock. Like the “experts” who failed back in the 1960s to see that Red China and the Soviet Union were enemies of each other, not friends, they naïvely assumed that Saddam and Osama were in bed together and that because they were both bad guys, going after one was going after the other.
George Tenet’s experience tracking bin Laden did him no good, because he was so nervous about being the only Clinton holdover that he was overly sycophantish to W., assuring a skeptical president that proving Saddam had W.M.D.s was a “slam dunk.”
W. let the past cloud his judgment as well. He went along with Vice and Rummy on invading Iraq because he thought he could avenge and one-up his father simultaneously.
When Sonny, as Colin Powell called him, announced his candidacy in 1999, I asked him if it was scary to run for president knowing so little about foreign affairs.
“There will be moments when situations, incidents will flare up,” he replied, blissfully unaware of the conflagration to come. He said he could lean into his dad’s advisers, and trust his gut about which ones to trust and which to “kiss off.”
Yesterday, Senator Obama, asked about his short résumé, made the same claim that judgment is more important than experience. But he acknowledged that President Bush has given learning-on-the-job a bad name.
“I mean, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld have an awful lot of experience, and yet have engineered what I think is one of the biggest foreign policy failures in our recent history,” he told The Times’s Anne Kornblut. “So I would say the two most important things are judgment and vision. Well, judgment, vision and passion for the American people, and what their hopes and dreams are.”
Those who declaim on the need for Senator Obama to have more experience must forget who’s running the country. It often seems that the most inexperienced person alive is George W. Bush — even after six years in office.