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"They Don't Have an Army"

From an article in today's New York Times Magazine, "Without a Doubt," on what the author calls George W. Bush's "faith-based presidency."

In the Oval Office in December 2002, the president met with a few ranking senators and members of the House, both Republicans and Democrats. In those days, there were high hopes that the United States-sponsored "road map" for the Israelis and Palestinians would be a pathway to peace, and the discussion that wintry day was, in part, about countries providing peacekeeping forces in the region. The problem, everyone agreed, was that a number of European countries, like France and Germany, had armies that were not trusted by either the Israelis or Palestinians. One congressman -- the Hungarian-born Tom Lantos, a Democrat from California and the only Holocaust survivor in Congress -- mentioned that the Scandinavian countries were viewed more positively. Lantos went on to describe for the president how the Swedish Army might be an ideal candidate to anchor a small peacekeeping force on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Sweden has a well-trained force of about 25,000. The president looked at him appraisingly, several people in the room recall.

"I don't know why you're talking about Sweden," Bush said. "They're the neutral one. They don't have an army."

Lantos paused, a little shocked, and offered a gentlemanly reply: "Mr. President, you may have thought that I said Switzerland. They're the ones that are historically neutral, without an army." Then Lantos mentioned, in a gracious aside, that the Swiss do have a tough national guard to protect the country in the event of invasion.

Bush held to his view. "No, no, it's Sweden that has no army."

The room went silent, until someone changed the subject.

A few weeks later, members of Congress and their spouses gathered with administration officials and other dignitaries for the White House Christmas party. The president saw Lantos and grabbed him by the shoulder. "You were right," he said, with bonhomie. "Sweden does have an army."

In other words, Bush:

  1. Confused Sweden with Switzerland.
  2. Believed Sweden (i.e., Switzerland) not to have an army.
Keep in mind that the meeting was attended by both Republicans (including, presumably, one or more senior members of Bush's staff) and Democrats. In other words, there are senior Republicans in the House and Senate, and senior Bush administration officials, who have personally witnessed the President confuse Sweden with Switzerland, and further assume that one of them had no army, who have since gone on to argue that Bush should be reelected.

Am I making too much out of this? Is this a minor thing, a mistake anyone could make? Am I overreacting? Because from where I sit -- as a moderate driven to the left by what I perceive as the far-right policies and general incompetence of the current administration -- this is outrageous, grounds for disqualification as President all on its own.

What was it that Bush said in that first debate?

I know how these people [world leaders] think. I deal with them all the time. I sit down with the world leaders frequently and talk to them on the phone frequently.
I guess "these people" doesn't include the leaders of Sweden and Switzerland.


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I don't think the President making that mistake is that big of a deal. If Sweden and Switzerland's militaries hadn't come up before and he hadn't been briefed on them prior to the meeting, I could understand him confusing the two. I somewhat did as I started to read your piece, thinking for a minute that both might be neutral. I would've expected one of his aides to correct him on the spot, though. The President can't be expected to know everything, but he has to be told when he's wrong.

That said, the most interesting thing about the story to me is that it's the first occurrence I've seen of Bush admitting he made a mistake. I suppose this one wouldn't have gone over too well in the debate where that came up, though: "Well, historians will judge whether I made any mistakes. We made a few tactical errors in Iraq, and I made a few mistakes in appointing some people, but that's all. Oh, and I confused Sweden and Switzerland once." That would've been funny.

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