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George W. Bush's Dirty Business

Updated on August 18, 2012

July 10, 2011

Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) Dov S. Zakheim responds to a reporter's question during a Pentagon press briefing on May 31, 200l. DoD photo by Helene C. Stikkel. (Released)
Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) Dov S. Zakheim responds to a reporter's question during a Pentagon press briefing on May 31, 200l. DoD photo by Helene C. Stikkel. (Released) | Source

Road Kill

At my last job I drove an 18-foot box-truck. A truck that size moving down the highway at 60 mph with a flat windshield can be devastating to aviating critters. Though it was almost entirely bugs that met their doom on my windshield, once, it was a bird. I felt bad about it. It was such a sickly thud it made before flying off into oblivion.

I didn’t feel bad enough to lose sleep or anything, but I did feel bad enough to give it some thought. Had I not been paying attention? Is there anything I could have done to avoid it? There really wasn’t – short of not driving the truck at all which isn’t really an option.


Dov. S. Zakheim, a former foreign policy advisor for George W. Bush, and one of the so-called Vulcans, wrote an article about his experience.1 In it he expresses disappointment in Bush’s failed Afghanistan policy, but he does so with the sound of someone who just ran a bird down in a truck, not someone who has left a huge pile of dead people in his wake. The failure, he says, wasn’t for a lack of “good intentions” or “moral debasement”, but essentially due to “deficiencies of management”. Which sounds fine until he mentions some of the factors which contributed to mismanagement that include, the “inherent novelty and difficulty of the challenges the administration faced” and “deficiencies of …understanding, and forethought”.

Moral Debasement

We CHOSE to initiate this war. Novelty and challenge are not excuses, they are the reasons NOT to go to war in the first place. Mismanagement is when a plan is developed, with understanding and forethought, and then not carried out. Not ever having understanding and forethought, and then carrying out a plan which kills tens of thousands of people is NOT mismanagement. It IS moral debasement.

I know there are people who can flatten a bird in a truck and not really care, because they feel no real connection to the value of that life, but I really have no idea how people disconnect themselves so completely from human beings that they can plow through fields of them and at the end of the day have nothing else to say but critiques about bad management.

I could understand if this was an article ABOUT management, some wonkish foreign policy management article, and devoid of moral commentary - but it isn’t. The article is even called, “Confessions of a Vulcan,” and by the third paragraph in he is expressing pride in his service. Pride? Really? I can see him believing he did the best he could and worked hard at the task given to him, but how can he be proud of service to an administration, that he himself says implemented a failed policy which caused such significant death and destruction.

...are doomed to repeat it.

It is interesting because Vietnam really wasn’t that long ago. It was a war for which we supposedly learned some important lessons. Take the words of General Maxwell Taylor, a main architect of the early war, who said afterwards, “until we know the enemy and know our allies and know ourselves, we'd better keep out of this kind of dirty business. It's very dangerous.”

Sound familiar?

Or take this lesson learned from the Vietnam War:

Reliance on massive firepower and technological superiority and the ability to marshal vast logistical resources have been hallmarks of the American military tradition. Tactics have often seemed to exist apart from larger issues, strategies, and objectives. Yet in Vietnam the Army experienced tactical success and strategic failure. The rediscovery of the Vietnam War suggests that its most important legacy may be the lesson that unique historical, political, cultural, and social factors always impinge on the military. Strategic and tactical success rests not only on military progress but on correctly analyzing the nature of the particular conflict, understanding the enemy's strategy, and realistically assessing the strengths and weaknesses of allies. A new humility and a new sophistication may form the best parts of the complex heritage left the Army by the long, bitter war in Vietnam. (by Vincent H. Demma from American Military History).2

I'm sorry to put in such a long quote, but every single sentence seemed so appropriate to me. So, how did we so quickly lose the lesson of humility and sophistication? One potential obvious answer is from the brilliant and rapid success of the military in the Gulf War. But, the Gulf War, as a nearly pure military operation, is a terrible metric to use for other hostilities, since it did not contain the messy political and cultural considerations that are typically present.

Shock and Awe

Still, it is easy to see how this confident supremacy could lead to the instant win mentality contained in the policy of shock-and-awe that was used in the Iraq War and to some extent the invasion of Afghanistan. It might seem to, but one of the authors of shock-and-awe, Harlan K. Ullman, disagrees.3 One of the main components of shock-and-awe is total knowledge, which according to Ullman requires going beyond the military’s situational awareness and recognizing that “cultural understanding [is] as crucial as the enemy order of battle”. He considers the “little or no cultural understanding” to be the “grave and potentially fatal weakness in U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq and before that in Vietnam.”

Another major component of shock-and-awe is operational brilliance. And while, Ullman acknowledges the military's "dazzling" performance, he notes that "Where the real problems have arisen are in the whole-of-government approaches to nonmilitary tasks and, of course, in operations where there was no enemy army or air force to defeat and war was about the people and securing their support."

The Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns, says Ullman, "departed profoundly" from the true intent of shock-and-awe, because they did not produce political and strategic goals, prior to beginning the campaigns, and without those goals it was impossible to assemble the military AND non-military tools that would be required to achieve them.

So if it wasn't shock-and-awe what was it? There were people in the Bush administration who are familiar with shock-and-awe. There were people who knew the lessons of Vietnam. They just choose to ignore them. They believed in a fantasy—some magical perverted version of shock-and-awe, that at best only amounted to half of what it should have been. Bush was like a surgeon amputating a leg, completely unprepared to than stop the bleeding.


Zakheim suggests that rebuilding Afghanistan was a legitimate possibility, a belief he seemed to hold based upon the significant resources which were initially available for the task. Of course there still wasn’t a plan or any cultural understanding, so even with the resources he may have been being overly optimistic. Didn’t matter either way, though, since those resources didn’t last and were instead diverted to the invasion of Iraq. “This lack of focus on Afghanistan is a truly tragic outcome,” he says, but again this is just more dishonest semantics. The lack of focus on Afghanistan was a truly tragic DECISION. He later calls this lack of focus “benign neglect,” but invading a nation with the promise of rebuilding it and than neglecting that promise is not benign at all. In fact I would say it is fairly malicious.

He then goes on to lay some vague blame upon the tendency of American policymakers to focus on the issues of immediate importance, but that political environment is as he admits nothing new. The political environment in which you implement policy has to be part of any policy which is implemented. Doesn’t it? It isn’t something that you can later use as an excuse for why you failed.


At first glance, Zakheim’s “confession” seems like an honest, and somewhat regretful admission, but I have a hard time really believing it. For a person in his position it seems far too naïve: the lessons of Vietnam were not abstract or distant, lessons learned and mistakes made by the Russians in Afghanistan were also readily available, the policy of shock and awe and the proper way to conduct it are extensively and clearly established, and the difficulties of maintaining focus and resources on a long-term problem are obvious. So, there wasn’t really anything novel at all about the situation, or anything which should have been surprising to anyone who had bothered to really look in the first place.


1. Zakheim, Dov S. "Confessions of a Vulcan." Foreign Policy. 13 May 2011. Web. 9 Jul 2011. <>.

2. Demma, Vincent H. “Chapter 28, The U.S. Army in Vietnam.” American Military History. Washington, DC: Center of Military History, United States Army, 1989. ibiblio. Web. 9 Jul 2011.

3. Ullman, Harlan K. "Shock and Awe a Decade and a Half Later: Still Relevant, Still Misunderstood." Prism 2.1 (2010): 79-86. Web. 9 Jul 2011. <>.


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    • Rodric29 profile image

      Rodric Johnson 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Junkeseller you hit a heart string on that one with me. We do need to hold the leaders accountable. I just am not sure I want to put the all the blame on President Obama. I want the congress to take their blame as well and have some of these senators and representatives explain why there is not progress in Afghan Affairs. I thought the president would stop the War on Terror, but he saw when he started office that he had to continue it. President Clinton taught me a valuable lesson about presidents, he said that you cannot really know what you can do until you get in the office and see what little you can work with. He did not say those exact words but my sentiment is that presidents can only work withing the framework we give them. Congress extended powers of the president and our current president made the permanent. I want to know what this means in the long haul and what can President Obama do in the meantime.

    • junkseller profile image

      junkseller 5 years ago from Michigan


      It is hard to disagree with the War on Terror. Who doesn't want to get rid of terror, right? The problem though is that it is so vague. In the absence of specific goals and plans how are we to evaluate it?

      Afghanistan, though, actually did have some clear goals. Eliminate the Taliban, set up an effective and stable government, win over the people, and build an Afghan army/security force. We have failed to accomplish any of these things. The Taliban are still not defeated, numbers are still high, attacks are still high, and IED attacks are still high. The government is corrupt and barely effective in even a regional sense, let alone a national sense. The people still seem to be waiting to support whoever is the last one standing and the security forces are at best terrible.

      Yet all we hear from the administration is the never-ending "we're making progress" line. Even if we agree with the War on Terror, we still have to hold our leaders accountable and evaluate them on their ability/inability to set goals and develop plans and then carry them out.

    • junkseller profile image

      junkseller 5 years ago from Michigan

      @Dr Billy Kidd

      It's difficult if not impossible for regular people to know what really happened behind closed doors, in terms of motivations and planning. If it was entirely about oil, I wouldn't be terribly surprised, but at the same time I have no way to evaluate that.

      But all people have the ability to evaluate their politicians with a few basic questions. What was the goal? What was the plan? Was the plan carried out? Was the goal achieved? This is a really simple and basic evaluation. The administrations own admission to not having a clear goal or plan are pretty damning in themselves. Why people don't have stronger objections to Bush's administration and the wars is surprising to me.

      It's equally surprising to hear people talking about Iran when it is so similar to Iraq--some imagined great evil that must be vanquished at all costs. And if it does happen, it will likely have the same vague goals and nonexistent plan. So few people seem to mind this. It is baffling.

    • Rodric29 profile image

      Rodric Johnson 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      The downfall of a nation begins when it starts to make pre-emptive attacks in the name of freedom. It is my belief that God will not sustain such actions and will bring the evil of such things on the nations.

      I do agree with a War on Terror. If a nation is hosting terrorist we work with them to weed them out. If the terrorist run the government it becomes a bit grey to me. I am not sure what to think of Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan other than I hope we were fighting terror and not to conquer the oil fields alone.

      Interesting article with thought provoking content, voted up and interesting.

    • Dr Billy Kidd profile image

      Dr Billy Kidd 5 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      The goal of the second Iraq war was set in 1996--that was to get the oil. Mercenaries (some people I know) were called in to hold the fields and kill anyone who entered. Tiger teams had ruled out nukes, biological and chemical weapons. The final plan was draw by Dick Chaney. He make a map and divided Iraq into sections in which each major oil company was to get their share. Total (France) laughed at the deal and the war. Tony Blair bought the whole thing because North Sea Reserves were running short. There was no consideration of anything else. When you take this--no planning beyond invading and holding the oil fields--the guy who says he failed at managing probably should have been shot with the rest of these traitors becuae of his uselessness. Sorry to talk like that with such a kind person, but you brought up the ugly topic! I suppose you are a little hauted by it like I am--that these jerks and their surrogates are still running the place and headed towar Iran next if they can get Romney into the White House.

    • PETER LUMETTA profile image

      PETER LUMETTA 6 years ago from KENAI, ALAKSA