Sidestepping on Iraq
New York Times | Editorial
Thursday 31 July 2003
Throughout his political career, George Bush has been famous for sticking to a few issues, and repeating a few well-burnished talking points over and over. Wide-ranging news conferences do not play to his considerable strengths, and as president, he has generally avoided them. But having decided to make a rare exception yesterday, Mr. Bush should have been able to come up with better responses to two big and obvious questions: why he ordered the invasion of Iraq and why he pushed for tax cuts that have left the nation sinking into a hopeless quagmire of debt.
Mr. Bush's vague and sometimes nearly incoherent answers suggested that he was either bedazzled by his administration's own mythmaking or had decided that doubts about his foreign and domestic policies could best be parried by ignoring them.
Mr. Bush will simply not engage the issue of whether his administration exaggerated the Iraqi threat in the months leading up to the American invasion. When asked whether the United States had lost credibility with the rest of the world since neither weapons of mass destruction nor a strong Al Qaeda connection had been uncovered in Iraq, the president veered off into a tour through American history and the difficulty of coming up with an Iraqi version of Thomas Jefferson. He then skidded to a halt with the announcement that "I'm confident history will prove the decision we made to be the right decision."
Mr. Bush still hung onto his most well-worn buzzwords, however. Iraq was a "threat" - just as the tax cuts were "a job-creation program." The president and his advisers obviously still believe that the constant repetition of several simplistic points will hypnotize the American people into forgetting the original question.
Saddam Hussein was certainly a threat to his own people, and there is still an enormous amount to be gained if the United States can foster a prosperous, open society in Iraq. But that does not cancel out the fact that the primary reasons Washington gave for the invasion look increasingly suspect. That is a serious problem, both in terms of the nation's credibility and the reliability of American intelligence. Mr. Bush owes the nation more than a brushoff on these matters.
In the case of the economy, the president was stuck defending an indefensible strategy of piling up one unnecessary tax cut after another. Having helped to turn the promise of budget surpluses into the disappointment of rising deficits, Mr. Bush mimics his father's out-of-touch performance in the 1992 campaign by acting as if the country is in fine fiscal shape. It is hard to buy his assertion that his first concern is Americans who are out of work.
Given the rambling non-answers the president gave to questions about Iraq and the economy, it was interesting to hear how focused he was when someone asked how, with no opponent, he planned to spend $170 million or more on the primary. "Just watch me," Mr. Bush said concisely. There is one area in which the president's thinking is crystal clear.