Analysis of a President

What’s going on with George W. Bush? How can he stay so seemingly oblivious to the havoc (and human suffering) his decisions are wreaking–especially in Iraq?

In my view, he’s a black-and-white, binary thinker who needs enemies and a cause to give his life order and meaning. The 9/11 attacks were a “godsend” for him, as they were for Rudy Giuliana. From a floundering sense of things his first eight months in office, Bush soon got his focus: war on terror and, oh yes, war on Saddam Hussein and Iraq. It wasn’t much of a leap to try to “finish” what his dad had started.

Five preliminary notes:

  • As Bush was casting about in late ’01 and early ’02 for responses to 9/11 he spent a lot of time with the neocon cabal in D.C., theoreticians who hadn’t actually fought in war (like Bush) but who were more interested in proving themselves “right” about their ideology than in dealing with real-world realities in the lives of real people as a result of war.
  • The former oilman from Texas saw a win/win opportunity in Iraq: Have the U.S. control the flow of oil from one of the world’s leading producers and give firms like Halliburton (headed previously by Vice President Dick Cheney) juicy post-invasion contracts. Weapons of mass destruction, bringing democracy to the Middle East and getting rid of an evil man were largely window dressing. Burma has an evil dictator too, but the U.S. isn’t invading that country; it doesn’t have oil.
  • The neocons saw Bill Clinton as weak internationally, opining that the U.S. and its interests were getting overrun overseas. They would cite the quick pull-out from Somalia when things got bloody for the U.S. as an example of Clinton’s weakness.
  • Bush is a dry drunk. While he is no longer addicted to booze, he needs something to be addicted to–in this case, war and his obsession with “winning” it.
  • Small-minded world leaders for centuries have xenophobically identified an enemy or enemies in order to muster support for themselves. Bush fits right in with that benighted crowd.

With that as background, the key: By late ’02, with his decision essentially made to invade Iraq, Bush became a “war president.” This gave the binary thinker the single-minded focus/fixation he so desperately craved (when there wasn’t a bottle to hit and he couldn’t find bin Laden). It was too complicated and tedious to have to deal with the maddening nuances of governance and compromise. But what’s important–and tragic–here is that he chose to become a war president: in order to give him something to zero in on, to give his life meaning, to ensure (or so he thought) his revered place in history. What Bush failed to understand was that most other war presidents in U.S. history had that awful responsibility thrust upon them–though a case could be made for this country stirring up other wars and military take-overs as well: Cuba, Philippines, Hawaii, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Panama, etc. (see Addicted to War: Why the U.S. Can’t Kick Militarism by Joel Andreas). Bush pre-emptively sought war, only giving lipservice to the U.N. process of diplomacy. The previous pre-emptive wars in U.S. history pale in comparison to Iraq in size, scope, length, cost–maybe even audacity.

Bush’s thinking appears to be that people can say what they will because war presidents are usually criticized in the heat of battle, but then history proves them right. He has read many of those war histories and he knows how leaders from Washington to Lincoln to Churchill/Roosevelt had to be resolute during the dark and trying times. But the horror of Bush is that he brought on this war virtually single-handed–for his own deeply dubious and suspect reasons, one of which appears to be narcissism as a driving personality trait (the oldest child with a sense of entitlement, the apple of Mom’s eye). And he has insisted on continuing–and even escalating–the war for the same reasons.

Two final analogies:

  • Am reminded of another black-and-white thinker named Hal Sutton. In the early ’80s he wanted to be a great golfer, so he looked around and saw that Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, the two best golfers at the time, were happily married. So … he recounted that he decided to find a woman and get married too. Three marriages later he’s still not a great golfer. Like Bush, a serious case of the cart before the horse (when Sutton should’ve been going for the heart before the course).
  • Bush and Hitler, not across the board, but in one key respect: When Germany’s war was lost already in early ’43 after Stalingrad–and clearly lost in early ’45 after the Battle of the Bulge–Hitler held out to the end in a disastrous way for Germans and all of Europe (and the Allies). His decision to keep fighting until his suicide on April 30, 1945, meant hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of soldiers and civilians died needlessly. Hitler could have stopped the death and destruction long before he did when virtually everyone but he could see that all hope for the Third Reich was lost. Bush, who also seems to see himself as a man of destiny, is tragically narcissistic and self-absorbed in his inability or unwillingness to see what others see.

-Dan Shenk
Goshen, Indiana
January 2007 (revised March 28, 2007)

Comments (5)

  1. Skylark

    I read this and felt vaguely uncomfortable. It took me back to countless threads on message boards in which self-proclaimed Democrats and others bearing the torch of “liberal” harped on all of President George W. Bush’s faults. The difference between them and you is you didn’t just whine endlessly about how his ears look big and he thinks he sees WMDs and he stumbles over his words sometimes. You actually have some legitimate facts behind it.

    Still, I have to question if Bush truly is solely responsible for all that. Has calling someone a “binary thinker” become an insult, effectively diminishing the subject in the readers’ eyes more than would just tossing out a traditional “idiot” or “moron”?

    Out of curiousity, would you explain this statement a bit more? “The previous pre-emptive wars in U.S. history pale in comparison to Iraq in size, scope, length, cost–maybe even audacity.” To which pre-emptive wars are you referring?

  2. Nathan Eanes


    I’d say that Bush himself is not solely responsible for anything that’s happened. His cabinet members and Vice President Cheney are more involved in the planning and execution of the plans than the President is; in many ways, he’s just their figurehead.

    As far as the phrase “binary thinker” is concerned, I’d say that there is nothing wrong with acknowledging the existence of good and evil in this world. Binary thinking becomes a problem when people start thinking that good and evil can exist in their pure forms and be embodied by entire nations (as in, the United States is good, and our enemies are the “axis of evil.”)

  3. Dan Shenk

    In response to Skylark, no, Bush is not solely responsible for the Iraq mess. From Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack and other sources, it appears he was heavily influenced by Cheney and other neocons, but he was “the decider,” in his words. Tragically, he seemingly has been incapable of sorting out the gray areas of the Iraq situation (as well as “terrorism”), which is characteristic of binary thinking. Nuances are, well, annoying.

    As for pre-emptive wars, I listed a half-dozen in which the U.S. was essentially the aggressor. The rationales may not have been as blatant as Hitler’s “Operation Canned Goods,” a trumped-up pretext for invading Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, but the U.S. was clearly flexing its military muscle in places where the locals didn’t stand a chance (though the Filipinos held out for three years).

    In Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present he quotes Theodore Roosevelt in 1897 as saying to a friend: “I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one.” Roosevelt, of course, wasn’t president yet (McKinley was), but by early 1898 the U.S. was moving toward war with Spain in Cuba. It was deemed too important to U.S. commercial interests to leave it in the hands of the Cuban rebels, who got virtually no credit after Spain was evicted.

    By the way, thank you, Nathan Eanes, for your insight into binary thinking. You’re absolutely right about WHEN binary thinking becomes a problem. Zinn makes this point again and again in his masterpiece of looking at U.S. history through the eyes of ordinary people around the world.

  4. Dan Shenk

    Further thoughts from yours truly re George W.

    * Though he was from a military family with a war-hero dad, George W. Bush didn’t serve in Vietnam. Rather, he used Daddy’s coattails to get a cushy stateside tour in the Air National Guard. So once he became commander in chief he had to prove — to himself and others — that he was tough enough after all (classic overcompensation for a perceived earlier deficit). Other neocons, including Cheney, are in the same vein.

    * W is not officially a “junior,” but he’s a de facto one with the same first name as his father. Juniors, in my informal study the past 20 years, generally have to try harder to prove (there’s that word again) themselves — to get out of Daddy’s shadow. George H.W. Bush (“41”) had a big shadow, but part of it was “wimp” (recall the Newsweek cover story, “Battling the Wimp Factor,” in the summer of ’88 when the elder Bush was the GOP’s heir apparent to Reagan). W seems determined to prove that neither he nor his dad is a wimp — with tragic global and personal consequences.

    Dan Shenk
    April 1, 2007

  5. Kurt

    “His decision to keep fighting until his suicide on April 30, 1945, meant hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of soldiers and civilians died needlessly.”

    To lay the blame on one man is to ignore the stupidity of all those around him and all those who kept fighting – all in the name of “following orders.”

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