Karl Rove led the nation to war to improve the political prospects of George W. Bush. I know how surreal that sounds. But I also know it is true.
As the president’s chief political advisor, Rove is involved in every decision coming out of the Oval Office. In fact, he flat out makes some of them. He is co-president of the United States, just as he was co-candidate for that office and co-governor of Texas. His relationship with the president is the most profound and complex of all of the White House advisors. And his role creates questions not addressed by our Constitution.
Rove is probably the most powerful unelected person in American history.
The cause of the war in Iraq was not just about Saddam Hussein or weapons of mass destruction or Al Qaeda links to Iraq. Those may have been the stated causes, but every good lie should have a germ of truth. No, this was mostly a product of Rove’s usual prescience. He looked around and saw that the economy was anemic and people were complaining about the president’s inability to find Osama bin Laden. In another corner, the neoconservatives in the Cabinet were itching to launch ships and planes to the Mideast and take control of Iraq. Rove converged the dynamics of the times. He convinced the president to connect Hussein to Bin Laden, even if the CIA could not.
This misdirection worked. A Pew survey taken during the war showed 61% of Americans believe that Hussein and Bin Laden were confederates in the 9/11 attacks.
And now, Rove needs the conflict to continue so his client -- the president -- can retain wartime stature during next year’s election. Listen to the semantics from Bush’s recent trip to the aircraft carrier Lincoln. When he referred to the “battle of Iraq,” Bush implied that we only won a single fight in a bigger war that was not yet over. I first encountered Rove more than 20 years ago in Texas. I reported on him and the future president as a TV correspondent there, traveling with them extensively during their race to the governor’s mansion in Austin. Once there, Rove was involved in every important decision the governor made and, according to Bush staffers, vetted each critical choice for political implications.
Nothing is different today in the White House. The same old reliable sources from his days in Texas are in Washington with him. And they say Rove is intimately involved in the Cabinet and that he sat in on all the big meetings leading up to the Iraq war and signed off on all major decisions.
Rove fancies himself an expert in both policy and politics because he sees no distinction between the two. This matters for a number of reasons. There is always a time during any president’s administration when what is best for the future of the country diverges from what best serves that president’s political future. If Rove is standing with George W. Bush at that moment, he will push the president in the direction of reelection rather than the country’s best interests.
The United States is best served when political calculations are not a part of the White House’s most important decisions. Rove’s calculus is always a formula for winning the next election. He was less concerned about the bombing of Iraqi civilians or the bullets flying at our own troops, according to people who have worked for him for years, than he was about what these acts would do to the results of the electoral college, or how they influence voters in swing states like Florida.
There needs to be something sacred about our presidents’ decisions to send our children into combat. The Karl Roves of the world ought to not even be in the room, much less asked for advice.
Rove has influenced dealings with Iraq and North Korea, according to Bush administration sources. For instance, when the U.S. was notified, through formal diplomatic channels, that North Korea had nuclear technology, Congress was in the midst of discussing the Iraqi war resolution. Rove counseled the president to keep that information from Congress for 12 days, until the debate was finished, so it would not affect the vote. He was also reported to be present at a war strategy meeting concerning whether to attack Syria after Iraq. Rove said the timing was not right. Yet. Having the political advisor involved in that decision is wrong.
War, after all, is not a campaign event.