Monday, September 03, 2007

"Yeah, I can't remember"

It often pays to read the entire front section of the newspaper, because you never know where you might find an item that belongs on page one.

Witness the Sunday story, in The New York Times, which detailed how Bush scholar/biographer Robert Draper scored a coup by persuading his fellow Texan, the commander-in-chief, to sit for a rare series of interviews. The Times story started on page one, and meandered along at great length about how President Bush is feeling "reflective" and "sorrowful" and "optimistic," about how he ate a low-fat hot dog and swatted at flies, about how he put his feet up on the table, about how the public won't give him a fair shake on Iraq ("every time I start painting a rosy picture, I get criticized," he laments), about how he says he has "God's shoulder" to cry on...

Then suddenly, on the jump page, way down near the bottom of the story, we discover this buried treasure:

Mr. Bush acknowledged one major failing of the early occupation of Iraq when he said of disbanding the Saddam Hussein-era military, “The policy was to keep the army intact; didn’t happen.” But when Mr. Draper pointed out that Mr. Bush’s former Iraq administrator, L. Paul Bremer III, had gone ahead and forced the army’s dissolution and then asked Mr. Bush how he reacted to that, Mr. Bush said, “Yeah, I can’t remember, I’m sure I said, ‘This is the policy, what happened?’ ” But, he added, “Again, Hadley’s got notes on all of this stuff,” referring to Stephen J. Hadley, his national security adviser.

To fully appreciate Bush's key remark - "Yeah, I can't remember" - I'll provide some context:

On May 23, 2003, three weeks after Bush declared that major combat was over, his newly appointed Iraq administrator, Paul Bremer (who had no previous experience working in the region) signed an order that dissolved the Iraqi armed forces (thereby putting 385,000 people on the street). He also dissolved the existing police and domestic security forces (tens of thousands more). as well as the presidential security units that once worked for Saddam Hussein (50,000 more people).

With the stroke of his signature, Bremer created a vast pool of humiliated and newly politicized men, all of whom were familiar with warfare and weaponry. As Col. John Agoglia, deputy chief of planning at Central Command, later complained to Fiasco author Thomas Ricks, the Bremer decision was a disaster: "We snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and created an insurgency.” The decision erased one of the few unifying national institutions, and aggravated the simmering sectarian tensions.

More tellingly, the decision appeared to contradict Bush administration’s policy, as stated only two months earlier. Bremer's predecessor, Jay Garner, had told Pentagon reporters that “one of our goals is to take a good portion of the Iraqi regular army” and put them to work on reconstruction, because “the regular army has the skill sets to match the work that needs to be done.” Indeed, as author Ricks pointed out, Bush had signed off on keeping the army intact, during briefings on March 10 and 12.

The mystery deepens. Why did Bremer do the opposite? If he was contradicting Bush policy, why did he not suffer the consequences? Or had Bush policy somehow changed behind the scenes? Bremer, at the time, kept telling his worried subordinates, "I have my instructions," without saying who had issued those instructions.

So let us review: Robert Draper, the Bush scholar in The Times story, asks Bush to explain how his administration perpetrated one of the most disastrous miscalculations in contemporary U.S. foreign policy....and Bush says he “can’t remember” what happened. And can't explain what happened, even after the fact ("Hadley's got notes on all this stuff").

Is it accurate to call this guy The Decider, when he can't even remember how this fateful policy was decided, or whether he indeed had any role in deciding it?