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Book World Live: The Bush Tragedy

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Jacob Weisberg
Slate Editor in Chief
Tuesday, January 15, 2008; 3:00 PM

Slate editor in chief Jacob Weisberg, was online Tuesday, Jan. 15, at 3 p.m. ET to talk about his new book, "The Bush Tragedy," about the current presidency and the war in Iraq.

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Weisberg previously has written for The New Republic and was a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and a columnist for the Financial Times. He is the inventor of the "Bushisms" series.

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A transcript follows.

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Jacob Weisberg: Good afternoon,

I'm Jacob Weisberg, editor of Slate Magazine and author of the new book  The Bush Tragedy (Random House)I'm looking forward to answering your questions today. Just as a preface the conversation, I might say that what I've tried to do is provide an early historical perspective on George W. Bush. Instead of arguing, as so many have, that he is a bad president, I largely assume that he has failed a president, and ask the more interesting question of why. My answer draws on Shakespeare, Freud and Churchill as well as on Cheney and Rove.

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New York, N.Y.: Do you believe Bush entered national politics as a convinced member of the neo conservatives who advocated more direct action in the Middle East, or do you believe he came to trust them more and began relying upon them more? I am keeping in mind he campaigned for president being against nation building. He appointed both Powell and Rumsfeld, and I am wondering when he began favoring the Rumsfeld-Cheney-Wolfowitz policies over the Powell policies?

Jacob Weisberg: Excellent question. I think that Bush entered national politics determined to do the opposite of his father. He thought his father had been a weak President who erred by leaving Saddam Hussein in power in Iraq, not challenging China, and not crowing more loudly about America's victory in the Cold War. I think the neoconservatives -- whom Bush 41 had disdained and kept at a distance -- supplied George W. with a persuasive critique of his father's realist foreign policy and a seemingly coherent alternative. Wolfowitz's view of the Middle East resonated with Bush 43's religious feelings and his weakness for big, transformational ideas. I think Bush's original instincts in 2000 were every big as hawkish as those of the neocons, but that he only became fully persuaded by their grander notions of remaking the Arab world in 2004, after his initial WMD justification for the Iraq War fell through.

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washingtonpost.com: The Bush Tragedy (Random House)

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Houston, Tex.: Where were the history experts when the discussion about taking down Saddam started? Didn't anyone in the administration understand that to take Saddam out of the equation would only make Iran stronger in the region? Why didn't someone with an understanding of history point out that others had tried to bring change to this part of the world but had always failed? Were the neocons so arrogant that they thought they could ignore history and the religious partisanship of the people who make up Iraq?

Jacob Weisberg: Er, yes - the neocons were so arrogant that they thought they could ignore history and the religious partisanship of the people who make up Iraq. That's well put. You could say they were historical determinists, who thought that all societies would embrace democracy when freed from oppression. Bush and the neocons talked a lot about historical, but they were focused on flawed analogies to the successful reconstruction and democratization of Germany and Japan after World War II, as well as the revolution of 1989 in Eastern Europe. What they didn't know was much of anything about Iraq; when three Iraqi exiles briefed Bush on the eve of the war in early 2003, they were shocked and horrified to discover that he didn't know the difference between Sunnis and Shiites.

How could Bush and the neocons have failed to understand something that now seems so obvious as that removing Saddam would strengthen the hand of Iran? I think they were blinded by their faith in democratic transformation and their hostility to the balance-of-power foreign policy realists. Brent Scowcroft warned about the danger of empowering Iran at the time, but couldn't get Bush's ear.

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Annandale, Va.: Is there any reference to the war being started because the son wanted to avenge the assassination attempt on his father years before?

Jacob Weisberg: I discuss this in the book. I think it was a significant factor, though not the chief motivating one. George W. Bush was told that Saddam was behind a plot to assassinate not just his father, but his mother, wife, and two of his brothers on a trip they made to Kuwait in 1993. George W. specifically referred to this assassination attempt in 2002 as part of his effort to justify military action against Iraq. People close to the Bushes told me that the family continued to feel endangered as long as Saddam was in power.

As it happens, considerable doubt has since arisen about whether Iraq was in fact involved, or even whether there was an assassination plot at all. The government of Kuwait eventually commuted the sentences of all the alleged conspirators, instead of carrying out the death sentences against them. And the American military found nothing indicating an Iraqi plot in the files of the Mukhabarat, Saddam's secret police, after the invasion.

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Boston, Mass.: I haven't read your book or seen a review but one question: what will Bush's legacy be if Iraq slowly builds to an imperfect democracy over the next ten years with, for the sake of argument, 7,000 U.S. casualties, $1 trillion dollars spent by the USG, and 200,000 Iraqi casualties? Will history view it as still not worth it and a Bush failure or will history say he had the conviction to see an arduous task through?

Jacob Weisberg: This is a useful though experiment. I certainly don't have a stake in Bush remaining a failure -- I very much hope Iraq improves enough to make it real issue someday. But I don't think the decision to go to war with Iraq is likely to be viewed as anything other than a mistake anytime soon. It is a mistake for a simple reason: the initial justification, WMD, was erroneous. We went to war on a false premise. I also do not think that the costs you cite could be entirely justified, even by a long-term democratic transformation in Iraq. It has cost too many lives, too much money, and eroded American power and prestige too much. A true democratic transformation of the Middle East probably would justify it. But I don't think that is likely in the kind of time horizon we can usefully contemplate.

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Middle America: Not only were there no WMD, but there was no connection to the 9/11 attacks. I think that is as significant a reason that the war in Iraq (and Bush) will be seen as failures.

Jacob Weisberg: Yes, though to be fair, I think it's important to remember how widely shared the belief that Iraq had WMD was. In my discussion of why Bush went to war, I put a lot of emphasis on the anthrax attacks in October, 2001, which I think had as much impact as 9/11 in Bush's decision to invade Iraq. Bush and Cheney were wrong, and they used evidence dishonestly, but they sincerely believed Saddam had WMD, and suspected that he had a role in the anthrax attacks.

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Mesa, Ariz.: Very simple question. Has he committed impeachable offenses?

Jacob Weisberg: Not in my opinion. Failure, error, misjudgment, incompetence -- yes. High crimes and misdemeanors - no.

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washingtonpost.com:

Tragedy? Or Comedy?: If I remember my Greek antiquities correctly, "tragedy concerns better than average people (heroes, kings, gods) who suffer a transition from good fortune to bad fortune, and who speak in an elevated language," whereas "comedy concerns average, or below average, people who enjoy a transition from bad circumstances to good and who speak everyday language." I put it to you that the Bush story falls in the latter category. In the case of Bush, he started as a failure: failed student, failed military pilot, and several times over failed businessman. In the end he has achieved everything that he set out to do: invade Iraq, make billions for his cronies, etc. ... I would submit that he (and his supporters/patrons) have achieved their goals splendidly. They have drained the U.S. Treasury while destabilizing the Middle East and driving the price of oil over $90/barrel. The Saudis and Bushes are experiencing their own form of twisted, satanic nirvana now. Bush achieved this speaking everyday language and acting like the dumb cowboy. Aristophanes could not have written it better. Genuis! Your thoughts please.

Jacob Weisberg: Bush's personal failures might be described in comic terms, but it's hard to look at their consequences for the country and the world that way. I do think there is tragedy here in the Greek sense. Like Icarus, Bush didn't know his limits - that he didn't have the skill or understanding or competence for the job of President. Like Oedipus, he was a player in a family drama he couldn't see until it was too late. I also talk a lot in the book about the Shakespeare plays Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and Henry the V. I think there is a classical, tragic dimension to Bush's unresolved relationship with his father, and the way his need to prove that his parents were wrong about him molded his personality and pushed him toward terrible choices in the public realm.

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Washington, D.C.: I like your Bushisms on Slate. I gave you one this week when Bush said "your service is necessary to fight the enemy overseas so we don't have to fight them over here" but he was in Kuwait and we are fighting them over there. Do you know why he is so malaprop prone? He seems to give himself a congratulatory smirk every time he finishes a sentence so he can turn the page of his briefing book. Way to turn pages, GWB.

washingtonpost.com: Bushism of the Day ( Slate, Jan. 8)

Jacob Weisberg: I've had a lot of fun collecting those Bushisms over the years. But I think they give a somewhat distorted picture of Bush. They make him sound simply stupid, when in fact he isn't. Bush probably has some kind of language processing disorder akin to dyslexia, which results in a lot of his miscues. But he is very shrewd about people's motives and especially about politics. I quote in my book an apt comment Bill Clinton made around the time of Bush's inauguration in 2000. Clinton said: "He doesn't know anything. He doesn't want to know anything. But he's not dumb."

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Chicago, Ill.: I'd like you to comment on the following ... that the Bush presidency could be characterized as "fundamental incompetence meets opportunity." Meaning that the 9/11 tragedy provided the opportunities and inroads for the Bush administration to express its fundamental quality, incompetence, without oversight or restraint. Had 9/11 never occurred, the Bush administration would be considered below average, but not the tragedy (disaster?) that it became.

Jacob Weisberg: I like the phrase, and I think there's some truth to your analysis. We can't say what would have happened in the absence of 9/11 - Bush's hawkish and belligerent instincts might have found the same outlet, or a different one. But we can say that 9/11 became the opportunity for an unprecedented executive power grab that was the fondest hope of Dick Cheney going back several decades. I think 9/11 gave Cheney his big chance to sell his ideas about presidential power to Bush. I think those ideas, as expressed in the legal side of the War on Terrorism, have done as much as the Iraq mistake to discredit the United States in the eyes of the world.

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Hawi, Hawaii: The administration penchant for acquiring ever increasing executive power, is that a product of Bush's own thinking, or does it come from others.

Jacob Weisberg: To continue from my previous answer, I don't think it was Bush's idea at all. I think it was Cheney's idea. In my book, I trace Cheney's fixation on strengthening the executive branch to his work in the Ford White House after Watergate. It's the big theme of Cheney's entire career -- that only the President can deal with security threats to the country, and that the presidency has to be strong enough to do so, without a lot of second-guessing from Congress, the courts, the press, etc. In Bush, Cheney found a receptive audience for this idea -- Bush quickly picked up on Cheney's phrase about "leaving the presidency stronger than I found it." This is partly because every president likes to hear that he should have more power, while Congress and the courts should have less. But it's also because Bush doesn't have a strong legal or Constitutional background himself, and couldn't see the flaws in Cheney's argument for unilateral executive authority.

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Cleveland, Ohio: As we evaluate a new crop of candidates, what were the skills Bush lacked that led him to such a disastrous presidency?

(On an unrelated note, I'm really enjoying your brother's book, "An Ordinary Spy." Guess I'll have to buy yours, too, to make it even in the Weisberg family.)

Jacob Weisberg: Can't resist answering this one. My brother Joe Weisberg, a former CIA officer, has a wonderful new novel out called An Ordinary Spy. It's an extremely compelling take on a different kind of government incompetence - or incompetence at a different level. Washington Post, you should have him for one of these chats! It's a nice coincidence that both our books are being published this month.

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Houston, Tex.: Plain and simple:

Is Bush just a 'good old boy' that got manipulated into bad decisions OR is that really the person he is? I think the former.

Jacob Weisberg: One bit of evidence on your side is how different Bush was in Texas, where governed from the center, generally eschewed extreme partisanship and won over a lot of Democrats. I think he came to the White House intending to do the same thing on a national level, but that his presidency got away from him. I think this has a lot to do with Karl Rove's political ambitions, and Dick Cheney's policy ones. But Bush is not a fool, and at the end of the day, he can't blame anyone but himself.

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New Brunswick, N.J.: How is Bush psychologically avoiding the repercussions of his failures? Is it simply denial? I think his staff is STILL shielding him from anybody but toadies.

Good thing he will be happy to lay low at his ranch the rest of his life.

Jacob Weisberg: I don't think Bush plans to lay low at his ranch. To the contrary, I think he sees himself continuing to push for democratization around the world. I think we can expect him to work very hard to vindicate and rehabilitate his reputation

I do think think Bush is very isolated, which is something that happens increasingly to presidents the longer they stay in office. In Bush's case, I think the isolation is compounded by the way he sort of brainwashes himself - he thinks he has to appear confident in public, and to appear confident, he has to feel confident.

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Jacob Weisberg: Thanks to all for joining in. Sorry I couldn't get to every question. You'll find the rest of the answers in The Bush Tragedy! Jacob Weisberg

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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