22 October 2008

The Bush Administration's 3 1/2 biggest mistakes

As we approach the election, I think it is time to reflect upon the Bush administration's most significant mistakes. Mistakes are conscious decisions that have been made; failures are things that you wanted to do but did not or were not able to do. This article is about mistakes. I believe that there are 3 1/2 of them.

1. Disbanding the Iraqi Army.

Saddam Hussein had something like the fifth-largest army in the world. There were 375,000 men under arms, and arranged in such a way that Shiites were assigned to Army posts in the north, in Kurdish areas, and Kurds were assigned to the south, among the Shiites. They were largely commanded by Sunnis. This arrangement had the advantage that, if there was an uprising among the Kurds, it was Sunni soldiers who were sent out to kill... I mean quell the rebellion, and vice versa.

Upon the conquest of Iraq in 2003, we disbanded the Iraqi army and told everyone to go home. This meant that all those men who had been in the Army were now unemployed. Many found "employment" in Shia militias and Sunni insurgencies. Many more were sympathetic to those movements because it was the only way they could see forward.

This led to an unmitigated disaster. I believe that it led the the war to last far longer than it should have, cost more than it should have, and try the patience of the American people to the point where they now seem on the verge of electing Barack Obama!

Imagine that instead of the disbanding the Iraqi army, Paul Bremer, the head of the Iraq Reconstruction Authority, had ordered all Iraqi soldiers to go on two weeks of R&R to visit their families, and then report to the Army base closest to their home, where they would have been organized into civil engineering/construction teams and paid a full wage.

I grant that there would have been challenges in this approach. Many would have resisted coming back because they would have feared a Saddam-style concentration camp atmosphere at the army bases, but that would not have lasted. By making use of retired Egyptian, Saudi and Kuwaiti army officers to help organize this new army and root out Baathist loyalists, we would have had outside eyes watching over the process. The training that this new army would have received in civil engineering and construction would have equipped the soldiers for civilian life when it came time to downsize the Army.

Is this just 20/20 hindsight? I don't think so. Did anybody really think that releasing 375,000 able bodied men into the civilian job force in the wake of the war was a good idea? Did anybody even ask the question?

Instead of an unemployment fueled insurgency and civil war, we would've had near full employment, and much of Iraq would have been rebuilt. Instead of having 130,000 soldiers on the ground in Iraq in 2008, we would've had a small security force to check the Iranians. Instead of having spent half a trillion dollar on a military deployment, we would have spent a fraction of that on the deployment and another fraction of it on Iraqi army salaries.

I believe that most Iraqis will look at the United States in five years with positive feelings. I also believe that we could have gotten here at much lower cost, in terms of good will, treasure and blood.

2. The Bush Administration has consistently failed to explain and defend itself.

I have never seen a group of politicians so inept at tooting their own horn.

In the early days of the Iraq invasion, the Bush administration did a pretty good job of explaining the need for the invasion. But then they began to let the mainstream media and the antiwar left manage the story.

Then they let go of the economic story. We have been living in a pretty robust economy, especially in light of the attempt at devastating it that was made on September 11, 2001. Yet you would never know it to hear the way the economy has been portrayed by the left, especially by Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Dick Durbin, Charles Schumer and the like.

Let me give you an example: in the last couple weeks of stock market turmoil the market has dipped from a Dow Jones Average of 30 Industrial stocks of around 12,500, losing about four thousand points. (I personally consider the Dow to be a lousy guage of the economy, the S&P 500 being much more broadly based, but anyway...) In fact, we have lost so many points that we are back to the level of 2003.

Stop and think about that for a moment. In the last five years we have had a net gain of four thousand points on the Dow, and the Democrats are telling us how bad the economy is! And what has the Bush administration done to counter this argument? Nothing.

The results of this constant trashing our economy has been a decline in consumer confidence and a decline in the value of the dollar! Yes, the value of the dollar has been diminished by an international perception that the fundamentals of our economy are weak. That is by no means the only thing that has brought down the value of the dollar, but it is one factor. And the weak dollar is an underreported cause of the distressingly high oil prices we have been paying.

If the Bush administration had deployed effective apologists for their economic policy, I believe that the present economic crisis we now face would be very different in scale, and a conservative would have a legitimate shot at winning next month's election.

One might argue that this is a failure rather than a mistake. But when a failure is pointed out repeatedly and you do nothing about it, it becomes clear that this is intentional, and therefore a mistake.

2.5. The nationalization of disaster relief.

(I hold that this item is a subset of number two, so it gets credit for being only 1/2 a mistake.)

Never before in the history of the United States has disaster relief been a primary responsibility of the federal government. That began the change after September 11, when, in an effort to protect the airline industry from the trial lawyers, Congress offered an enormous sum of money to everyone who lost a loved one in the 9/11 attacks. That was on top of the millions of dollars that was raised by the Red Cross for distribution through the 9/11 disaster fund.

This was never adequately explained to the people of the United States. Therefore when Hurricane Katrina struck, and the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana, both governed by Democrats, utterly failed the people of New Orleans and the surrounding area, it became incumbent upon the federal government to bail out New Orleans. As a result, we have now nationalized disaster relief.

Perhaps this was inevitable given the scope of the Katrina disaster and the information age we live in. Perhaps, if there had been 24 hour cable networks covering the Chicago fire, disaster relief would've been nationalized 100 years ago. But we need to be very clear that the failure of the federal government to act promptly in the wake of Katrina is simply because the federal government had never done that before.

In the past, states and localities were responsible for disaster relief, and they would receive federal assistance. Because the administration chose to take the blame and fix the mess, rather than take the mess and fix the blame. The MSM was more than willing to push responsibility onto the feds. After all, in the meta-narrative that the MSM likes to spin, a white conservative like Michael Brown makes a much better villian than a black Democrat like Ray Nagen, no matter how incompetent he is.)

One can argue that stepping up to the plate, doing what needs to be done and not pointing fingers is a more mature way of dealing with the crisis. But doing that had long-term political consequences.

Since the traditional role of the federal government vs states and localities was never properly explained, disaster relief is now, and forever more will be, a primarily federal responsibility!

Unless the disaster occurs a rural area populated by the sort of folks who cling to God and guns and so forth...

3. The waste of political capital on the Social Security boondoggle of 2005.

Following his reelection in 2005, George W. Bush made a speech in which he said that he had earned political capital, and he intended to spend it. He decided to spend it reforming the Social Security system. This was a huge mistake; probably the biggest mistake of his presidency.

The Social Security system is poorly understood and the Bush administration never did a good job of explaining what the reform would look like. As a result, the media and the left ( is that a redundancy?) spun his proposal into somehow endangering the retirement funds for current retirees. That lie became the story, and all that political capital went right down the toidee.

That political capital would have been much better spent reforming something that everybody could easily understand and that has a much greater impact on the economy and everyone's everyday lives: federal income tax.

What was (and is) needed is a top to bottom overhaul of the federal income tax system with flatter rates. (I am not a flat tax proponent, nor am I sold on the "Fair tax", but flatter and fairer tax rates would be a very good thing.) Along with flatter rates, Bush could have proposed an extraordinary simplification of the tax code. If he had done this, I believe that everyone would be paying lower overall tax rates (except those who currently pay nothing, because I believe everyone should pay at least 1%, but that's another post...)

Furthermore, the sort of shenanigans that Barack Obama is presently proposing, to use the tax code to undo Clinton era welfare reform, would be a nonstarter, because people would have grown over the last three years to like a simplified income tax system, where most people could file their taxes online in 10 minutes. (Under a flattened, simplified tax code, even complicated income tax filings could take 1-2 pages of forms, instead of the 12-15 that I file annually.)

Final Thoughts.

I remember how badly the left vilified Ronald Reagan, and the media was particularly insistent that he was somehow stupid. Yet by the time he died, even Nancy Pelosi was singing his praises. In spite of these 3 1/2 mistakes, I believe it would be Bush will be judged by history as a good president, because the world is in fact a safer place without the Taliban and Saddam in power, and that is his real legacy.


Little Scott said...


You bring up many good points, a very good post.

How do you feel about the Bush administration's failure to capture or kill Osama bin Laden? This might be worth a half point on your list of mistakes.

My fear is that 6 months after Obama takes office, our special forces will capture Osama and Barack will get all of the credit in the history books.


Tony said...

No, because I put the whole Osama thing on Clinton.... grin

Tony said...

Actually, I thought more about this, Scott. I would not include the failure to capture UBL, because that is a failing, not a mistake. I think the distinction is important.