Maureen Dowd: From Swagger to Stagger, NYT, September 7, 2003


WASHINGTON — On one channel tonight, we can watch the iconic side of the Bush presidency. In the risibly revisionist Showtime movie "DC 9/11: Time of Crisis," George W. Bush is Vin Diesel-tough as he battles terrorists. "If some tinhorn terrorist wants me, tell him to come get me," the fictional president fictionally snaps on Air Force One after the 9/ll attacks. "I'll just be waiting for the bastard."

On network channels at the same time — W. is pre-empting himself! — we can watch the ironic side of the Bush presidency. Even though Bush the Younger has done everything in his power not to replicate the fate of his dad, he is replicating the fate of his dad. Only months after swaggering out of a successful war with Iraq, he is struggling with the economy. His numbers have fallen so fast, Top Gun is now tap dancing. He will address the nation to try to underscore the imaginary line that links the budget-busting pit of Iraq to the heartbreaking pit of 9/11.

Just as the father failed to finish off Saddam, so the son has failed to finish off Saddam. Just as the conservatives once carped that the father did not go far enough in Iraq, now the "cakewalk" crowd carps that the son does not go far enough.

"We need to get Iraq right and we're trying to do it a little bit on the cheap," Bill Kristol, the Weekly Standard editor, chastised on "Nightline." "I think we could use more troops; we could certainly use more money."

The more you do, the more you need to do. That's the Mideast quicksand, which is why it is so important to know how you're going to get out before you get sucked in.

Dick Cheney's dark idea that a show of brutal force would scare off terrorists has ended up creating more terrorists.

Tonight will be a stomach-churning moment for Mr. Bush, and he must be puzzling over how he got snarled in this nightmare, with Old Europe making him beg, North Korea making him wince, the deficit making him cringe, the lost manufacturing jobs making him gulp; with the hawks caving in to the U.N. and to old Saddam Baath army members who want to rebuild a security force; with Representative David Obey demanding the unilateral heads of Rummy and Wolfie, so that "Uncle Sam doesn't become Uncle Sucker"; with the F.B.I. warning that more Islamic terrorists who know how to fly planes may be burrowing into our neighborhoods.

Does Mr. Bush ever wonder if the neocons duped him and hijacked his foreign policy? Some Middle East experts think some of the neocons painted a rosy picture for the president of Arab states blossoming with democracy when they really knew this could not be accomplished so easily; they may have cynically suspected that it was far more likely that the Middle East would fall into chaos and end up back in its pre-Ottoman Empire state, Balkanized into a tapestry of rival fiefs — based on tribal and ethnic identities, with no central government — so busy fighting each other that they would be no threat to us, or Israel.

The administration is worried now about Jordan and Saudi Arabia in the face of roiling radicalism.

Some veterans of Bush 41 think that the neocons packaged their "inverted Trotskyism," as the writer John Judis dubbed their rabid desire to export their "idealistic concept of internationalism," so that it appealed to Bush 43's born-again sense of divine mission and to the desire of Mr. Bush, Rummy and Mr. Cheney to achieve immortality by transforming the Middle East and the military.

These realpolitik veterans of Bush 41 say that Bush pθre, an old-school internationalist who ceaselessly tried to charm allies as U.N. ambassador and in the White House, "agonized" over the bullying approach his son's administration used at the U.N. and around the globe.

Some of the father's old circle are thinking about forming a Republican group that would speak out against the neocons. "What's happening in Iraq is puzzling," said one Bush 41 official. "The president ran on no-nation-building. Now we're in this drifting, aimless empire that is not helping the road map to peace."

W. has always presented himself as the heir of Reagan, and dissed his father's presidency, using it as a template of what not to do.

But as he tries to dig himself out tonight, he may wish he had emulated the old man, at least when it comes to slicing the deficit and playing nice with the allies.