Wednesday morning quarterback

by Ted on April 14, 2004

Ezra Klein has a take on Bush’s press conference that seems right to me:

Bush stood up there for an hour and ran for President the same way he did 4 years ago; as if he wasn’t the President. The advantage of being the challenger is you get to talk about visions and ideals and intent and desire. When you’re President, you have to defend a record. That apparently isn’t so with George W. Bush. He stood there for an hour answering questions as if no policy he put into place required an honest defense, no consequences from his actions merited note. Rather, he casually threw aside whatever the situation was, expressing sympathy for the suffering contained therein and reiterating how much he loved freedom and how the bad guys don’t.

To me, the most dismaying Q&A wasn’t the part where Bush couldn’t come up with any mistake he had made, or his inability to explain why he and Cheney were insisting on appearing together before the 9/11 commission. It was this:

QUESTION: Mr. President, who will we be handing the Iraqi government over to on June 30th?

BUSH: We’ll find that out soon. That’s what Mr. Brahimi is doing. He’s figuring out the nature of the entity we’ll be handing sovereignty over.

That’s the whole answer, and it’s not good enough. June 30 is 77 days from today. Both of these statements cannot be true:

(1) We don’t know who we’re handing soverignity to on June 30.


(2) We have done a reasonable job of planning Iraq’s transition to a stable, democratic state.

Finally, I’d like to register my disgust for this little song-and-dance:

BUSH: Some of the debate really centers around the fact that people don’t believe Iraq can be free; that if you’re Muslim, or perhaps brown-skinned, you can’t be self-governing or free. I’d strongly disagree with that.

I reject that. Because I believe that freedom is the deepest need of every human soul, and if given a chance, the Iraqi people will be not only self-governing, but a stable and free society.

I expect that kind of slur from instant pundits, not from the President of the United States. Appalling.



des 04.14.04 at 3:56 pm

These straw-persons of your alleged leader’s malicious ramblings, how does he imagine they cope with the existence of a free and democratic Turkey with its largely Muslim and brown-skinned population?

On the other hand, I expect nothing but slurs and evasions from the (current) President of the Free and Democratic Republic.


Sam 04.14.04 at 4:07 pm

I tend to resist consequentialism most of the time, but on the question of judging the ethics of war we must weigh the effects of military force. Bush and Co. have assiduously avoided the question of innocent civilian deaths in Iraq, but the seige of Falluja is – or, should, if the US press did its job – exposing just how horrible and wrong this war is. Here’s the question that someone should have asked him last night (he would certainly have evaded it): how many children have been killed in Falluja? And how many more are you willing to see killed in order to “get the job done” there?


Gavin 04.14.04 at 4:17 pm

That’s not the most stupid question ever… but it’s close:

Mr Roosevelt! How many children have been killed in Nazi Germany? And how many more are you willing to see killed in order to “get the job done” there?

What would be an appropriate answer to that? 1, 10, 100, 1000, 1000000? Who knows? The key to asking questions, it seems to me, is to ask questions that can be answered.

For example, and to be blunt, what steps are being taken to make sure that children are not killed needlessly in Falluja?


Nat Whilk 04.14.04 at 4:19 pm

Sam Crane wrote:

“the seige of Falluja is – or, should, if the US press did its job – exposing just how horrible and wrong this war is.”

Why the word “this”? Has there been a war in which innocent civilians haven’t died?


Nabakov 04.14.04 at 4:21 pm

Re Bush’s brown-skinned brothers. If he feels that way, I wonder why he won’t trust them with rebuilding their own country, shipping in US companies instead to work on the infrastructure.

It’s not like there’s a shortage of trained architects, engineers, construction project managers etc and labour in Iraq.


Dan 04.14.04 at 4:41 pm

Actually, the full non-answer to the question re: the 9/11 commission was:

Q Mr. President, why are you and the Vice President insisting on appearing together before the 9/11 Commission? And, Mr. President, who will you be handing the Iraqi government over to on June 30th?

THE PRESIDENT: We will find that out soon. That’s what Mr. Brahimi is doing; he’s figuring out the nature of the entity we’ll be handing sovereignty over. And, secondly, because the 9/11 Commission wants to ask us questions, that’s why we’re meeting. And I look forward to meeting with them and answering their questions.

Q I was asking why you’re appearing together, rather than separately, which was their request.

THE PRESIDENT: Because it’s a good chance for both of us to answer questions that the 9/11 Commission is looking forward to asking us, and I’m looking forward to answering them.

– – –

Just as damning, really


sacha 04.14.04 at 4:47 pm

Part of me secretely hopes that Bush gets reelected. If he does, then hopefully he can do enough damage to the national fabric of the US as to firmly bring us into an age when super powers are a thing of the past, and these sorts of disasters can be prevented by the organizations we’ve been trying to create (i.e. League O Nats, UN) for the past 80 years.


dan 04.14.04 at 4:47 pm

Okay: “To me, the most dismaying Q&A wasn’t… his inability to explain why he and Cheney were insisting on appearing together before the 9/11 commission.”

Need to get my eyes checked.


Sam 04.14.04 at 4:53 pm


Reductio ad Hitlerum? Do we really need the Nazi analogy? In any event, I frame the question that way precisely because the assault on Falluja is quite clearly being pursued with, I believe, insufficient consideration of civilian casualties. I have seen reports of 100-125 children and 200 female non-combatants dead. I suspect the reality is worse. It is the stated policy of the US government to not keep track of civilians killed. They are trying to create a picture of reasonable use of force that is unsupported by accurate measures of consequences.


Jeremy Osner 04.14.04 at 5:29 pm

It is equally true that the assaults on e.g. Dresden and Tokyo were carried out without sufficient consideration of civilian casualties — I say this not to excuse the military in its actions in Fallujah but to point out that not every behavior can be excused by the pursuit of victory, even in the case where your opponent is Nazi Germany/Imperial Japan.


Matt 04.14.04 at 5:36 pm


I hate to take us far afield here, but I think that there is pretty good reason to think that the fire-bombings of dresden and tokyo were taken out with quite explicit account taken as to their effect on civilians, and that it was exactly this effect on civilians that was sought. I don’t know if something similar is being done in fallujah or not- I have no good information either way- but it would not surprise me. (Maybe I’m misunderstanding your post. I’m sorry if I am.)


Andrew Boucher 04.14.04 at 5:59 pm

From the FT online site:

Iraq could convene a national assembly in July, soon after it regains its sovereignty from a U.S.-led occupation on June 30, to pick a council to advise the new interim government, a senior U.N. envoy said on Wednesday.

Lakhdar Brahimi, adviser on Iraq to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, told a news conference many Iraqis he consulted had suggested such a conference and he agreed with the idea.

So, all criticism aside, sounds like Brahimi has decided. Myself, I think it’s good that Bush is deferring to the U.N. on this.


Matthew 04.14.04 at 6:28 pm

From Road to Surfdom:
“If your idea of democratic accountability extends only as far as requiring your leaders to make glib, chest-beating, violin-backed statements of the obvious, then you’ll probably come away thrilled.”


helen 04.14.04 at 7:39 pm

It seems the Kurds are ready for democracy, but are the Iraqi arabs? Some of the Iraqi blogs suggests that many of them may be ready, but will their arab and Iranian neighbors allow it?
These things are not in the hands of Mr. Bush, however much he may wish they were.
There’s something about Islam that disallows the separation of church and state. This makes an Islamic democracy along western lines almost impossible.


aphrael 04.14.04 at 7:54 pm

Andrew – yes, it’s good that the US is deferring to the UN. But it isn’t good that the President of the US doesn’t seem to have a clue what the UN is doing, what it’s likely to do, etc.


Andrew Boucher 04.14.04 at 7:57 pm

aphrael: I guess so. Still I prefer to applaud when I can, it keeps the spirits up.


Thomas 04.14.04 at 8:09 pm

“The United States favors an Iraq that offers its people freedom at home. I categorically reject arguments that this is unattainable due to Iraq’s history or its ethnic or sectarian make-up. Iraqis deserve and desire freedom like everyone else. The United States looks forward to a democratically supported regime that would permit us to enter into a dialogue leading to the reintegration of Iraq into normal international life.”

That’s President Clinton’s statement upon signing the Iraq Liberation Act. What an appalling slur.



david 04.14.04 at 8:38 pm

First of all, regarding the comment someone made about Turkey – I’m not sure Turkey ought to be regarded as “free and democratic” in any unqualified way. Ask the Kurds in eastern Turkey if they have felt “free” or included in any kind of democratic process during the last twenty years.

Sadly, there is quite a bit of evidence supporting the view that much of the Middle East is not capable, in its present configuration, of democracy. This seems especially true when people supporting the opposite view have to rely on cases like that of Turkey – a markedly undemocratic place, at least by western standards. The explanation for the lack of democracy in that region is not, of course, that the people living there are “brown-skinned,” or Muslim, as Bush’s straw man would have it; the real explanation is much more complicated.

But my point here is that I’m not sure that Bush really is attacking a straw man. Many people, I would argue, really “don’t believe Iraq can be free,” as Bush says. Sure, many of these people have subtler reasons for holding this view than the ones Bush ascribes to them. But I think that although this might mean that Bush misunderstands the views of his most articulate opponents, I don’t think it means that nobody actually holds views like the one he attacks.


Cryptic Ned 04.14.04 at 8:43 pm

Thomas, your point would make sense if you think saying that “if you’re Muslim, or perhaps brown-skinned, you can’t be self-governing or free” is the same thing as saying “freedom is unattainable due to Iraq’s history or its ethnic or sectarian make-up”. Since obviously you know it isn’t, you should stop talking.


Nat Whilk 04.14.04 at 8:44 pm

In light of Thomas’s post, I’m waiting to hear how many of you are going to register your disgust at Clinton’s little song-and-dance. Anyone? Anyone?


Nat Whilk 04.14.04 at 8:54 pm

Cryptic Ned’s got you there, Thomas. How do we know that Clinton wasn’t referring to Jehovah’s Witnesses rather than Moslems when he talked about Iraq’s “sectarian make-up” and that he wasn’t referring to light-skinned Swedes rather than dark-skinned Arabs when he referred to Iraq’s “ethnic make-up”?


Ted Barlow 04.14.04 at 9:16 pm

Give me a goddamn break. Bush is saying that a significant number of people who oppose his policies in Iraq are doing so because they’re racists. It’s a classic playing of the race card.

You can spin Clinton’s statment all day, but he’s not saying anything like that.


Thomas 04.14.04 at 9:33 pm

Ted–Actually, what Bush is saying is exactly what Clinton said. Some opposition to US policy in Iraq during Clinton’s time was motivated by some of what motivates opposition to US policy in Iraq during Bush’s time; that is, some people don’t believe that Iraq can be a free nation, because of its ethnic or sectarian make-up, and so they oppose US efforts directed at making Iraq free because those efforts are, they believe, futile. Of course, there are differences in the implementation of US policy in the administrations, and some of those differences surely drives a portion of the debate. But it isn’t any more appalling for Bush to say that “some of the debate” is driven by these factors than it was for Clinton to suggest the same.

To suggest what you’re suggesting–that we shouldn’t look at what Clinton said for some reason–is just partisanship. There’s always room for partisanship. But it can sometimes make someone look foolish.


Cryptic Ned 04.14.04 at 9:43 pm

Thomas, it’s literally referring to the same people, except one person is accusing his opponents of being racists, and one person is accusing his opponents of being fatalistic in the face of Iraq’s history of authoritatian government.


Thomas 04.14.04 at 9:52 pm

ned–“or its ethnic or sectarian make-up.” How is that related to Iraq’s history of authoritarian government? Or are you saying that those are the same thing–that Iraq’s history of authoritarian government is somehow linked to its ethnic or sectarian make-up? You’re making the Clinton/Bush case for me…


MannyK 04.14.04 at 9:59 pm

Here’s the relevant passage of the Clinton text:

“I categorically reject arguments that this is unattainable due to Iraq’s history or its ethnic or sectarian make-up.”

What is the argument he’s rejecting? It would seem to be arguments that Iraq couldn’t be a free and democratic nation due to one or both of the following:

(i) There are multiple ethnic groups in Iraq, and some of them will never get along well enough for them to come together in a free and democratic nation.
(ii) There are multiple religious sects in Iraq, and some of them will never get along well enough for them to come together in a free and democratic nation.

Notice that the point here is not that Iraqis happen to be either Muslim or “brown-skinned.” The issue here is one of the the relation between ethnic and religious groups, and not one of people being Muslim or “brown-skinned.”

That certainly doesn’t look to be the argument that Bush is attributing to some of his opponents.

“Some of the debate really centers around the fact that people don’t believe Iraq can be free; that if you’re Muslim, or perhaps brown-skinned, you can’t be self-governing or free.”

Here the relevant arguments are that Iraq couldn’t be a free and democratic nation due to one or both of the following:

(a) Most of the people of Iraq are Muslims, and Muslims cannot form a free and democratic nation.
(b) Most of the people of Iraq are brown-skinned, and brown-skinned people cannot form a free and democratic nation.

It would seem to me that to attribute (a) and (b) to those who disagree with you is probably somewhat less charitable than to attribue (i) and (ii) to them. For the proponent of (i) and (ii) needn’t hold that there’s any necessary tension between having a free and democratic nation and being either Muslim or “brown-skinned.”


Ted Barlow 04.14.04 at 9:59 pm


Do you think that it was appropriate for Bush to say that opponents of his Iraq policies ” people don’t believe Iraq can be free; that if you’re Muslim, or perhaps brown-skinned, you can’t be self-governing or free”? Do you think that was an appropriate thing for the President to say about people who disagree with him?

Or, on the contrary, do you think that it was inappropriate for Clinton to say that “I categorically reject arguments that this is unattainable due to Iraq’s history or its ethnic or sectarian make-up. Iraqis deserve and desire freedom like everyone else.”

You want to skewer me for partisanship (btw, I voted against Clinton twice). You seem to believe that a consistent person would either approve of both statements or condemn both statements. Which is true of you?


Nat Whilk 04.14.04 at 10:20 pm


Under your interpretation of Clinton’s statement, why did he believe (i) and (ii) should be “categorically reject[ed]”?


MannyK 04.14.04 at 10:34 pm

He doesn’t say. These would seem to be good reasons: (i) they’re false; (ii) no good reasons have been presented for thinking they are true; and (iii) accepting them is going to keep us from helping people who could have a free and democratic nation from having one, and this would be a very bad thing.


Ruth Hoffmann 04.14.04 at 10:44 pm


Exactly what are you trying to prove here?

Last I checked, Clinton is not the president of the US. In fact, he’s been out of office for the past 3 + years. He didn’t invade Iraq, and certainly didn’t do so unilaterally, under the guise of a pack of lies, and under the guidance of a politicized Pentagon that valued ideology over practical knowledge.

But if it will make you happy, yes, that statement by Clinton was stupid. Bush’s was stupid too–but it was also duplicitous, since it functioned as an evasion of the question he’d been asked. It had nothing to do with the private security forces, or with any increase in ‘burden sharing’ by any of the UN troops or allies.

Now can we get back to discussing the current president (you know, the one profligately spending our money and people’s lives in this colossal misadventure, and running as if he’s not responsible for any of it)? Thomas: you start. How do you feel about Bush’s evasive answers?


Nat Whilk 04.14.04 at 10:48 pm


None of the reasons you propose seems plausible to me. People “categorically reject” arguments because they think they are utterly absurd, not because they just think they’re wrong or have been insufficiently substantiated.


Thomas 04.14.04 at 11:02 pm

I think nat has it right. The use of “categorically reject,” together with the following sentence in Clinton’s statement (“Iraqis deserve and desire freedom like everyone else.”) makes it clear. The quoted sentence is only relevant, it seems to me, if someone thought that somehow the ethnicity or religion of Iraqis was a reason they wouldn’t be desirous of freedom.

I thought that Bush’s statement was appropriate, and I enthusiastically endorse Clinton’s statement, and endorsed it at the time. I don’t see any suggestion that all opponents of US policy are somehow racist. Not at all. But it seems to me quite likely that there is a fair amount of that attitude in our country, and it is good to repudiate it.

Ruth–I’m not trying to prove anything. I’m just having a bit of fun, at ted’s expense.


MannyK 04.14.04 at 11:07 pm

I guess I don’t see why a combination of (i), (ii), and (iii) wouldn’t be enough to categorically reject an argument. And perhaps we can supplement these considerations with the further possibility that he thought there had been previous cases of religously and ethnically diverse nations that had became free and democratic. Or you might just look at the sentence that follows the one under consideration:

“Iraqis deserve and desire freedom like everyone else.”

I suppose he would say that, given this putative fact, the idea that Iraqis couldn’t form a free and democratic nation is absurd.


MannyK 04.14.04 at 11:13 pm

I think I just gave an alternate account of why he would include the quoted sentence: it helps to explain why he categorically rejects the argument. The issue, then, is not whether the ethnic or sectarian make-up of Iraq somehow conflicts with Iraqis desiring freedom, but whether their desire for freedom is going to be enough to allow them overcome whatever obstacles religious and ethnic disputes might put in the way of the formation of a single democratic nation.


MannyK 04.14.04 at 11:27 pm

You should also note that Clinton speaks of “sectarian” as opposed to religious make-up, and this would seem to suggest the presence of several distinct sects within a single religious groups. That is, it would seem to suggest that he’s talking about multiple different groups of Muslims.


Ruth Hoffmann 04.14.04 at 11:28 pm


Was Bush’s statement “appropriate” as a response to the question he was asked?

Mr. President, thank you. You mentioned 17 of the 26 NATO members providing some help on the ground in Iraq. But if you look at the numbers — 135,000 U.S. troops, 10,000 or 12,000 British troops, then the next largest, perhaps even the second largest contingent of guns on the ground are private contractors — literally, hired guns. Your critics, including your Democratic opponent, say that’s proof to them your coalition is window dressing. How would you answer those critics? And can you assure the American people that post-sovereignty, when the handover takes place, that there will be more burden sharing by allies, in terms of security forces?

I guess I missed the part of the question that asked about “the brown Muslims’ inability to be self-governing and free.” I also missed the part of Bush’s answer that addressed *anything* about private military contractors or the ratio of American to non-American troops.

But he got the straw man thing going.


Ted Barlow 04.14.04 at 11:48 pm


I’m happy to say that Clinton’s statement was addressing an argument that no one was making. So while I agree with his sentiment, it’s a rhetorical trick, somewhere between a non sequitur and a bit of moral blackmail. It’s not something that he should be especially proud of, and I don’t like it. But it wasn’t a race card moment.

Bush was also addressing an argument that no one was making. He went one step further- he specifically attributed racist motives to opponents of his handling of Iraq. Not all of them, but enough that they deserved his mention. That’s genuinely slimy.

Are you just baiting me, or do you honestly feel that there’s no diference?


ogged 04.15.04 at 12:15 am

Thomas, here’s the issue: Clinton’s “ethnic or sectarian make-up” isn’t referring to the arab-ness and muslim-ness of Iraqis, it’s referring to Iraq’s kurd and arab-ness and it’s sunni and shia-ness. Clinton rejects the argument that the divisions in Iraqi society are a bar to a democratic Iraq; about that, reasonable people can and do differ. Bush rejects the argument that Iraqis can’t have democracy because they’re brown; but no one has made that argument.


Gavin 04.15.04 at 12:26 am

Sam, I do plead guilty to the reduction ad hitlerum, sorry about that. I still think that there are much better questions out there, as your post I think concedes.

Jeremy, I wasn’t attempting to excuse every behaviour in the pursuit of victory, just pointing out that (almost) any military action entails some risk to civilians and that some balance has to be struck. But clearly the optimal number of civilian deaths is very unlikely to be zero. As for Dresden and Tokyo, there is a lot of continuing controversy about those events, see for example, the recent Dresden book by Fred Taylor.


Matt Weiner 04.15.04 at 1:11 am

When Thomas says:
Actually, what Bush is saying is exactly what Clinton said
he is committing the basic error of confusing the literal meaning of one’s words with their obvious implicature in context. As Ruth Hoffman points out, Bush was responding to a question about criticism of his botched diplomacy, in particular by Kerry. His message is loud and clear: Kerry, and anyone else who criticizes his botched diplomacy, is a racist. Disgusting.
Clinton’s remarks don’t have that implication, unless the context is very different from any that anyone has suggested. (I suspect that he aimed it at proponents of realpolitik and Huntingtonian clash-of-civilization theories, but that’s just me).
Here’s a thought experiment, in case you doubt the point.
Suppose Joe Blogs says, “There’s been a sad history of racism in America.” True, correct?
Suppose you ask Joe Blogs, “Why did Cynthia McKinney come in for so much criticism?” JB responds, “There’s been a sad history of racism in America.” The exact same words–but Joe is clearly accusing McKinney’s critics of racism. No?


Matt Weiner 04.15.04 at 1:16 am

BTW: Since Bush responded to a question about critics of his diplomacy, which specially mentioned Kerry, he can’t have meant his remark to apply to realpolitikers and Huntingtonians. The context makes crystal clear who he’s attacking.


Sam 04.15.04 at 1:23 am


Yes, civilians will always be killed in war, but some kinds of fighting are more prone to civilian death than others. So, if the initial reason for going to war had been just (which I do not concede but will keep open to debate), then the initial armored assault on mainline Iraqi military units was, it seems to me, less problematic ethically. But attacking a city of 200,000-300,000 people with Marine battalions in an effort to kill a relatively small number of fighters responsible for the deaths of the mercenaries, that is another thing altogether. Falluja is a horrible abuse of military power, and we need to call it out.


JFD 04.15.04 at 3:17 pm

To my ears, the only way in which Bush was imitating Clinton was that he was “triangulating.” When the phrase “brown-skinned” is used in mixed company, it’s usually by a Leftist, and a Far-Leftist at that, as in, “Capitalism kills millions of poor, brown-skinned children every day,” just to give one example. If only Bush’s postwar planning had exhibited the same cleverness as his use of the Left’s own language against it.


JFD 04.15.04 at 3:21 pm

In summation, the left response seems to be, “But that’s ourword for using as a club against you!”


Matt Weiner 04.15.04 at 11:18 pm

It seems that jfd thinks that John Kerry is the sort of far leftist who would utter sentences such as “Capitalism kills millions of brown-skinned children everyday.” Moron.

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