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"Sonny" in the Oval Office

I know that I've been watching Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather films too much as of late. But it sure seems to me that the current Bush Administration is staffed by a bunch of Sonny Corleone clones, led by Dubya himself. When you consider his administration's bellicose, hot-headed, reckless approach to orchestrating the nation's policy towards Iraq, that has both the Security Council and the world in a uproar - not to mention their dependence on offering potential allies “offers they can't refuse” - the analogy does seem to fit, much more than I would like.

So, let's take the analogy a bit farther. Both families got their start in the oil business - the Bush family in petroleum drilling, the Corleones as importers of olive oil. In comparison to Dubya's Santino, the elder Bush, a former head of the CIA, is looking much more the statesman, the skillful builder of enduring behind-the-scenes alliances, and the closed-mouthed, effective leader, that Vito Corleone is portrayed as in the original Godfather film.

Vto is careful to protect his political contacts and alliances, and rejects the lucrative proposition offered by the upstart middle east based Sollozzo (who controls heroine that originates in Turkey), because he knows that distributing drugs will endanger these essential contacts. And like Vito Corleone, Papa Bush was also subject to an unsuccessful assassination attempt because of his actions to protect the “family” - in his case, the United States' and Western Europe's continued access to oil fields in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, which was very much in question after Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion.

In the first Godfather film, Sollozzo offers the Corleone family an extremely generous percentage in exchange for providing financing and legal protection, but is rejected by the Don. Sonny then recklessly inserts himself into the conversation, and commits a deadly faux pas, by openly questioning “The Turk's” assertion that the competing Tattaglia family would be able to guarantee the Corleone's investment. Vito chastises his son, with these words:

“Never tell anybody outside the family what you're thinking again!”

However, the damage has already been done, and Sollozzo now has reason to believe that by killing Vito, he can eventually get Sonny to agree to his deal.

The irony inherent in this analogy is that Dubya, in real life, is known to emphasize a similarly closed-mouth approach within his administration. If only he could put a muzzle on Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and, to be blunt, himself, when it concerns Iraq - and leave Colin Powell to do the talking (and, ideally, the thinking as well). But, to bring my analogy to bear on the Iraq crisis, in a very real and tangible sense, “Sonny” Bush is responsible for the nearly fatal “hit” against the great achievement of his father's administration, the notion of a new era of international cooperation and collaboration, with the United Nations at its center.

When real-life capos Wolfowitz and Rumsfield see the opportunity, in the aftermath of 9/11, to take out their Sollozzo, former Reagan and Bush administration ally Hussein, they don't suggest that “Sonny” go to the United Nations and capitalize on the tremendous support the U.S. then enjoys, and make a presentation on why the time has come, so to speak, to conclude all human family business in regard to terrorists and rogue nations. They instead encourage Bush to ignore the "commission", and more-or-less go it alone, with a few loyal families (the UK, Australia, etc.) - just like the war that Mario Puzo's Sonny wants to start in the aftermath of Vito's shooting, and has to be talked out of by Colin Powell, I mean Tom Hagen, the Corleone family consiglieri, with the words:

“Some of the other families won't sit still for all-out war!”

Indeed, when Bush and Cheney begin their talk of regime change in the summer of 2002, the world doesn't like it at all, least of all Security Council members like France, China and Russia. "Sonny" eventually does go to the U.N., but not before being publicly chastised by former “Vito” Bush capos Jim Baker, Larry Eagleburger and Brent Scowcroft. But the damage has already been done, and world opinion is already beginning to build against “Sonny's” war. And throughout the U.N. process, Bush and fellow hot-heads Rumsfeld and Cheney continue to sabotage the business of international relations with the kind of impulsive, testosterone-based approach that will eventually get Santino killed in the book/movie, and will later be completely repudiated in the deliberate, carefully-planned, cold-blooded, but extremely efficient and successful reign of Michael Corleone as Godfather.

How would Michael Corleone handle this real-life situation? Since Mario Puzo is dead, and I don't have Coppola's phone number handy, let me suggest a possible strategy. The young Michael is a ruthless, but patient, Don. When he identifies Tessio as the capo who plans to betray him on the way to his meeting with Barsini, Michael isn't impulsive or emotional in any way. His response to Tom Hagen says it all:

“It's a smart move -- Tessio was always smarter. But I'm gonna wait - after the baptism. I've decided to be Godfather to Connie's baby. And then I'll meet with Don Barzini - and Tattaglia - all of the heads of the Five Families.”

And, when they least expect it, Tessio and the heads of the 5 families (not to mention brother-in-law Carlo, and Moe Green) get what's coming to them within Mario Puzo's mythological universe.

In regard to the current Iraq situation, I think Michael would choose the smart approach. He would choose to appear reasonable on the world stage, and would again choose to wait. Michael clearly understands the value of public opinion, and orchestrating events in clever, but believable, ways. For instance, when he proposes to do the then unthinkable, and kill Sollozzo's "bodyguard", a New York City Police Captain, he explains the way he thinks the family can convincingly "spin" the story:

"Tom, wait a minute. I'm talking about a cop -- that's mixed up in drugs. I'm talking about ah - ah - a dishonest cop -- a crooked cop who got mixed up in the rackets and got what was coming to him. That's a terrific story. And we have newspaper people on the payroll, don't we, Tom? And they might like a story like that. "

Michael might announce that he has been moved by the tremendous outpouring of world opinion for giving the inspectors another opportunity, and is willing to give peace one more chance. He would use the time to shore up any gaps in the family's defenses at home - since he doesn't like to leave any loose ends. American military forces would begin to be withdrawn to bases in Europe and the United States, with troops regularly-rotated in/out of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qutar throughout the spring and summer.

At the United Nations, he'd offer to do the French, Russians and Chinese a favor, and support their suggestion of a much more muscular, aggressive inspections regime, but first require the naming of someone like David Kay to head the new effort – and request the right to ask for a favor in return, should Hussein refuse to fully cooperate, the inspectors become frustrated, and the effort fail (which, short of Hussein undergoing a miraculous conversion, or an Iraqi officer's bullet ending up in his brain, it will). That favor would be their absolute support by the fall of 2003, including French and Russian military forces, in the forcible removal of Hussein, and the creation of a new provisional government in Iraq, under the auspices of the United Nations.

He would also ask for their help in solving this North Korea business, which, obviously, threatens everyone's interests. Yes, Michael would be patient, and wait for his day, and trap the French, Russians and Chinese in their own game. If they later refused him the favor they promised, then the world would clearly know that they were responsible for the destruction of his father's masterwork, the idea of a new world order - not him, his family, or his country.

After the bluster and bravado of "Sonny's" presidency, Michael would bring back to American foreign policy a welcome quality of emotional detachment and pure strategic thinking. As he tells Santino in the film:

"It's not personal, Sonny. It's strictly business."

Matthew Carnicelli, © 2003. All rights reserved.

All excerpts from "The Godfather" are the property of Paramount Pictures, © 1972.

Originally published March 4, 2003.