Conquest and Neglect

SYNOPSIS: Whenever Bush wins something, he squanders it, and then abandons any responsibility for it. Will it be the same for Iraq?

Credit where credit is due: the hawks were right to say that a whiff of precision-guided grapeshot would lead to the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime. But even skeptics about this war expected a military victory. ("Of course we'll win on the battlefield, probably with ease" was the opening line of my start-of-the-war column.) Instead, we worried and continue to worry about what would follow. As another skeptic, Michael Kinsley of Slate, wrote yesterday: "I do hope to be proven wrong. But it hasn't happened yet."

Why worry? I won't pretend to have any insights into what is going on in the minds of the Iraqi people. But there is a pattern to the Bush administration's way of doing business that does not bode well for the future a pattern of conquest followed by malign neglect.

One has to admit that the Bush people are very good at conquest, military and political. They focus all their attention on an issue; they pull out all the stops; they don't worry about breaking the rules. This technique brought them victory in the Florida recount battle, the passage of the 2001 tax cut, the fall of Kabul, victory in the midterm elections, and the fall of Baghdad.

But after the triumph, when it comes time to take care of what they've won, their attention wanders, and things go to pot.

The most obvious example is Afghanistan, the land the Bush administration forgot. Most of the country is back under the control of fundamentalist warlords; unpaid soldiers and policemen are deserting in droves. (Remember that the Bush administration forgot to include any Afghan aid in its latest budget.)

President Hamid Karzai's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, told an Associated Press reporter: "It is like I am seeing the same movie twice and no one is trying to fix the problem. What was promised to Afghans with the collapse of the Taliban was a new life of hope and change. But what was delivered? Nothing. Everyone is back in business."

The same pattern can be seen on the economic front. President Bush won a great triumph in 2001 when he pushed through a huge tax cut claiming that his plan was just the medicine to cure the economy's ills. What has happened since?

The answer is that things have gradually fallen apart. There was one quarter of good growth, early in 2002 and there were cries of triumph over the policy's success. After that, however, things went steadily wrong. Growth was too slow to create jobs: at the end of 2002, after a year of "recovery," fewer people were working than at the end of 2001.

And in the last two months the situation has deteriorated rapidly. In February and March the U.S. economy lost 465,000 jobs, bringing the total job loss since the recession officially began in March 2001 to more than two million.

At this point the employment decline has been bigger, and has gone on longer, than the slump that took place during the first Bush administration. And there's no sign of an upturn: new claims for unemployment insurance are still running well above the level that would signal an improving labor market.

Some hope that the economy will turn around of its own accord that consumers and businesses, relieved that the war has gone well, will begin spending freely. But hope is not a plan. What is the plan?

The answer seems to be that there is no plan for the economy. Instead, the White House is fixated on achieving another political triumph the elimination of taxes on dividends that has little or no relevance to our current economic troubles.

I could demonstrate this irrelevance by going through an economic analysis, but here's a telling political clue: USA Today reports that faced with concerns in Congress about budget deficits, the administration has indicated that it is willing to consider a phase-in of its dividend plan.

That is, it's willing to forgo immediate tax cuts the one piece of its proposal that might actually help the economy now in order to be able to pass its long-run proposal intact, and hence claim total victory.

The scary thing is that this slash-and-burn approach to governing may continue to work for Mr. Bush's people because the initial triumphs get all the headlines. Unfortunately, the rest of the world has to live in the wreckage they leave behind.

Originally published in The New York Times, 4.11.03