All Apologies in Bush’s Nirvana

Postcard from London

LONDON—Apparently in politics, as in life, there are different kinds of intelligence, and no single intelligence is enough to carry the day. For George W. Bush and Tony Blair, it was not traditional bookishness that made them the leaders of the English-speaking world. And it was not traditional intelligence, collected by careful spooks wary of leads and diligent about sourcing, that brought that world to war in Iraq.

It was whatever fit the duo’s rhetoric of imminent danger, and for both hawks, that happened to be the most dubious of their intelligence, the cheap rumors and vague speculations that neither they nor their intelligence agencies probably believed. The star-crossed leaders are both guilty of transforming a war of choice into a war of necessity, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman puts it, and they were both caught. Bush’s handlers have been falling all over themselves trying to insulate Bush from the now-infamous Africa-uranium claim, while Blair’s lieutenants would prefer to kill the messenger, faulting the BBC for sexing up its reporting of Blair’s sexed-up reports—the so-called “dodgy dossiers.”

It’s no surprise that Bush and Blair stretched the truth to get their war, and neither is it surprising that Bush receives kid-glove treatment from U.S. public opinion and media while Blair fights for his political survival. After all, the British public rejected war from the start while the U.S. public, ambivalent for a time, succumbed to post-Sept. 11 myopia and preferred safety to nuance. That, and Bush said all the right things. There is no spin zone like the White House.

More surprising is that, despite the army of Geppettos in Bush’s propaganda machine, Bush seems for the first time at a loss for new answers on Iraq. But even as he staggers through the mire of public suspicion, there is still hope for Bush where Blair is doomed. Sometimes the best answers are also the most simple, and Bush’s path to political redemption is facile enough to remember without a teleprompter: “I’m sorry.”

The key to its potential success hinges on his opponents’ weakness and timidity, a luxury absent for Blair. Those in the U.S. who were too shocked and awed to stand up to Bush before war are now the most vocal, and the field of presidential challengers has made a sport of second-guessing Bush’s evidence on weapons of mass destruction. Those same critics, however, still refuse to challenge the invasion on its merits, as they refused when given the opportunity last October. Of the top democratic hopefuls, only Howard Dean has consistently defied Bush’s unofficial gag order on dissent.

Legitimate attacks on Bush’s credibility are easy—and necessary—but the mirage that passes for debate distracts from the essential question, and the one that Bush’s U.S. critics have evaded at every turn: given that before invasion, both hawks and doves believed that Saddam possessed or was developing weapons of mass destruction, what should the U.S. have done? Some honest critics of invasion, as abundant in Britain as they are scarce in the U.S., have argued for more patient inspections and international pressure. Others, bolder still, insist that containment was as possible with Iraq as it was with nuclear-armed India and Pakistan—and even, according to Bush’s double standard, as it is with North Korea.

While Blair is on the ropes because he misled a country steadfast against a premature and unnecessary invasion, Bush is only on the ropes—and only kind of—because his public relations machine is dumbstruck for the first time. Bush wagered the White House on finding a deadly desert stockpile and is now trying to redefine deadly. Meanwhile, democrats have left themselves vulnerable because, rather than facing off with Bush on the merits of invasion, they insist on holding him to that bet—fine as long as nothing turns up.

Bush can put his U.S. critics on their backs, WMD or not, if he first takes a lesson from Blair and calls their bluff. Bush’s critics were just as convinced of Saddam’s weapons programs, and, like him, did not anchor their stand on the war in the evidence now in question. When Blair’s Conservative Party opposition in Parliament claimed that they were duped by the dodgy dossiers, he neutralized them with the rejoinder, “Let us recall, they [members of the Conservative Party]…were urging me to take action on the issue of weapons of mass destruction, wholly outside the dossier and the evidence. I do not accept that people were misled at all.”

Then, for the clincher, Bush must be bolder than Blair and drop the two most difficult words in politics. He must apologize directly and without equivocation before the cameras. By casting his use of now-discredited intelligence as an honest mistake, Bush could caricature himself as a judicious President forced to make do with limited information.

Most damningly, he could claim that his intelligence mistakes were not relevant to the war’s merits, leaving critics who dwell on his credibility looking desperate while sharks hungry for domestic regime change would be left only to change the subject. They held their tongues before invasion, and a quixotic stand now would seem worse than cowardly. It would seem crass and opportunistic, political sins for which Bush, if his patriotic armor is to crack, must be left to repent alone.

Blake Jennelle ’04, a Crimson editor, is a social studies concentrator in Adams House. His decision to spend the summer abroad had only a little to do with his distaste for Bush. He returns to the States with a flavour for the finer aspects of British life, including the wisdom that an extra vowel never hurt anyone.