What George W. Bush loved best about his job was being a war president. Playing war, that is, as opposed to making war like a grown-up. Remember him strutting onto that carrier in his little flight jacket? You never saw Eisenhower, a real general, playing out his martial fantasies this way. You can take the drink out of the drunk, but you can’t take the swagger out of a fool.


Compare Bush’s eight years to Clinton’s, and you see how much he loved to play the soldier. No one expected that from a Republican: Reagan and Bush senior were cautious about betting America’s chips. Liberals used to make fun of Reagan for picking on tiny helpless nations that couldn’t fight back. Now they are remembering with pure nostalgia Reagan’s invasion of Grenada, air raids on Libya, and even our 1984 withdrawal from Beirut.


We’ll never know how far W. would have gone to find himself a war because he had all he needed delivered by air on Sept. 11, 2001. Remember how people felt in those days? A friend of mine said, “It was like the aliens had invaded.”

We needed our president to be a hero and made him into one, even though it was obvious he wasn’t up to the job. He didn’t take the first plane to Manhattan, stand there and say, “We’re coming for you bastards!” Instead he sat in a roomful of children, reading The Pet Goat, then dropped off the radar for hours before his handlers got him ready.


Maybe there’s a lesson here: if the president doesn’t cut it in a crisis, we’re better off admitting that to ourselves and telling him so instead of pretending he’s a great leader. When you make a weakling into a hero, you give him a lot of power. If we’d kept our eyes open and faced the fact that Bush reacted badly to 9/11, we might have been able to ask for a little more detail about his big plans.


Those came courtesy of Cheney and his neocon punks. What a crew these guys were! Like their boss, they were also woofers, boasters—but of a different variety. Dubya was your standard frat boy loudmouth, but Cheney, with his talk about “working the dark side,” was more like the ultimate Dungeons and Dragons nerd. And you couldn’t ask Hollywood to serve up a goofier selection of dorks than his neocon staffers, who drifted from the universities to D.C. the way has-been pop singers switch to country and western to leech off a new bunch of suckers.

On the one hand, they were scared to death of Arabs and hated all Muslims. On the other, they were convinced that every Muslim on the planet really wanted, deep in his heart, to be magically turned into an Ohio Republican. That was their theory: take an anti-American Arab country, add an invading army, and voila! a nice fluffy democracy soufflé.


So we poured American blood and treasure into the Iraqi dust to prove the half-baked theories of a bunch of tenth-rate professors. The most expensive experiment in the history of the world, all to learn something any 10-year-old could have told them: people don’t take to foreign troops on their streets, and not everybody wants to be like us. You know those Ig-Nobel awards they hand out to the dumbest science projects of the year? The Iraq invasion is the all-time winner. Retire the trophy with the names of the winning team: Bush, Cheney, Kristol, Wolfowitz, Feith.


But first came Afghanistan—“the graveyard of empires.” Every military-history wannabe was conjuring the ghosts of that Victorian British army slaughtered by the Afghans, along with all the propaganda we’d been pushing about the invincible mujahedeen who’d driven out the Soviets. Looking back, what they had routed was a dying Soviet state, and they didn’t even manage to do that until we took the risk of giving them Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. But all the pundits’ knees were shaking about going into the Afghan haunted house.


We started slow, the way American armies tend to do, taking a while to limber up. There were weeks of bombing the Shomali Plain to no visible effect and a Special Forces raid on Mullah Omar’s compound that was more “Naked Gun” than “Top Gun.” Then Mazar-i-Sharif in the north fell suddenly, and it turned into the kind of war that Northern Alliance fighters and fighter-bomber pilots both love: hunting down a fleeing enemy.


The campaign went so well, so fast, that it taught Bush and Cheney the wrong lessons. They started exporting democracy to Afghanistan, even hiring a local Pashtun girl to read the Kabul evening news. When you tell a big, backwards tribe like the Pashtun that you’re going to turn their whole world upside down for them, you shouldn’t expect them to be grateful. But we did, setting ourselves up for a whole lot of trouble later on.


Worse yet, Bush’s people figured that since Afghanistan, the tough nut, cracked so easily, their pet project, a second Iraq invasion, would be a cakewalk. This time they would do it right, occupying the Iraqi cities instead of just crushing Saddam’s army and withdrawing like Bush senior did.


Nobody wants to recall what Americans believed back then. That’s OK: I’ll remember it. People thought that Saddam was “connected to” 9/11, and his agents were going to poison our water, nuke our cities, and gas our subways. At least they claimed to believe all that unlikely James Bond stuff. I don’t think they really did. There was just so much revenge momentum after 9/11 that it had to burst out somewhere. Everybody wanted payback. It’s natural. But most of the time, in your average democracy, cooler heads are in charge. Not this time. Bush and his team were foaming at the mouth far more than the average citizen. It was like a crazed sheriff trying to talk a lukewarm mob into a lynching frenzy. With the help of people who should have known better—I’m looking at you, Colin Powell—he got his way.


That, in the short version, is why George W. Bush is about to leave office the most unpopular American president in history. You can spin Iraq a hundred different ways, but it still comes up bad news because once the dust settles, the Iranians are in control of the whole region, and they didn’t have to fire a shot. We destroyed their old rival for them.


It’s a simple story: we crushed Saddam’s army, occupied the cities, and then acted like the whole country would turn itself into a neocon fantasyland. Paul Bremer’s cult kids were talking tax reform while the Iraqi army they had sent home unemployed was busy digging up the weapons they had buried in their yards. Bush’s counterinsurgency policy was pretending there was no insurgency then pretending it was just Saddam’s “deadenders.” When Saddam’s capture at the end of 2003 didn’t slow the insurgency, Bush’s defenders stopped acting like they knew what was going on and just settled for blaming the Iranians—as if it was a nasty surprise that Iran, the country that openly hates America most in the whole world, might get involved in anti-American operations when we occupied Iraq right next door.


People ask what our counterinsurgency strategy was before the surge. Easy: we had none. We were doing nothing but offering the insurgents moving targets. A standard operation for the occupation force in those dark days was patrolling through an alien Sunni neighborhood, waiting for an IED to go off under the lead vehicle or for an RPG or small-arms ambush. When that happens, conventional forces have a grim choice: do nothing, withdrawing while the locals snicker at your dead and wounded, or open fire on everyone in sight. Either way, the insurgents win. If you withdraw, they’ve hit you with impunity and gained respect in the neighborhood. If you open fire on the slums, you kill civilians and make enemies.


Effective counterinsurgency means not relying on massive firepower the way conventional forces are trained to do. The idea is not to fire until you know exactly who you’re up against. It’s the opposite of shock and awe. It’s discipline and patience. Gen. David Petraeus implemented a set of reforms usually called the surge, though they were about tactics more than reinforcements. All he really did was initiate overdue standard counterinsurgency doctrine. He integrated U.S. units with Iraqi forces then sent them out into the neighborhoods. You can’t run any kind of counterinsurgency plan without good street-level intelligence, but Bush’s people wouldn’t admit that there was an insurgency, so they wouldn’t commit to learning about it. Their style was to ignore it and hope it would go away.


That’s why Afghanistan went well in the early stages: we didn’t go in trying to turn the Afghans into democrats, but trying to crush the Taliban and al-Qaeda. In Iraq, Bush was dreaming from the start, so the whole effort was doomed.


The surge worked about as well as any good counterinsurgency effort could. We know a little about the enemy now, and there’s less violence because all the neighborhoods had already been ethnically cleansed. Baghdad is now a Shi’ite city. There are a few Sunni enclaves, but the Shia rule the city and the country, with the Kurds fortifying themselves up north and wishing they could saw their territory off and relocate it somewhere in mid-ocean.


That’s what Bush’s trillion-dollar investment in Iraq has bought. Meanwhile, if you look at the rest of the world map, you get a real shock. Regions like Latin America and Central Asia that eight years ago were American protectorates in all but name have turned against us while we were distracted with Iraq. Many times, the real winners are countries that manage to stay out of a war, the way England benefited by not getting sucked into the Thirty Years’ War. Iran is much stronger now, and so is Russia. The Russians, who seemed to be in their “throes” when Clinton left office, just slapped down Georgia, one of our few remaining allies among the old Soviet states, and there wasn’t a thing we could do but grumble.


It’s no puzzle: we pretended a goon was a hero, let him play out his foolish fantasies about remaking the Middle East, and wasted our strength on a losing effort while the rest of the world drifted out of our power. Our leader was a laughingstock around globe, and he made America the butt of the world’s contempt. But Bush got his wish—he was a war president and then some. The rest of us were the casualties.  

Gary Brecher writes the War Nerd column for Exiled Online (http://exiledonline.com/).