A Level Gaze

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Thursday, May 06, 2004
A Moment on the Road to Baghdad?

In trying to get a handle on Bush's response to the revelations of US torture of Iraqi prisoners, I am reminded of an meeting reported shortly after he took office, in which Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar tried to convey the gravity of the situation facing Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories.

On April 24th, the eve of the visit, Bandar received a private briefing from one of the President's senior officials: Bush, he was told, was unaware of what was happening in the streets of the West Bank or Gaza. "This guy doesn't watch TV - he just doesn't know this stuff," the official said, adding that Bush's aides, many of whom were staunchly pro-Israel, shielded him. Bandar was in a hotel in Houston preparing Abdullah for his meeting with Bush the next morning. Bandar wanted Bush to see what Arabs saw daily on Al Jazeera, hoping that it would open his eyes, and so his aides were trying to get photographs. Eventually, they were able to find some, mostly pictures of dead Palestinian children - a five-year-old with a bullet wound to his head, a child cut in half. He did not want to show the most gruesome; the purpose was not to make Bush sick.


The meeting was scheduled to last twenty minutes, but Bush and Abdullah talked for two hours. At one point, the Crown Prince handed Bush the photographs of the dead Palestinian children. Do you think it's right? he asked. Bush appeared surprised by the photographs and his eyes seemed to well up. One person familiar with the conversation summarized Bush's comments: "I want peace. I don't want to see any people killed on both sides. I think God loves me. I think God loves the Palestinians. I think God loves the Israelis. We cannot allow this to continue." At one point, Bush told Abdullah that he believed Muslims and Israelis were all God's children and that God didn't want to see children from either side die. The meeting ended with both leaders promising to deliver the other side: Abdullah pledged to rein in Arafat and Bush to rein in Sharon.


Abdullah later told others that he had been impressed with the seriousness of Bush's religious convictions. Bush called Sharon, who ended the Israeli siege of Arafat's compound. Over the next several months, some progress was made, although it was eclipsed by more suicide bombings and new reprisals from Israel. In January, Bush privately assured the Crown Prince that he would re-start the peace process when the war in Iraq was over. Late last week, Bush announced his long-promised "road map" for peace in the region.

Although seeing the human costs of decisions he would be making didn't make a lasting impression on Bush, it did make one. There hadn't been a single note of contrition from the Bush administration regarding its actions before or during the Iraq war before yesterday. Bush has seen the pictures, and all of a sudden the situation in Iraq is real to him. Before now, Bush's handlers had been able to keep him isolated from the details on the ground. I'm starting to think that the ban on images of the coffins of our soldiers is as much or more to keep the president in the dark as it is for the rest of us. 700 dead, that's just a number, it's abstract, but a coffin represents a real, dead human being.

The question is, then, is the cat really out of the bag for good, or will Bush decide it's too bright, too stark, too cold out here in the real world and return to the warm, dark comfort of his bubble?

Update:Upon further reflection, it's quite possible that Bush's reactions to the two episodes above did not come about because he actually cared about the pain and degradation he saw in the photographs. No, he went soft because the whole world knows he saw them. As long as there is the tiniest shred of a fig leaf to hide behind, he'll do so, but he can't let stand incontrovertable evidence that he's heartless, er, "uncompassionate." Maybe he does care what we think.

No wonder he so cheerfully tells anyone who will listen that he has no direct contact with the news.

Update 2: Dwight Meredith much more eloquently and thoroughly notes the same grim possibility:

The final possibility is by far the most troubling. Perhaps Rumsfeld informed the President of the abuse in terms that made clear that Americans had subjected Iraqis to vile torture but the President was not concerned and took no action because he was not told that pictures existed that would make the abuse both public and indisputable.

That is a very unflattering portrait of President Bush. It does, however, fit with the George W. Bush depicted by Tucker Carlson in a 2000 profile in Talk magazine. National Review quotes the Carlson piece:

In the week before [Karla Faye Tucker's] execution, Bush says, Bianca Jagger and a number of other protesters came to Austin to demand clemency for Tucker. "Did you meet with any of them?" I ask.

Bush whips around and stares at me. "No, I didn't meet with any of them," he snaps, as though I've just asked the dumbest, most offensive question ever posed. "I didn't meet with Larry King either when he came down for it. I watched his interview with [Tucker], though. He asked her real difficult questions, like 'What would you say to Governor Bush?' "

"What was her answer?" I wonder.

"Please," Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, "don't kill me."

I'd like to stress that Dwight only mentions this as one of four possible explanations for the recent string of events, the others being reporter error, source error, or Rumsfeld error. Although he leaves the question open, the circumstantial evidence he assembles is pretty deep.