HE'S IN THE BUNKER NOW
By Frank Rich
New York Times
January 14, 2007
http://select.nytimes.com/2007/01/14/opinion/14rich.html (registration required)
President Bush always had one asset he could fall back on: the self-confidence of a born salesman. Like Harold Hill in “The Music Man,” he knew how to roll out a new product, however deceptive or useless, with conviction and stagecraft. What the world saw on Wednesday night was a defeated Willy Loman who looked as broken as his war. His flop sweat was palpable even if you turned down the sound to deflect despair-inducing phrases like “Prime Minister Maliki has pledged . . .” and “Secretary Rice will leave for the region. . . .”
Mr. Bush seemed to know his product was snake oil, and his White House handlers did too. In the past, they made a fetish of situating their star in telegenic settings, from aircraft carriers to Ellis Island. Or they placed him against Orwellian backdrops shrieking “Plan for Victory." But this time even the audio stuttered, as if in solidarity with Baghdad’s continuing electricity blackout, and the Oval Office was ditched, lest it summon up memories of all those past presidential sightings of light at the end of the Iraqi tunnel. Mr. Bush was banished to the White House library, where the backdrop was acres of books, to signify the studiousness of his rethinking of the “way forward.”
"I’m not going to be rushed," the president said a month ago when talking about his many policy consultations. He wasn’t kidding. His ostentatious deep thinking started after Election Day, once he realized that firing Donald Rumsfeld wouldn’t be enough to co-opt the Iraq Study Group. He was thinking so hard that he abandoned his initial plan to announce a strategy before Christmas.
The war, however, refused to take a timeout for the holiday festivities in Crawford. The American death toll in Iraq, which hovered around 2,840 on Election Day, was nearing 3,020 by Wednesday night.
And these additional lives were sacrificed to what end? All the reviews and thinking and postponing produced a policy that, as a former top Bush aide summed it up for the Daily News, is nothing more than "repackaged stay-the-course dressed up to make it look more palatable." The repackaging was half-hearted as well. Not for nothing did the “way forward,” a rubric the president used at least 27 times in December, end up on the cutting-room floor. The tossing of new American troops into Baghdad, a ploy that backfired in Operation Together Forward last year, is too transparently the way backward.
“Victory” also received short shrift, downsized by the president to the paltry goal of getting “closer to success.” The “benchmarks” he cited were so vague that they’d be a disgrace to No Child Left Behind. And no wonder: in November, Mr. Bush couldn’t even get our devoted ally, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, to show up for dinner at their summit in Amman, let alone induce him to root out Shiite militias. The most muscle the former Mr. Bring-’Em-On could muster in Wednesday’s speech was this: “If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people.” Since that support vanished long ago, it’s hard to imagine an emptier threat or a more naked confession of American impotence, all the more pathetic in a speech rattling sabers against Syria and Iran.
Mr. Bush’s own support from the American people is not coming back. His “new” Iraq policy is also in defiance of Iraqi public opinion, the Joint Chiefs, the Baker-Hamilton grandees, and Mr. Maliki, who six weeks ago asked for a lower American profile in Iraq. Which leaves you wondering exactly who is still in the bunker with the president besides the first lady and Barney.
It’s a very short list led by John McCain, Joe Lieberman, and neo-conservative dead-enders like William Kristol and Frederick Kagan, who congregate at the Weekly Standard and the American Enterprise Institute, the Washington think tank. The one notable new recruit is Rudy Giuliani, who likened taming Baghdad to “reducing crime in New York” without noticing that even after the escalation there will be fewer American troops patrolling Baghdad than uniformed police officers in insurgency-free New York City.
Mr. Kagan, a military historian, was sent by the White House to sell its policy to Senate Republicans. It was he, Mr. Kristol, and the retired Gen. Jack Keane who have most prominently pushed for this escalation and who published studies and editorials credited with defining it. Given that these unelected hawks are some of the same great thinkers who promoted the Iraq fiasco in the first place, it is hard to imagine why this White House continues to listen to them. Or maybe not that hard. In a typical op-ed article, headlined “Stay the Course, Mr. President!,” Mr. Kagan wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 2005: "Despite what you may have read, the military situation in Iraq today is positive."
Yet Mr. Bush doesn’t even have the courage of his own disastrous convictions: he’s not properly executing the policy these guys sold him. In the Washington Post on Dec. 27, Mr. Kagan and General Keane wrote that escalation could only succeed “with a surge of at least 30,000 combat troops” -- a figure that has also been cited by Mr. McCain. (Mr. Kagan put the figure at 50,000 to 80,000 in a *Weekly Standard* article three weeks earlier. Whatever.) By any of these neocons’ standards, the Bush escalation of some 20,000 is too little, not to mention way too late.
The discrepancy between the policy that Mr. Bush nominally endorses and the one he actually ordered up crystallizes the cynicism of this entire war. If you really believe, as the president continues to put it, that Iraq is the central front in “the decisive ideological struggle of our time,” then you should be in favor of having many more troops than we’ve ever had in Iraq. As T. X. Hammes, an insurgency expert and a former marine, told *USA Today*, that doesn’t now mean a “dribble” (as he ridicules the “surge”) but a total of 300,000 armed coalition forces over a minimum of four years.
But that would mean asking Americans for sacrifice, not giving us tax cuts. Mr. Bush has never asked for sacrifice and still doesn’t. If his words sound like bargain-basement Churchill, his actions have been cheaper still. The president’s resolutely undermanned war plan indicated from Day 1 that he knew in his heart of hearts that Iraq was not the central front in the war against 9/11 jihadism he had claimed it to be, only the reckless detour that it actually was. Yet the war’s cheerleaders, neocon and otherwise, disingenuously blamed our low troop strength almost exclusively on Mr. Rumsfeld.
Now that the defense secretary is gone, what are they to do? For whatever reason, you did not hear Mr. Kagan, General Keane, or Mr. McCain speak out against Mr. Bush’s plan even though it’s insufficient by their own reckoning -- just a repackaged continuance of the same “Whac-A-Mole” half-measures that Mr. McCain has long deplored. Surely the senator knows that, as his loosey-goosey endorsement attests. (On Friday, he called the Bush plan “the best chance of success” while simultaneously going on record that “a small, short surge would be the worst of all worlds.”)
The question now is how to minimize the damage before countless more Americans and Iraqis are slaughtered to serve the president’s endgame of passing his defeat on to the next president. The Democrats can have all the hearings they want, but they are unlikely to take draconian action (cutting off funding) that would make them, rather than Mr. Bush, politically vulnerable to blame for losing Iraq.
I have long felt that it will be up to Mr. Bush’s own party to ring down the curtain on his failed policy, and after the 2006 midterms, that is more true than ever. The lame-duck president, having lost both houses of Congress and at least one war (Afghanistan awaits), has nothing left to lose. That is far from true of his party.
Even conservatives like Sam Brownback of Kansas and Norm Coleman of Minnesota started backing away from Iraq last week. Mr. Brownback is running for president in 2008, and Mr. Coleman faces a tough re-election fight. But Republicans not in direct electoral jeopardy (George Voinovich of Ohio, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska) are also starting to waver. It’s another Vietnam-Watergate era flashback. It wasn’t Democrats or the press that forced Richard Nixon’s abdication in 1974; it was dwindling Republican support. Though he had vowed to fight his way through a Senate trial, Nixon folded once he lost the patriarchal leader of his party’s right wing.
That leader was Barry Goldwater, who had been one of Nixon’s most loyal and aggressive defenders until he finally realized he’d been lied to once too often. If John McCain won’t play the role his Arizona predecessor once did, we must hope that John Warner or some patriot like him will, for the good of the country, answer the call of conscience. A dangerous president must be saved from himself, so that the American kids he’s about to hurl into the hell of Baghdad can be saved along with him.