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George Bush's Original Sin
August 31, 2005
David Corn writes The Loyal Opposition twice a month for TomPaine.com. Corn is also the Washington editor of The Nation and is the author of The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers).
A few days ago, I was one on of those TV pundit shows, and the host of this gabfest—Derek McGinty—asked all the panelists whether George W. Bush's recent rah-rah speeches about the war in Iraq had done anything to rally popular support for Bush's mess in Mesopotamia. I did not surprise anyone by saying no and arguing that Bush had dished out warmed-over rhetoric that had previously failed to boost public sentiment toward the war. USA Today's Susan Page said much the same. But then the two conservative chatters—columnist Linda Chavez and the Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes—also gave Bush an F. They maintained that he had not made a strong case that the war in Iraq is central to the effort against terrorism. (They did not pause to consider this failure might be due to the fact that the connection between Bush's folly in Iraq and the effort against jihadist terrorism is tenuous.) When right, middle and left agree that the White House is flailing, Bush might have a problem. And now—a week later—Bush's pro-war speeches resonate not at all. Bush could have achieved the same results by staying home and clearing brush on his ranch.
Bush is stuck. There is little he can say to affect public opinion. It's been two years since "shock and awe" led to morass and misadventure. The problem these days is not the rhetoric, but the policy. And no matter what Bush says before a hand-picked audience, he cannot escape the original sin.
When Bush took the nation to war, he offered one prime rationale. War-backers now like to claim Bush spoke of democratizing Iraq before the invasion. And he did—occasionally. But on March 17, when he addressed the nation from the Oval Office and gave Saddam Hussein 48 hours to skedaddle or face Bush's wrath, he said the "danger was clear." Iraq—"no doubt"—had WMDs it could pass to anti-American terrorists who would use these weapons to "kill thousands or hundreds of thousands of innocent people in our country or any other." In Bush's final explanation of the war to come, bringing democracy to Iraq was not the cause; it was merely a necessary part of the post-invasion cleanup.
Blowing the rationale for the war practically guaranteed that Bush would blow the management of the war, for he failed to define the problem accurately (or responsibly). A war to end a WMD threat (even if nonexistent) is different than a war to import democracy. And, worse for the White House, Bush had not prepared the public for years of heavy slogging necessary for the latter, which yields an unending stream of KIAs (killed in action) and a tab totaling hundreds of billions of dollars. Though Bush did give one speech before the war that endorsed the neocons' call for democratizing Iraq by force, Bush never depicted his endeavor in Iraq as a crusade for democracy that would cost much in lives and dollars and that could require a decade or more of effort. In fact, his aides routinely suggested the war would not demand much sacrifice. Now that public has grown impatient and worried about the ongoing trouble in Iraq , Bush has no one to blame but the man at the top—and I don't mean Dick Cheney.
And Bush, given his policy decisions, cannot address this concern. His stay-the-course game plan calls for sticking with the mess; it offers little for anyone looking for a way out. It seems likely that the Iraqis will need years to hammer out differences and forge an effective government with a working security force—if they can manage to do that. An Iranian-allied theocracy and violent sectarian struggle are both possible—if not probable—outcomes as well. Yet Bush declares he is committed to remaining engaged in Iraq, no matter how ugly it gets. Despite the talk weeks ago of reducing troop levels in Iraq, Bush has signaled that's not what he's been thinking about during his bike rides at the ranch. And in his recent PR blitz, he argued that the only way to honor those U.S. troops who are dead because of his bad decision-making is to remain in Iraq and send other Americans to their deaths there. Consequently, he cannot ease popular concern by promising a reduction in U.S. forces.
Nor can he present a "new" plan for victory. First, that would suggest that the "old" plan was flawed. And Bush does not admit failure. Second—and more importantly—the situation he has created in Iraq basically offers two alternatives to Bush's current let's-muddle-through strategy. He could initiate a disengagement, or he could send more troops in an attempt to improve security in Iraq (which might allow for reconstruction to occur). The former is off the table in Bushland (and polls do not yet indicate that most Americans, as upset as they are with the war, are ready to bug out). Besides, deploying more troops would undercut Bush's hollow claim that progress is being made. It would be a tacit admission all is not going well. And it would certainly spark more opposition. By the way, the stretched-thin U.S. military may not even be able to handle such a task. In the first issue of The American Interest, cofounder Francis Fukuyama writes, "the present all-volunteer U.S. Army was never designed to fight a prolonged insurgency, and in the next year the Army and the Marine Corps will face very severe manpower and morale problems."
So Bush cannot do more. He cannot do less. As war skeptics (such as yours truly) predicted would happen before the war, Bush has produced a dilemma with no good solutions. (Adam Garfinkle, a former speechwriter for secretary of state Colin Powell and now editor of The American Interest , notes in the premiere issue that before the war foreign policy experts did foresee the many problems and challenges that would confound the Bush administration following the invasion.) With his limited gifts, Bush cannot talk himself out of the hole he has dug.
Yet Democrats ought not to be too gleeful. About half of congressional Democrats granted Bush the authority to wage this monumental screw-up. The other half did say, "Whoa," and even leading Democrats who voted to allow Bush to launch the war on his own say-so—such as John Kerry and Hillary Clinton—were not advocates of the invasion. Still, the Democrats are faced with the same either/or that confronts Bush—and that he ignores. And their party is being split in a manner that could have historical (and electoral) consequences. Several Democrats—including Sens. Russell Feingold and Ted Kennedy—have argued for some sort of withdrawal. Others, such as Joe Biden, have raised the notion that more troops might be needed to win the so-called peace. A passionate—and potentially nasty—debate is brewing within Democratic circles, and this face-off may come to shape the 2008 presidential race for Democrats. Whether they like it or not—whether it's fair or not—Democrats will be asked, "Well, what would you do now in Iraq?" Most Democrats, it seem, would rather not answer the question. Which hardly makes them look like leaders.
Bush, though, is the fellow most on the hook. As the on-the-ground reality in Iraq (political discord, a rise in sectarian violence, steady U.S. casualties) calls more attention to his original sin, Bush cannot find redemption through rhetoric. My hunch is that—finally—many Americans are coming to see that Bush produced a terrible predicament that defies an easy (or perhaps any) resolution. He cannot place the apple back on the tree. And for that, many must pay.