Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Refreshing the president's memory

Well, well. The plot thickens (or sickens).

As I wrote here yesterday, President Bush was asked recently by scholar Robert Draper to explain why and how his administration had made the disastrous decision, in May 2003, to disband the Iraqi army – and to thereby create a huge pool of unemployed and humiliated men, many of whom would soon join the nascent anti-American insurgency. In response, Bush said: “Yeah, I can’t remember,” and suggested that somehow the administration policy “to keep the army intact” had been countermanded without his knowledge. In Bush's recollection, he was flummoxed by the news that the army had been disbanded - and asked his aides, "what happened?"

Now we have a new development, and it’s yet another black mark on the administration’s rich record of incompetence.

L. Paul Bremer III, the presidential envoy who made the decision to disband the Iraqi army, read Bush’s comments, as reported yesterday in The New York Times. Apparently he was not pleased. He suspected that he was being hung out to dry, and that blaming him would be unfair – because he had proof, in writing, that Bush knew what was going on, in advance.

Bremer happened to have, in his possession, an exchange of letters with Bush, dated May 2003. His letter to Bush specifically pointed out that he intended to disband the Iraqi army (even though Bush had signed off on a plan, two months earlier, to keep the army intact and put it to work on postwar reconstruction). Bush responded in writing with fulsome praise for Bremer, and gave no indication whatsoever that he was concerned about Bremer’s intention to disband the army.

Perhaps in the hopes of refreshing Bush’s memory, Bremer yesterday provided these letters to The Times. In his communiqué to Bush, dated May 22, 2003, he wrote that, after taking a strong measure to purge Saddam Hussein’s party members from government, “I will parallel this step with an even more robust measure dissolving Saddam's military and intelligence structures to emphasize that we mean business.”

In effect, Bremer was telling Bush: I intend to contradict Bush administration policy. (Indeed, there was vociferous opposition, within the U.S. military, to the idea of disbanding the Iraqi army, for fear that such a move would give the insurgents a recruiting tool.)

But, in his May 23 response letter to Bremer, Bush merely replied: “Your leadership is apparent. You have quickly made a positive and significant impact. You have my full support and confidence. You also have the backing of our Administration that knows our work will take time.”

Bremer dissolved the army that same day. These letters help to explain why Bremer kept telling his skeptical colleagues, “I have my instructions.” But what’s not so easily explained is why Bush is now claiming “I don’t remember.” Here are some possibilities:

1. Bush clearly recognized what Bremer intended to do, but is now claiming amnesia, in order to distance himself from the catastrophic decision by pinning the blame on his former subordinate.

2. Bush did read the key passage in the letter, but somehow failed to recognize its significance – that Bremer was seeking permission to overturn Bush’s own policy.

3. Bush never read the letter; his inner circle simply signed off on Bremer’s plan without Bush’s input – and without informing Secretary of State Colin Powell or the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (Powell and the joint chiefs have long stated that they were never asked for advice, or informed of the decision in advance.)

Apparently, the fog of war is not limited only to the battlefield. Chalk up this new tiff with Bremer as just another blow to the credibility-challenged president. It’s no wonder that the ’08 Republican presidential candidates so rarely rouse themselves to mention Bush by name. Let's see how often that happens in the next GOP debate, tomorrow evening. Clearly, Bush is trying to give the GOP candidates a little breathing room on Iraq, suggesting yesterday that he might endorse the vague possibility of future troop drawdowns.


By the way, Slate has exclusive excerpts from the Draper book on Bush.