Bush’s LBJ moment: Thomas Powers on Robert Gates

On the eve of President Bush’s ill-fated invasion of Iraq, in March 2003, CIA historian Thomas Powers predicted, with almost spooky prescience, exactly how subsequent depressing events would unfold. So I pay a lot of attention to his analyses. Today he’s on the New York Times op-ed page with a piece that reads the tea-leaves on Bush’s nomination of Robert Gates as the new defense secretary. Rumsfeld’s resignation was widely and understandably viewed as a hopeful sign that the president was beginning to accept the reality of failure in Iraq and change policy accordingly. But Powers sees Gates’ selection as an indication that Bush is actually planning more of an LBJ-style digging in of the presidential heels:

Bad news from Baghdad and opposition at home may point to a lowering of expectations, at the very least, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Presidents take failure personally, can lift their voices above the din of opponents, and can use the immense power of their office to force events in the directions they choose.

The verdict of the elections was clear. The public wants to let Iraqis handle their own troubles from here on out, while we start bringing our soldiers home. But that’s not what President Bush has said he wants, so there will very likely be a series of fights over Iraq that will extend to the president’s last day in office. Robert Gates is smart, quiet, dogged and loyal: a well-considered choice for defense secretary by a president determined to bring home that “coonskin on the wall,” to borrow a phrase made memorable by an earlier president in a similar fix, Lyndon Johnson.

[tags]robert gates, thomas powers, iraq[/tags]

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  1. Triskele

    Well, this is bizarre.

    So I’m spending this weekend finally reading Ricks’ Fiasco, and it got me thinking about this interview I’d heard on Fresh Air several years ago by Thomas Powers… someone who had gotten it almost exactly right. Spookily accurate, as you say.

    And I was wondering why I haven’t heard from him on NPR or seen him on the cable news shows since then. I googled Thomas Powers and Fresh Air in order to find out the date of the interview and found a cache of your blog from 2003 which helped me track down the original interview (which I’m listening to now).

    And then – not knowing your blog, but liking your earlier 2003 post on Powers – decided to check out if you’re still blogging, and what about.


  2. Mahler 3

    Powers is a great writer. Just finished his Richard Helms bio, “The Man Who Kept the Secrets”. Rather than a bio it’s really a history of the CIA up to 1979 throught the prism of Helms. the Church Committee findings, and watergate. Great book. I’m sure we’re going to see a replay of many of the events from the period (1974-1979). Here’s some of Power’s thoughts from the fresh air interview.
    Terry Gross: If we create a new government[in Iraq], and the government is as you describe it, more of a client government, do you think that government is going to be under attack by other Iraqis or by terrorists from other countries?

    Powers: It is hard to say when the trouble will begin. You know the thing that worries me about this whole episode is the magnitude of the grand scheme that the Bush Administration has dreamed up for transforming the political landscape of the Middle East. Big ideas are the ones that give you the most trouble. Trying to make the world perfect just leads to disaster in my opinion. And I think that is the record of human history. Whenever we’ve engaged in a really big endeavor, trouble comes. Now exactly when that is going to happen I don’t know.
    There is going to be some kind of government there, we’re going to be there. Eventually the fighting stops and the dust settles, everything is quiet for awhile and for a time it looks like “Gee, this wasn’t going to be so hard, this is going to be a big success.” But you have changed the fundamental relationships of people there and gradually they realize what the limits of their actions are and they realize, “Well we can’t have any military forces with tanks attacking the Americans but it isn’t that hard to sneak up on them in the streets.” I think an endless amount of trouble will begin to bubble forth. I figure we will have a month of war, then a month of indecision, and we will have a couple months where everything looks pretty good and then after that things are going to go down hill. It’s gonna be trouble and it’s gonna be money and it will take a generation to resolve it.

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