August 14, 2005
By FRANK RICH
LIKE the Japanese soldier marooned on an island for years after V-J Day, President Bush may be the last person in the country to learn that for Americans, if not Iraqis, the war in Iraq is over. "We will stay the course," he insistently tells us from his Texas ranch. What do you mean we, white man?
A president can't stay the course when his own citizens (let alone his own allies) won't stay with him. The approval rate for Mr. Bush's handling of Iraq plunged to 34 percent in last weekend's Newsweek poll - a match for the 32 percent that approved L.B.J.'s handling of Vietnam in early March 1968. (The two presidents' overall approval ratings have also converged: 41 percent for Johnson then, 42 percent for Bush now.) On March 31, 1968, as L.B.J.'s ratings plummeted further, he announced he wouldn't seek re-election, commencing our long extrication from that quagmire.
But our current Texas president has even outdone his predecessor; Mr. Bush has lost not only the country but also his army. Neither bonuses nor fudged standards nor the faking of high school diplomas has solved the recruitment shortfall. Now Jake Tapper of ABC News reports that the armed forces are so eager for bodies they will flout "don't ask, don't tell" and hang on to gay soldiers who tell, even if they tell the press.
The president's cable cadre is in disarray as well. At Fox News Bill O'Reilly is trashing Donald Rumsfeld for his incompetence, and Ann Coulter is chiding Mr. O'Reilly for being a defeatist. In an emblematic gesture akin to waving a white flag, Robert Novak walked off a CNN set and possibly out of a job rather than answer questions about his role in smearing the man who helped expose the administration's prewar inflation of Saddam W.M.D.'s. (On this sinking ship, it's hard to know which rat to root for.)
As if the right-wing pundit crackup isn't unsettling enough, Mr. Bush's top war strategists, starting with Mr. Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers, have of late tried to rebrand the war in Iraq as what the defense secretary calls "a global struggle against violent extremism." A struggle is what you have with your landlord. When the war's über-managers start using euphemisms for a conflict this lethal, it's a clear sign that the battle to keep the Iraq war afloat with the American public is lost.
That battle crashed past the tipping point this month in Ohio. There's historical symmetry in that. It was in Cincinnati on Oct. 7, 2002, that Mr. Bush gave the fateful address that sped Congressional ratification of the war just days later. The speech was a miasma of self-delusion, half-truths and hype. The president said that "we know that Iraq and Al Qaeda have had high-level contacts that go back a decade," an exaggeration based on evidence that the Senate Intelligence Committee would later find far from conclusive. He said that Saddam "could have a nuclear weapon in less than a year" were he able to secure "an amount of highly enriched uranium a little larger than a single softball." Our own National Intelligence Estimate of Oct. 1 quoted State Department findings that claims of Iraqi pursuit of uranium in Africa were "highly dubious."
It was on these false premises - that Iraq was both a collaborator on 9/11 and about to inflict mushroom clouds on America - that honorable and brave young Americans were sent off to fight. Among them were the 19 marine reservists from a single suburban Cleveland battalion slaughtered in just three days at the start of this month. As they perished, another Ohio marine reservist who had served in Iraq came close to winning a Congressional election in southern Ohio. Paul Hackett, a Democrat who called the president a "chicken hawk," received 48 percent of the vote in exactly the kind of bedrock conservative Ohio district that decided the 2004 election for Mr. Bush.
These are the tea leaves that all Republicans, not just Chuck Hagel, are reading now. Newt Gingrich called the Hackett near-victory "a wake-up call." The resolutely pro-war New York Post editorial page begged Mr. Bush (to no avail) to "show some leadership" by showing up in Ohio to salute the fallen and their families. A Bush loyalist, Senator George Allen of Virginia, instructed the president to meet with Cindy Sheehan, the mother camping out in Crawford, as "a matter of courtesy and decency." Or, to translate his Washingtonese, as a matter of politics. Only someone as adrift from reality as Mr. Bush would need to be told that a vacationing president can't win a standoff with a grief-stricken parent commandeering TV cameras and the blogosphere 24/7.
Such political imperatives are rapidly bringing about the war's end. That's inevitable for a war of choice, not necessity, that was conceived in politics from the start. Iraq was a Bush administration idée fixe before there was a 9/11. Within hours of that horrible trauma, according to Richard Clarke's "Against All Enemies," Mr. Rumsfeld was proposing Iraq as a battlefield, not because the enemy that attacked America was there, but because it offered "better targets" than the shadowy terrorist redoubts of Afghanistan. It was easier to take out Saddam - and burnish Mr. Bush's credentials as a slam-dunk "war president," suitable for a "Top Gun" victory jig - than to shut down Al Qaeda and smoke out its leader "dead or alive."
But just as politics are a bad motive for choosing a war, so they can be a doomed engine for running a war. In an interview with Tim Russert early last year, Mr. Bush said, "The thing about the Vietnam War that troubles me, as I look back, was it was a political war," adding that the "essential" lesson he learned from Vietnam was to not have "politicians making military decisions." But by then Mr. Bush had disastrously ignored that very lesson; he had let Mr. Rumsfeld publicly rebuke the Army's chief of staff, Eric Shinseki, after the general dared tell the truth: that several hundred thousand troops would be required to secure Iraq. To this day it's our failure to provide that security that has turned the country into the terrorist haven it hadn't been before 9/11 - "the central front in the war on terror," as Mr. Bush keeps reminding us, as if that might make us forget he's the one who recklessly created it.
The endgame for American involvement in Iraq will be of a piece with the rest of this sorry history. "It makes no sense for the commander in chief to put out a timetable" for withdrawal, Mr. Bush declared on the same day that 14 of those Ohio troops were killed by a roadside bomb in Haditha. But even as he spoke, the war's actual commander, Gen. George Casey, had already publicly set a timetable for "some fairly substantial reductions" to start next spring. Officially this calendar is tied to the next round of Iraqi elections, but it's quite another election this administration has in mind. The priority now is less to save Jessica Lynch (or Iraqi democracy) than to save Rick Santorum and every other endangered Republican facing voters in November 2006.
Nothing that happens on the ground in Iraq can turn around the fate of this war in America: not a shotgun constitution rushed to meet an arbitrary deadline, not another Iraqi election, not higher terrorist body counts, not another battle for Falluja (where insurgents may again regroup, The Los Angeles Times reported last week). A citizenry that was asked to accept tax cuts, not sacrifice, at the war's inception is hardly in the mood to start sacrificing now. There will be neither the volunteers nor the money required to field the wholesale additional American troops that might bolster the security situation in Iraq.
WHAT lies ahead now in Iraq instead is not victory, which Mr. Bush has never clearly defined anyway, but an exit (or triage) strategy that may echo Johnson's March 1968 plan for retreat from Vietnam: some kind of negotiations (in this case, with Sunni elements of the insurgency), followed by more inflated claims about the readiness of the local troops-in-training, whom we'll then throw to the wolves. Such an outcome may lead to even greater disaster, but this administration long ago squandered the credibility needed to make the difficult case that more human and financial resources might prevent Iraq from continuing its descent into civil war and its devolution into jihad central.
Thus the president's claim on Thursday that "no decision has been made yet" about withdrawing troops from Iraq can be taken exactly as seriously as the vice president's preceding fantasy that the insurgency is in its "last throes." The country has already made the decision for Mr. Bush. We're outta there. Now comes the hard task of identifying the leaders who can pick up the pieces of the fiasco that has made us more vulnerable, not less, to the terrorists who struck us four years ago next month.