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O’Neill’s Revelations and the Mind of Bush

Paul O’Neill’s revelations, the primary source for Ron Suskind’s book The Price of Loyalty concerning the timing of George W Bush’s plans to overthrow Saddam in Iraq should have come as no surprise. The ostensible reasons for going to war — the claimed link between Iraq and al-Queda and the claimed possession of weapons of mass destruction — have been shown to be without substance. The typical explanation offered by the mainstream press and political pundits was that September 11 was a turning point.

What September 11 did was provide the justification. “From the start,” said Paul O’Neill in his book interview, “we were building the case against Hussein and looking at how we could take him out and change Iraq into a new country…It was about finding a way to do it that was the tone of it…the president saying, ‘Fine. Go find me a way to do this.’ And how would O’Neill know? O’Neill, as Secretary of the Treasury also sat on the National Security Council.

Even though, under pressure, while O’Neill has tried to tone down his statements, the mass media have continued to highlight the revelations. Missing from all the recent analyses and editorials, however, is any attention to the reason why: Why did Bush have this thing about Saddam? Why the “detour into an unnecessary war in Iraq?” as the U.S.Army War College recently put it.

“He tried to kill my Dad,” the President once explained. But I believe there was more to this unnecessary war than that. I believe there was a method in Bush’s madness, a method that most likely had as little to do with oil as it did to terrorism. For the answer we need to look deeply in the psyche of the man (inferred from his biography). Earlier several other writers and I likened Bush’s personality characteristics to those of a person who, in AA parlance, is “dry” but whose thinking is not really sober. Grandiosity, rigidity, and intolerance of ambiguity, and a tendency to obsess about things are among the traits associated with the dry drunk. The dry drunk quits drinking, but his or her obsession with the bottle is often replaced with other obsessions. Twelve Step programs help their members modify their all-or-nothing thought patterns which associated with the disease alcoholism. “Easy does it” and “One day at a time” are among the slogans; the serenity prayer, similarly, helps persons with addictive tendencies to curb the tendency to excess.

In Bush’s irrational patterns of thought lie the clues to his single-minded obsession with Iraq. For the explanation for Bush’s vendetta against this one country, we have to look to his biography and to the meaning that Iraq held for his father.

The father-son relationship can be problematic in any family. When the father is considered a big hero, the first-born son, especially one bearing the father’s name, identity issues are common. As any chronology of George W Bush’s childhood will show, the son was set up to follow in the exact footsteps of his father. Sent away to the very New England prep school where his father’s accomplishments were still remembered, the younger Bush became better known for his pranks than athletic or academic achievements. His drinking bouts caused problems during his military service as well. (Remember that his father had been a war hero.) In college there was heavy drinking and other drug misuse, one arrest for a wild college prank and one conviction for drunken driving. A much later religious conversion turned his life around.

George W. Bush’s father set him up in business, and his father’s presidency helped him get his start in politics. His father, for all his success, experienced failure on three occasions. He was widely criticized for not finishing the job in Iraq– for not moving the troops in to “take out” Saddam following the Gulf War victory–and he failed to get his bill to fund a NASA flight to Mars, and finally, he lost his bid for re-election.

What a unique opportunity has fallen George W Bush’s way. The prodigal son can not only prove himself to his father but he can show up his father at his own game. Remember that for his cabinet and key advisers, he chose some of the same men from his father’s regime. He chose people, furthermore, who would be favorable to a return campaign, “a crusade” against Iraq. Given his past history and tendency toward obsessiveness, the temptation to achieve heroism through a re-enactment of his father’s war clearly would have been too much for George Bush Jr. to resist. To accomplish his mission he would have to throw caution and international diplomacy to the winds, lie convincingly to the American people, threaten allies, bully members of the United Nations, but in the end he would be able to dress in full military regalia and declare “mission accomplished.”

The fact that the targeting of Iraq had become one man’s personal crusade even seemed somewhat extreme to the father who was indirectly responsible. Yes, the man who knows George W. best, the person most familiar with his rashness of thought, indirectly sent him a message. In a speech at Tufts University, George Bush Sr. emphasized the need for the U.S. to maintain close ties with Europe and the UN. “You’ve got to reach out to the other person,” he advised. More recently, Bush has raised an unprecedented amount of money for his re-election campaign. And his grandiose (and much ridiculed) plans to launch rockets to Mars (and the moon) could have been predicted. The method in his madness is clear once you understand the pattern. Whether the majority of the American people will ever see the light remains to be seen. The starting point may be Paul O’Neill’s revelations, because one is then to prone to ask the question, Why?

KATHERINE van WORMER is a Professor of Social Work at the University of Northern Iowa and co-author of Addiction Treatment: A Strengths Perspective.

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