For the last several years, George W. Bush has been telling us that Presidential leadership is about having good intentions, not producing desirable consequences; making demands of American allies and enemies, instead of understanding what might be necessary to get their agreement or acquiescence; reaching the right conclusion, not having the expertise needed to arrive at a conclusion; making decisions, not seeing them through. Anyone with this worldview will confuse tone with content, words with results.
Therefore, in a recent interview with the Times of London, Bush said that a major problem with his Iraq strategy was his own tone:
In an exclusive interview, he expressed regret at the bitter divisions over the war and said that he was troubled about how his country had been misunderstood. “I think that in retrospect I could have used a different tone, a different rhetoric.”
Phrases such as “bring them on” or “dead or alive”, he said, “indicated to people that I was, you know, not a man of peace”. He said that he found it very painful “to put youngsters in harm’s way”. He added: “I try to meet with as many of the families as I can. And I have an obligation to comfort and console as best as I possibly can. I also have an obligation to make sure that those lives were not lost in vain.”
You might think that Bush is just being disingenuous, trying to argue from history's docket for a less severe verdict. Maybe so, but he's also being entirely consistent. Bush has asserted that dissent during wartime sends the wrong signal to whomever we're fighting in Iraq (something that's not entirely clear to him). He also said recently that continuing to play golf as a "wartime president" sent the wrong signal, though miniature golf seems to be exempted. Any public diplomacy with countries like Syria, Cuba, or Iran will also, in the Bush Weltanschauung, send the wrong signal. Setting any deadlines or defining any measures of success in Iraq would send the wrong signal to the troops.
And so on. Bush worries frequently and loudly about signals. Since, as a businessman and politician, he almost never had to suffer any personal hardships resulting from his own mistakes, he can reduce leadership to a series of signals.
Tone to Bush matters more than it might to other people. Therefore, to be fair to Bush, let's remember a few other "media is the message" aspects of his Iraq policy:
- With regards to the Ba'athist governments alleged unconventional weapons programs, Bush never made his accusations through Hank Williams-style yodeling.
- During his infamous "Mission Accomplished" speech, he did not wink at the cameras.
- When, in 2003, reporters asked him about the expected difficulty of the Iraqi occupation, he did not answer in a Joe Isuzu-like voice.
- While trying to "comfort and console" the families of American soldiers killed in Iraq, he did not show them his dust-covered golf clubs to demonstrate his own personal sacrifices.