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President on Another Planet

By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, August 22, 2006

For a moment there, I was almost encouraged. George W. Bush, the most resolutely incurious and inflexible of presidents, was reported last week to have been surprised at seeing Iraqi citizens -- who ought to be grateful beneficiaries of the American occupation, I mean "liberation" -- demonstrating in support of Hezbollah and against Israel.

Surprise would be a start, since it would mean the Decider was admitting novel facts to his settled base of knowledge and reacting to them. Alas, it seems the door to the presidential mind is still locked tight. "I don't remember being surprised," he said at his news conference yesterday. "I'm not sure what they mean by that."

I'm guessing "they" might mean that when you try to impose your simplistic, black-and-white template on a kaleidoscopic world, and you end up setting the Middle East on fire, either you're surprised or you're not paying attention. But that's just me.

As for George Bush, what on earth is on his mind?

Even conservatives have begun openly assessing the president's intellect, especially its impermeability to new information. Cable television pundit Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman, devoted a segment of his MSNBC show to "George Bush's mental weakness," with a legend at the bottom of the screen that impertinently asked: "IS BUSH AN 'IDIOT'?"

It's tempting to go there, but I'm not sure we'd get very far. While we have the president on the couch, I'm more interested in trying to understand his emotional response -- or lack of response -- to the chaos he has spawned.

According to the Iraqi government, 3,438 civilians were killed in July, making it the bloodiest month since the invasion. The president was asked yesterday whether the failure of the U.S.-backed "unity" government to stem the orgy of sectarian carnage disappoints him, and he said that no, it didn't. How, I wonder, is that possible? Does he believe it would be a sign of weakness to admit that the flowering of democracy in Iraq isn't going exactly as planned? Does he believe saying everything's just fine will make it so? Is he in denial? Or do 3,438 deaths really just roll off his back after he's had his workout and a nice bike ride?

"I hear a lot of talk about civil war" in Iraq, he allowed -- much of it apparently from his own generals, who have been increasingly bold in using the once-forbidden phrase -- but all that talk doesn't seem to penetrate very far. To the president, is all the bad news from Iraq just "talk" without objective reality?

Here's another line from the president's news conference: "What's very interesting about the violence in Lebanon and the violence in Iraq and the violence in Gaza is this: These are all groups of terrorists who are trying to stop the advance of democracy."

Now, whatever you think about George Bush's intellect, he knows full well that the Hamas government in Gaza was democratically elected. He also knows full well that Hezbollah participates in the democratically elected government of Lebanon, or what's left of Lebanon. And so he has to know full well that U.S.-backed Israeli assaults on Gaza and Lebanon -- even if you believe they were justified -- had the impact of crippling, if not crushing, two nascent democracies of the kind the Bush administration wants to cultivate throughout the Middle East.

He also knows that the Iraqi government has real sovereignty over only the Green Zone in Baghdad -- a fortress made secure by the presence of U.S. troops -- and assorted other enclaves where American and British troops enforce the peace. He has heard the leader of that nominal government praise Hezbollah and denounce Israel.

So when the president lauds democracy as the magic elixir that will cure the scourge of terrorism, is he really putting faith in his favorite mantra rather than his lying eyes? Is his view of the world so unchangeable that he dismisses actual events the way he dismisses mere "talk''?

Or is he just trying to hold on until January 2009, when all this will become somebody else's problem?

In his news conference, the Decider did make a couple of nods to objective reality. He admitted in plain language that Iraq had nothing to do with the Sept. 11 attacks and possessed no weapons of mass destruction -- in other words, that his rationale for this elective, preemptive war had no substance. And he acknowledged a certain occasional exasperation.

"Frustrated? Sometimes I'm frustrated. Rarely surprised," the president said. "Sometimes I'm happy. This is -- but war is not a time of joy. These aren't joyous times."

No, they're not.

The writer will take questions today at 1 p.m. on www.washingtonpost.com. His e-mail address iseugenerobinson@washpost.com.

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