SYNOPSIS: Bush is just like that older brother from Jane Eyre, whose name I can't remember. And it's pretty obvious that he also reminds one of Biff Loman or Fredo from The Godfather
He was a stock character in 19th-century fiction: the wastrel son who runs up gambling debts in the belief that his wealthy family, concerned for its prestige, will have no choice but to pay off his creditors. In the novels such characters always come to a bad end. Either they bring ruin to their families, or they eventually find themselves disowned.
George Bush reminds me of those characters — and not just because of his early career, in which friends of the family repeatedly bailed out his failing business ventures. Now that he sits in the White House, he's still counting on other people to settle his debts — not to protect the reputation of his family, but to protect the reputation of the country.
One by one, our erstwhile allies are disowning us; they don't want an unstable, anti-Western Iraq any more than we do, but they have concluded that President Bush is incorrigible. Spain has washed its hands of our problems, Italy is edging toward the door, and Britain will join the rush for the exit soon enough, with or without Tony Blair.
At home, however, Mr. Bush's protectors are not yet ready to make the break.
Last week Mr. Bush asked Congress for yet more money for the "Iraq Freedom Fund" — $25 billion for starters, although Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary, says that the bill for the full fiscal year will probably exceed $50 billion, and independent experts think even that is an underestimate. And you know what? He'll get it.
Before the war, officials refused to discuss costs, except to insist that they would be minimal. It was only after the shooting started, and Congress was in no position to balk, that the administration demanded $75 billion for the Iraq Freedom Fund.
Then, after declaring "mission accomplished" and pushing through a big tax cut — and after several months when administration officials played down the need for more funds — Mr. Bush told Congress that he needed an additional $87 billion. Assured that the situation in Iraq was steadily improving, and warned that American soldiers would suffer if the money wasn't forthcoming, Congress gave Mr. Bush another blank check.
Now Mr. Bush is back for more. Given this history, one might have expected him to show some contrition — to promise to change his ways and to offer at least a pretense that Congress would henceforth have some say in how money was spent.
But the tone of the cover letter Mr. Bush sent with last week's budget request can best be described as contemptuous: it's up to Congress to "ensure that our men and women in uniform continue to have the resources they need when they need them." This from an administration that, by rejecting warnings from military professionals, ensured that our men and women in uniform didn't have remotely enough resources to do the job.
The budget request itself was almost a caricature of the administration's "just trust us" approach to governing.
It ran to less than a page, with no supporting information. Of the $25 billion, $5 billion is purely a slush fund, to be used at the secretary of defense's discretion. The rest is allocated to specific branches of the military, but with the proviso that the administration can reallocate the money at will as long as it notifies the appropriate committees.
Senators are balking for the moment, but everyone knows that they'll give in, after demanding, at most, cosmetic changes. Once again, Mr. Bush has put Congress in a bind: it was his decision to put American forces in harm's way, but if members of Congress fail to give him the money he demands, he'll blame them for letting down the troops.
As long as political figures aren't willing to disown Mr. Bush's debt — the impossible situation in which he has placed America's soldiers — there isn't much they can do.
So how will it all end? The cries of "stay the course" are getting fainter, while the calls for a quick exit are growing. In other words, it seems increasingly likely that the nation will end up disowning Mr. Bush and his debts.
That will mean settling for an outcome in Iraq that, however we spin it, will look a lot like defeat — and the nation's prestige will be damaged by that outcome. But lost prestige is better than ruin.
Originally published in The New York Times, 5.18.04