"Leadership is doing what is right when no one is watching."
- George Van Valkenberg
Exactly 20 years ago this month, Lawrence Walsh was named as a special prosecutor to study the Iran-Contra affair - the illegal sale of US arms to Iran to provide funding for an American-backed guerilla organization in Nicaragua. Americans had some hope that their government would get to the heart of the matter and people responsible for clandestine operations using taxpayer money illegally would be held accountable. They were not. Indictments were issued but so were numerous presidential pardons. Ollie North got grilled and Fawn Hall rose to a transitory cultural icon. Ultimately, though, the leader and his policies, which were responsible for Iran-Contra, were not called to account. Mistakes, we were told, were made. But nothing that bad. The president's team was just trying to do what was right. This was the unimpeachable Ronald Reagan, after all, and nothing like this could happen if it was morning in America. The Iran-Contra Report became a kind of number two Mexican dinner with one taco missing. There were all kinds of information. But not much truth.
Today's report on the crisis in Iraq is no different. What is there in the Hamilton-Baker report that a college freshman in Middle Eastern studies doesn't already know? And that a president should not have to be told? This mundane, tenacious grasp at the obvious is one more painful example of how our culture creates soft places to fall for our leaders who fail to lead. Our obstinate president, who has refused to admit mistakes or make changes, demanded political air cover before trying something new. And we gave it to him. When did we stop demanding that our presidents do their job and start giving them commissions and study groups and blue ribbon panels to hold their hands through the trying times? How hard is it to be a man, to admit a mistake, learn from it, and then do better? We ask it of our sons and daughters.
Before President Bush went to another study group seeking counsel, he enthusiastically ignored history and fact to lead us to our present American tragedy. Anyone with a laptop could have told him that the Shiites, oppressed by Saddam's Sunnis for decades, were likely to be tempted to exact their revenge in a power struggle after the dictator was deposed. And where did he get the idea they wanted democracy? Islam has a different cultural approach to government and religion than we do in America. If Iraq wants democracy, let its people get it the same way our American forebears did: let them fight and die for it. Obviously, some of them are doing that now. But mostly they are shooting at each other and strapping bombs to themselves as our children walk in their midst trying to figure out who our enemy is. Is Iraq's fate really worth even one more drop of American blood? And the semantic discussion over what to call the dying is absurd. It hardly matters whether it is a civil war or sectarian violence because in Iraq there is no real difference between those two terms. It's just death, lots and lots of death that need not be.
The president hasn't listened to advice very well during the past six years. And it seems improbable that he will pay great attention to the 79 recommendations of today's report. Even if he were to try a psychological makeover, how does he begin to talk to Iran, a country his clever speech writer called a part of "the axis of evil" and the Bush administration has wanted to punish with sanctions? Further, why would the Iranians trust anything this president says after he has so artfully lied to his own American populace?
Back in the glory days of the Reagan-Bush administration, our leaders were almost as contradictory and confusing as those who are presently taking us to the precipice of disaster. We were talking to Iran then and secretly selling them weapons, which was not long after they had deposed of the Shah we had propped up for decades. Of course, a few years earlier, Donald Rumsfeld had traveled to Iraq to make sure Saddam had the weapons he needed to attack Iran. Is it any wonder that each new generation in Islam is taught to distrust American words and actions?
President Bush often talks about honor. But he knows nothing about it. When given a choice between doing what is difficult and honorable or what is expeditious, he invariably chooses the simplest course of action. He has dishonored our constitution to serve his terrorism paranoia and political purposes. He has dishonored the devotion of the men and women of our military, who are called to the colors, by sending them into a war that was based on a lie. And he continues to dishonor them by asking them to die to achieve something in Iraq that the president cannot even define.
I thought there was no more shame that he might bring to his office and our country. But I was wrong. His absolute inability to do his job has been put on full display for the entire world by being assigned to a "study group." Mr. Bush is still figuring out ways to get other people to do his homework.
I have an idea Mr. President. Out in the Permian Basin of West Texas where you came of age, the tough guys often tell the weak-willed to "cowboy up," a nice vernacular expression meaning quit whining and do your job. And that's what you need to do. For once, try being a man of character; admit to the people you serve in this country that you screwed up and you are going to fix the mess you made. Let your legacy be that of a man who made a monumental error but acknowledged it in time for corrections to begin while you were still holding office. Show your fellow citizens that you actually care about your country more than yourself. Almost 3000 Americans have already done that in your war. They gave their lives. All you have to do is try a little humility.
I could write more. But a special study group empaneled to examine my ideas has advised me I have said enough. And I am taking their advice to shut up.