Friday, July 21, 2006

Tending to the Curtain: The Imperfect Science of C.H.A.

Ron Suskind's The One Percent Solution is the gift that keeps giving in terms of providing a fly-on-the-wall view to behind the scenes machinations for what has been an otherwise notoriously secretive administration. In fact, that very secretiveness might serve a purpose (more below). The description Suskind provides as to why CIA Director George Tenet was willing to fall on his sword and endure the scathing criticisms issued by Condi Rice and others over the inclusion of the dubious Niger yellowcake claims in the President's now infamous state of the union address is telling.

By way of background, despite numerous objections voiced by the CIA in response to White House desires to use the Niger story in prior speeches, and the state of the union address itself, the Bush team included it anyway. When confronted with the bogus nature of the evidence after the speech (due, in no small part, to Joe Wilson's fateful op-ed), Condi Rice pointed the finger directly at CIA, and Tenet was willing to take the bullet. Suskind offers a glimpse as to how and why the doctrine of CHA (Cover His Ass) came to replace the more universally appealing tendency to CYA [emphasis mine throughout]:
George W. Bush, with his demonstrative firmness, his willed, unflinching certainty, shows vulnerability and confusion only to those in a very small, secretive circle, just a handful of people. He is very good at some things that presidents are prized for, and startlingly deficient in others. No one in his innermost circle trusts that those imbalances would be well received by a knowledgeable public, especially at a time of crisis. So they are protective of him - astonishingly so - and forgiving. That goes for Cheney, Rove, Rice, Card, Rumsfeld, and Tenet, the trusted half dozen. In fact, it may be the only impulse they all share.
The problem facing the tenders of the curtain erected around Bush's glaring weaknesses is that sometimes the curtain gets pulled back. The persistent unpredictability of life has a way of tugging at facades.

Despite an unprecedented reluctance to appear before the media in neutral settings, even Bush must submit to a non-scripted press conference on occasion (although this does tend to put all those tightly controlled campaign events into focus). Further, to the consternation of his supporters, the stray microphone might be left on from time to time to capture some less than presidential verbiage. In addition, the foreign press, all too often, has shown less discretion than our own in terms of bringing the real-life flaws to light. Fate, as it were, conspired to bring together, in an unnerving collision, Bush's fundamental shortcomings with some of the most crucial geo-political developments in recent memory.

It hasn't been a good week for Bush, or his handlers, as he bumbled his way through the G-8 summit with the gravitas of an insurance salesman all while the Levant erupted in violence that waxes apocalyptic. He inspired that particular feeling of mortification one would be seized with if your parent showed up at your graduation in a lime green suit and pink shirt, yelling uncouth comments as you approached the stage and then proceeded to make inappropriate gestures to the women at the reception afterward. For a brief and cringe inducing period, it was President Dangerfield - at a time when the world needed to be reassured of America's stature and efficacy.

First things first I suppose. While in Germany meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel late last week ahead of the G-8 summit, Bush was inappropriately glib and childish when being asked serious questions by the journalists assembled. A taste (so to speak):

With the world's most perplexing problems weighing on him, President Bush has sought comic relief in a certain pig.

This is the wild game boar that German chef Olaf Micheel bagged for Bush and served Thursday evening at a barbecue in Trinwillershagen, a tiny town on the Baltic Sea.

Reporters from Germany and the U.S. peppered him with questions about the standoff in Iran, violence in the Middle East and flagging democracy in Russia. He answered all in earnest but leavened it all with pig talk. [...]

And when an American reporter asked whether Bush is concerned about the Israeli bombing of the Beirut airport and about Iran's failure to respond to an offer for negotiations, Bush replied with more boar jokes before delving into the substance of the questions.

"I thought you were going to ask about the pig," said the president. "I'll tell you about the pig tomorrow."
Sigh. Is it too much to ask that our President take a more empathetic and serious tone when confronted with such weighty issues? But it got worse. A nearby microphone on a table at the G-8 summit in Russia picked up some rather, er, choice language from the President in a conversation with British Prime Minister Tony Blair:

"See the irony is that what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit and it's over," Bush told Blair as he chewed on a buttered roll.

He told Blair he felt like telling U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who visited the gathered leaders, to get on the phone with Syrian President Bashar Assad to "make something happen."
Remember how the Right seized on Janet Jackson's nano-second long, barely perceptible flash of only slightly covered bosom at the Super Bowl halftime show to create a firestorm of controversy about the loss of decency in our nation? Do you recall all the incessant FCC crackdowns on colorful language and imagery? Now I'm perfectly willing to admit that "shit" has nothing on Dick Cheney's "Go fuck yourself" moment on the Senate floor, but still: what do I tell the children?

As others have noted, I was almost equally offended at the fact that Bush insisted on working blue with his mouth full of food, lips smacking and wide apart. I'm not a prudish Emily Post, or a stickler for etiquette and manners per se, but let's just say that two sets of rules should apply: one for beer and wings at the local bar, and another for conferences of the world's most influential leaders.

Which says nothing of the substance of Bush's statement. After dodging the expletives and flying food, praktike observed:
This little episode reveals that Bush's thinking on foreign affairs is as simplistic as it appears.
The embarrassment at the G-8 meeting only continues.

Someone, probably an aide, asks Bush something, evidently whether he wants prepared closing remarks for the end of the summit:

Bush: No. Just gonna make it up. I'm not going to talk too damn long like the rest of them. Some of these guys talk too long.
Nothing like a extra dose of contempt to really drive home the point. Well done. Followed closely by some ignorance befitting a five year old, flaunted by the Commander in Chief:
Bush expresses amazement that it will take some leaders as many as eight hours to fly home -- about the same time it will take Air Force One with Bush aboard to return to Washington.

"You eight hours? Me, too. Russia's a big country and you're a big country," Bush said, at one point telling a waiter he wanted Diet Coke. "Takes him eight hours to fly home. Russia's big and so is China.
Apparently not content to simply make wise cracks about life and death situations, inject expletives into conversations with world leaders, chat with his mouth full of food and wax childish about how "big" Russia and China are, Bush took it one step further. Check out this awkward moment in which Bush gives German Chancellor Merkel an impromptu, and uninvited, neck rub. Dear Lord, You are undoubtedly testing me.

But perhaps the most bizarre moment in Bush's recent European jaunt came when Bush, in an apparent state of supreme denial, recommended to Russia's leader Vladimir Putin that Russia should adopt the same type of democracy as Iraq. Iraq!!!!

During a joint news conference Saturday in St. Petersburg, Bush said he raised concerns about democracy in Russia during a frank discussion with the Russian leader.

"I talked about my desire to promote institutional change in parts of the world, like Iraq where there's a free press and free religion, and I told him that a lot of people in our country would hope that Russia would do the same," Bush said.

To that, Putin replied, "We certainly would not want to have the same kind of democracy that they have in Iraq, quite honestly."
Statements such as those convey a break with reality that must be anything but reassuring to a world gripped by anxiety as Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Iran maneuver in and out of position to incite what could actually end up being World War III. The week that, unfortunately, was.

The bad news is that Bush's Putin gaffe might have been indicative of a true malady, not just some clumsy wording. Via Billmon, we get a glimpse of Bush's reckless frivolity:
One former senior administration official said Bush is only emboldened by the pressure from U.N. officials and European leaders to lead a call for a cease-fire..."He thinks he is playing in a longer-term game than the tacticians," said the former official, who spoke anonymously so he could discuss his views candidly. "The tacticians would say: 'Get an immediate cease-fire. Deal first with the humanitarian factors.' The president would say: 'You have an opportunity to really grind down Hezbollah. Let's take it, even if there are other serious consequences that will have to be managed.'"
Consequences huh (warning graphic images). It is deeply unsettling to see so much chaos transpiring on a daily basis in Iraq and beyond, and know that this man is in charge.

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