A Pathetic Performance

I really should have learned by now. The White House offers some tantalizing hints that this time the president is really going to lay things out in a way the American people can understand, demonstrate that he is conversant with the facts on the ground and how to overcome them. He might even offer a modicum of frankness that demonstrates he understands not everything has gone swimmingly but we are fixing problems. There’s even the hint that he will offer something of an exit strategy that involves a draw-down of troops.

Silly me. Despite repeated disappointments, I find myself anticipating the possibility that there might be a bit of substance this time. So I listen to the speech. When I get to the office, I run to the computer to get the full text from the wire services. That simply confirms what my ear told me – that it’s the usual combination of empty bravado and vague platitudes, with nothing resembling an actual strategy.

President Bush’s speech at the Naval Academy Wednesday was a sheer disappointment on several levels. First, of course, was that it was long on chest-thumping bravado and short on actual strategy, let alone details. Even more disappointing is that it suggests the president seems to see "staying the course" and being seen as unwavering as more important than finding a way to start reducing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq. He didn’t even mention the possibility except to go with his usual trope about how setting a deadline would be a terrible mistake.

Incidentally, isn’t it rather pathetic that this president now appears in public only before a military crowd? (All right, he also spoke before federal border enforcement officers and a fundraiser for a conservative Colorado congresswoman.) It suggests that even though the president himself seems to be securely insulated from reality – and to be fair, that’s a phenomenon that happens to most presidents, although this one has cultivated and even demanded it from the outset – somebody at the White House can read the polls and decipher the signs suggesting that this war and this president are not exactly popular these days.

From a PR perspective, there are advantages for a president to speak at military installations, but there are downsides as well. On the positive side, you can reliably anticipate that at the very least the crowd will not erupt in catcalls, and it is likely that there will be genuine enthusiasm, especially at a service academy where auditors have not yet had the sometimes exhilarating but definitely fantasy-puncturing experience of actual combat. And there is a substantial segment of the population that still views the military with something approaching reverence, and will see a president explicitly identifying with it as a sign that he is the right kind of guy.

On the other hand, there is also a substantial segment – although few may be on the fence about Dubya these days – that sees such explicit identification with the military as distasteful if not downright alarming. You don’t have to be trembling in fear of an imminent military dictatorship to see that there’s something exploitative in the appearances, sort of like a CEO facing a scandal only appearing before groups of employees whose very livelihood depends on him emerging relatively unscathed.

The president is in part using the military, which is supposed to be the supremely nonpartisan institution dedicated to the country rather than to a particular president or party (I’m old enough to remember when career officers made it a point of pride not to vote because they were pledged to obey the commander in chief and didn’t want to have even the scintilla of mixed feelings about loyalty that might arise from having voted for his opponent) to help revive his sagging political fortunes. This is supremely cynical, and there must be some in those crowds who recognize and resent it, but they can be counted on to swallow their resentment and be polite if not enthusiastic.

More than cynical, however, the image of a president who avoids crowds of civilians and ordinary American workers and taxpayers is pathetic. I don’t know if Seymour Hersh is right that, unlike LBJ at a similar point in his presidency, this president is blissfully unaware that he has become a prisoner in the White House and there’s something sad about the situation. If that’s true, it’s even more pathetic. Cluelessness of such epic proportions is worthy more of tears and perhaps even empathy than of Schadenfreude.

Years Ahead

There had been signs that the administration was dropping such hints. Over the weekend, White House press secretary Scott McConnell suggested that an op-ed piece by Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden that talked of drawing down troops next year was similar to the administration’s own plans. Top military people have let it be known that barring some unspeakable disaster, they expect to see the number of U.S. troops in Iraq decline substantially in 2006.

Yet the president told Naval Academy students, "In the years ahead, you’ll join them in the fight." To be sure, he could be said to be talking about the global struggle against terrorism. But he spoke almost exclusively about Iraq, calling it the central battlefield in the war on terror. He didn’t begin to acknowledge that it was precisely the U.S. invasion of Iraq that created this situation. Except for serving as a retirement home for a couple of superannuated terrorists and having Zarqawi (who might or might not have been all that committed to al-Qaeda at the time) operating in the Kurdish north, where the regime didn’t control much of anything, there was little or no terrorist activity in Iraq before the invasion. Now there is plenty.

What is perhaps most troubling about that activity is the evidence that Iraq is serving as a training ground for jihadi-oriented Muslims from Europe and elsewhere in the world to gain experience and get "blooded" so they can go back to their home countries or elsewhere to commit acts of violence or terrorism. The Bushlet, of course, showed no evidence of being aware of this situation, let alone of thinking that it might be important to counter it.

Perhaps more troubling, for what the president himself touted as an "in-depth" look at one aspect of the war, the training of Iraqi security forces, he didn’t outline specific goals for training such forces, nor did he say what achieving those goals would mean in terms of reducing the U.S. troop commitment. He simply offered anecdotal evidence and a few statistics to assert that there are more trained Iraqi police and military personnel than there were a year ago, and they were taking more responsibility.

Still Improvising

Well, one would expect that after two and a half years there would be at least a tiny bit of progress along those lines. What was striking was not only the condescension – that the president of the United States is the proper person to decide when the Iraqis are capable of handling things on their own now – but the sloppiness suggesting severe incompetence. We know now not only that there were no WMD, after all the "slam-dunk" assurances, but that there was literally no planning for the post-invasion occupation.

What is mildly surprising is that the president – I don’t know about others in the administration – still seems not just clueless but determined not to learn or to know anything that conflicts with the rosy scenario he tries to convey to the American people.

To be sure, in dividing the insurgency – or whatever Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld wants to call it this week – into three factions (rejectionists, Saddamists, and terrorists), the president showed some understanding that the situation is more complex than he has acknowledged in the past. Unfortunately, the situation on the ground is even more complex than that.

There are numerous tribal as well as religious and ethnic divisions among those choosing to use violence against the Americans and the regime they support. The United States has still not been able to get many Arabic speakers trained and into Iraq to help understand those divisions and see which factions can be talked to and which can’t.

Security Conflicts

The president’s discussion of Iraqi security forces seemed to assume that they are all selflessly devoted to the emerging nation of Iraq. But the unitary nation-state is something of an abstract concept in Iraq, which had few if any roots before Saddam’s 30-year reign of ruthlessness. The U.S. should be aware of the fact and even acknowledge that some of the forces being trained and armed by the United States are more tribal or ethnic militias, sometimes used to settle old scores of which the United States is only dimly aware if at all, than unitary national security forces.

The 35-page "strategy" document released Wednesday is, as Cato Institute vice president for defense and international affairs Ted Carpenter put it to me, "long on goals and short on strategies to achieve those goals." For example, it shows awareness of the problem of militias being essentially tribal or regional forces, but simply elides the problem by declaring without anything resembling supporting evidence (besides a national academy that is supposed to instill national rather than tribal loyalty) that the new forces U.S. taxpayers are training are loyal to the nation as a concept. Buy that if you like. I don’t.

In a fluid situation, it can be unwise to be tied to strict timetables or preset tactics. But strategic thinking that seeks success on the ground rather than reassuring sound bites would consider the possibility (or the likelihood, even the near-certainty) that U.S. troops are an aggravating factor rather than a stabilizing factor, and at least discuss how to take that possibility into account.

The NSC document is not much more than slogans. There’s seldom a hint beyond glittering generalities like: "The United States is helping Iraq achieve this objective [security self-reliance] by pursuing the following lines of action: Helping to train and equip the Iraqi Security Forces, military, and police, so they can combat terrorist and other enemy activity and maintain a secure environment in Iraq." I picked out that example literally at random. The entire document is nice-sounding but relentlessly nonspecific.

The president will have to do a lot better than this if he wants to restore flagging public support for this ill-advised war. I think he’s a goner, that he will serve out his term as an increasingly ineffective and pathetic figure.


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).