Reality Catching Up to Empire?

Many of the signs and portents hovering around the beginning of a second Bush term look less than promising for partisans of peace. As cabinet members have resigned, they have for the most part been replaced by people whose salient qualities are less competence or expertise than personal loyalty to the president, several of them White House staffers with little discernible executive experience. Most of the architects of what even many partisans of the war are coming to view as at least a setback if not an outright disaster in Iraq – Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Feith, Rice, and others – have been kept on or rewarded with higher positions.

None of this bodes well for the president getting anything resembling independent counsel from those who in theory should occasionally check his enthusiasms with a little straight, hard talk about the differences between aspirations and achievements. The president apparently doesn’t want much of such potentially troublesome – but also potentially salvific – advice from his inner circle.

Perhaps the most significant signal that erring grievously – so long as the mistakes were made in pursuit of a presidential enthusiasm – will not only not be punished in this administration but rewarded, was the decision to give the previously prestigious Medal of Freedom to three of the more notable screw-ups in the administration. Let Andrew Sullivan, an enthusiastic supporter of the war until the problems of the postwar and the administration habit of denial of any less-than-rosy development made him grumpy, tell it: "The presidential medal of freedom goes to George ‘Slam Dunk’ Tenet, Tommy ‘We Have Enough Troops’ Franks, and Paul ‘Disband the Iraqi Army’ Bremer. It’s one thing never to punish error, but to reward it so magnificently!"

Steve Clemons of the Washington Note blog also had some pointed and pungent comments, suggesting the "honor" could be renamed the "Spear Carriers for Empire" medal.

To top it off, we have had a neocon-like propaganda campaign against Iran and Syria similar to the one that led up to the Iraqi war. While President Bush confined himself most recently to warning Iran and Syria not to meddle in the upcoming election in Iraq, the Wall Street Journal, Weekly Standard, and other members of the war-whooping crowd have as much as called for war as soon as possible against both countries.

And yet …. and yet.

Signs of Change

Even so, there are signs that reality may be catching up with those who actually make policy, as compared to those who sit on the sidelines and call for other old men to send more young men to their deaths.

I’m not quite sure what to make of the recent flap over Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld and his comment to the media-coached soldier in Iraq who asked about getting more armor for the troops on the ground. "As you know, you go to war with the Army you have. They’re not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time," said the estimable Mr. Rumsfeld. I think the secretary was blindsided by the question and was winging it rather than offering a deeply-considered opinion. But sometimes off-the-cuff remarks offer insight into thought processes.

As neocon senior partner Bill Kristol noted in a Washington Post piece effectively calling for Rumsfeld’s resignation, Rumsfeld’s comments suggested a strong inclination to pass the buck, to avoid taking personal responsibility for miscalculations and mistakes at all costs.

I strongly suspect that what Kristol wants in the position, however, is somebody more capable of making more war more effectively rather than somebody who will be scrupulously honest and personally responsible. When he came into office, Rumsfeld had a notion that the U.S. military needed to be reformed in the direction of making it leaner, more mobile, and more high-tech rather than massive. The Iraq war put that question to one side for a while, though even in the run-up to the war there were disputes over how many troops would be needed, with Rumsfeld generally arguing for fewer.

If Rumsfeld sticks to his general view during a second term, it could bollix up dreams of increasing the size of the military so it will be better-equipped to carry out a virtually endless series of imperial housekeeping assignments. I think Kristol, who has called for a beefed-up military and more military spending, suspects Rumsfeld still wants a leaner military, so it’s best to get him out of the way. That doesn’t mean antiwar people should hope Rumsfeld stays, but it’s something to consider.

Reality Bites

In circles beyond the rather small war-at-any-cost crowd, however, the reality of the war in Iraq and questions about the consequences of war on a more-or-less continuing basis are starting to matter. For starters, there’s the little matter of money. The latest news is that the Bush administration will ask for $80 to $100 billion to pay for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan next year, rather than the more "modest" $70 to $75 billion it had privately told members of Congress before the election that the tab was likely to be. Beefing up the armor, as virtually everyone has now promised to do, will probably add to the expense.

John Pike, a defense specialist at the military think tank, says the Iraq operation has "been running over a billion a week thus far. I think we’re probably getting up to $2 billion a week fairly soon." Now that the election is over, is there a chance putatively fiscal conservatives will start to raise questions about these ongoing costs – especially if they get in the way of making the tax cuts permanent?

Whether cost becomes a factor or not, military morale is increasingly becoming a topic of conversation. Yesterday’s Christian Science Monitor suggests that something more than the usual griping "is happening now in Iraq with what appears to be growing resistance from the troops." The Monitor counts deserters in the thousands, "resignations of reserve officers, lawsuits by those whose duty period has been involuntarily extended, and a refusal to go on dangerous missions without proper equipment." The Army National Guard is short about 5,000 of its recruiting goals. Soldiers and would-be soldiers seem to be simply losing confidence in the civilian leadership during this war.

Nightline Wednesday night and last night featured returning Iraqi military personnel who are opting for psychological counseling even in the face of pressure not to act like a "coward," implying that this war will produce thousands of people with long-term psychological problems. Other experts, as the New York Times reported yesterday, predict the same.

Whence the Troops

To be sure, much of the conditional optimism one might be entitled to feel is based on the fact that the Bush administration has so far been more restrained than the lobbyists for empire without end would like. But it’s quite possible that this reluctance is based on a belated recognition of reality. If the Army doesn’t provide enough troops to do the job effectively in Iraq, where are they going to find the troops for Iran, Syria, or (gulp!) North Korea? Can they raise more troops without stirring a more widespread antiwar sentiment? Can they even think about Social Security, tax reform, or anything else domestic if the next four years are dominated by war?

They have to be wondering.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).