photograph by Dawn Calabia

From Chapter 5: Meeting with President Bush, in the last days before the Iraq war

I busied myself preparing briefing papers on the various personalities and issues we were likely to encounter, and soon enough the three of us were checking into the Hotel Mayflower. Sergio, Jonathan and I worked out in the tiny windowless gym, with its relentless mirrored walls; Sergio and I lifted weights while Jonathan pounded the treadmill. We met later in the hotel bar then went nearby for dinner. We were all preoccupied by the White House visit the next day; none of us had been before, and of course it was thought to be rather hostile territory. But Sergio would go into the meetings as he always did, ready to talk to anyone.

Besides, the problem in Washington was not a lack of common ground, he told me, so much as “this obsession with Iraq.” I think it was the obsessiveness that bothered him. It indicated a lack of balance, even an irrationality. We passed a somewhat solemn dinner, despite the red wine and steaks. The mood only really lightened when Jonathan and Sergio reminisced about their time in East Timor; despite a large gap in age, status and experience, the two of them had become close friends. Partners in adventure: the kind of relationship that Sergio established so easily. We were on an adventure all right, just a rather grim one, since we all knew that the invasion of Iraq wasn’t far off.

Our first meeting the next morning was with a roundtable of State Department officials led by Paula Dobriansky, the undersecretary of state for global affairs. Their main interest was in Iraq. What were we planning to do there? I had sent Jonathan a memo on post-conflict Iraq the previous week, after hearing Harold Koh, at the Columbia event—he had been assistant secretary of state for human rights under Clinton—urging that we have a post-conflict Iraq plan ready. At State, Sergio began by explaining that there was no relevant Security Council resolution and so we had no mandate for Iraq. Nonetheless we had given, “hypothetically,” some thought to post-conflict needs. Jonathan then gave a presentation about human-rights monitors, training Iraqi law-enforcement officers and judges in human rights law, starting a mass-communications program to disseminate news and educate people about their rights, and helping Iraqis to found national human-rights institutions so that the promotion and protection of human rights could get onto a solid footing after a war. Sergio repeatedly emphasized the need to get power and responsibility into the hands of Iraqis as quickly as possible.

The next few meetings, at State and on Capitol Hill, were unexceptional and somewhat in the shadow of the meeting with the president. At 2 p.m. Sergio squared his shoulders and strode into the Oval Office, with Jonathan and me trailing behind. The press photographers, who were arrayed outside the room, looking in through windows, were allowed to tumble through for a minute and take pictures, then hustled back out to the yard, in a ritual that was disturbingly reminiscent of a visit from the family pets; they might have been allowed a bit more dignity. The president shook Sergio’s hand and said, “You work out!” This seemed to throw Sergio off a bit. Heads of state didn’t normally ask after his exercise program.

Two sofas faced each other across a coffee table, at one end of which were two chairs. Sergio sat in one, Bush in the other. Jonathan and I took one sofa. Across from us were National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice (closest to the president), two staffers from the NSC (Tony Banbury and Courtney Nemroff), Lewis “Scooter” Libby of the vice-president’s office, and the assistant secretary of state for democracy and human rights, Lorne Craner. Just as we were starting, a phone rang. There was an exchange of glances. Rice explained to Bush that it was a special phone. The White House still had special phones! Rice indicated the caller was Tony Blair. The president decided he could take the call later. “Tony’s always worrying,” he said with a faint smile and a look of parental sufferance. I focused on taking notes. I had never felt sorry for Tony Blair before.

Sergio presented our issues politely and compactly, emphasizing detainee treatment and the necessity of not using torture. He told about a woman he had met recently in Pakistan who believed her husband had been detained by the U.S. but had no idea where he was. We’d discussed this story before; Sergio thought it might concretize certain realities for Bush.
The president asked Rice to look into the question of the Pakistani woman. He stressed that the United States did not torture people. There was no torture at Guantanamo Bay. He said, for example, that “KSM”—Khalid Sheikh Mohammed of Al Qaeda, who had been captured in Pakistan over the weekend—“will be treated humanely.” “These were illegal combatants,” he stressed, “trying to kill lives.”

Bush said he had just had a meeting with the representative of the Pope, and they had discussed the concept of a “just war.” Bush spoke of his duty to “protect my country. That is a sacred obligation.” He considered Saddam Hussein a threat to his country. “Part of ‘just war’ is that the human condition improves,” he said, adding with respect to Iraq, “When it’s liberated, the human-rights condition of the people will improve.”

We had not asked President Bush to justify the likely invasion of Iraq, but he evidently wanted to for his own reasons. “Deep in my bosom is a great desire for freedom for people,” he insisted, and, “At my core is a great desire for freedom and the human condition to improve.” Bush said that a huge humanitarian relief effort was already planned for postwar Iraq, and that the existing network of registers, distribution points and so forth created for the UN Oil-for-Food program would be used to reach Iraqis across the country.

The conversation began to lose coherence. Bush said he didn’t want war (“I really don’t”). He said, “We want the UN to work.” He also said, “I don’t give a damn whether we get a [second] resolution or not,” that is, a new resolution by the Security Council backing a decision to go to war. This is what Tony Blair wanted.

Bush then reimposed coherence by turning to the idea of “a different kind of war,” the kind that he had been fighting since September 11. In this war, he wanted to ensure that no one could “go back and fade into this shadowy network then come back to kill us.”

Bush urged us to bring issues to him, and there seemed to be hints of possible movement on Guantanamo and on torture. The president and the high commissioner talked a bit about the Middle East – Ariel Sharon, Bush confided, was “meaner than a snake” -- and about AIDS and that was that. I thought I had made it to the door when I heard Bush’s voice from behind: “Where you from, big boy?” I turned around; we shook hands. “California,” I said, and backed out of the Oval Office as quickly as good manners allowed.