"We discussed a lot of issues. The Prime Minister has laid out a comprehensive plan. That's what leaders do. They see problems, they address problems, and they lay out a plan to solve the problems. The Prime Minister understands he's got challenges and he's identified priorities."
-- President George W. Bush, joint press availability with Nouri al-Maliki, Prime Minister of Iraq, July 25, 2006
The truly shocking thing about that bizarre statement is that it wasn't even in response to a question. Those were Bush's opening remarks. He did, one assumes, actually meet with Maliki. And they must have talked about something. But Bush doesn't seem to have been listening. Instead, he sounds like a college kid bullshitting in section because he didn't do the assigned reading. "We talked about security in Baghdad," Bush observed, delving into specifics. "No question the terrorists and extremists are brutal."
This sort of display would be embarrassing were it not so frightening.
Two days later, with Tony Blair standing at the adjacent podium, things went from bad to worse. One is used to hearing Bush say things that aren't true. He appears, however, from the look on his face and from the baffling nature of the untruths he uttered, to have lapsed from dishonesty into confusion.
(Sheer boredom may have sent him tumbling to new depths of ignorance.) "There's a lot of suffering in the Palestinian territory," Bush mused, "because militant Hamas is trying to stop the advance of democracy."
It is? Has Bush forgotten that Hamas came to power as a result of elections that he insisted the Palestinian Authority hold? I happen to think the White House made the right call on the question of Palestinian elections -- even in retrospect, even knowing that Hamas won -- though many observers think his policy has merely backfired. Rather than defend the policy, however, Bush seems to have forgotten all about it. He returned to the theme later in the press conference: "One reason why the Palestinians still suffer is because there are militants who refuse to accept a Palestinian state based upon democratic principles."
That's absurd. The president appears to be totally unfamiliar with what is perhaps the single most-discussed topic in international politics. Nothing gets people disagreeing quite like the subject of how to apportion blame for the Palestinian peoples' considerable suffering. But absolutely nobody blames Arab militants opposed to democratic principles. Terrorists opposed to Israel's very existence? Sure. Israeli intransigence? Why not. But only someone paying no attention whatsoever would subscribe to Bush's theory.
We have, meanwhile, policies that match the intellectual cesspool of the president's rhetoric. In its statements, the White House has consistently adhered to the view that the root cause of the troubles between Israel and Lebanon is Syrian and Iranian support for Hezbollah. Thanks to the dinner roll incident at the G-8 meeting, we know this is Bush's sincere view. "You see," Bush famously explained to Tony Blair, "the irony is what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit and it's all over." He further elaborated: "I felt like telling Kofi to call, to get on the phone to Assad and make something happen."
There's something of a cliché going around about Bush talking loudly while failing to brandish a stick, but in truth he's mumbling indistinctly while Israeli bombs pummel Lebanon.
If Syria is the real problem here, then, not to put too fine a point on it, someone needs to take some action of some kind related to Syria. After all, why would Syria tell Hezbollah to stop doing this shit? What combination of threats and inducements is Syria supposed to offer Hezbollah to get it to stop? And why would Syria offer them anyway? What's Kofi Annan supposed to do about this? If Bush wants to make Syria do something, he needs to do something to make it happen. Either offer Syria something, or threaten Syria somehow, or some combination of the two. The same goes for Iran. In case Bush hasn't noticed, the regimes in Damascus and Tehran aren't run by kind people looking to help the world out of the goodness of their hearts. Nor has the administration's habit of vaguely suggesting we'd like to overthrow their governments rendered either nation more likely to help us or our Israeli friends out of a jam.
There's a temptation to call this combination of inflammatory tough-guy rhetoric and feckless inaction "the worst of both worlds," but in truth the war policy being advocated by the right's more fevered voices would actually be worse than Bush's embarrassing, illogical paralysis. The real problem is that the risk of a wider regional war involving the United States remains. And if that risk becomes a reality, our country will be led into it by a president who doesn't seem to grasp what's happening.
By Matthew Yglesias
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved