“I hope you got a sense of conviction about what we’re doing,” said the president, as he ended his primetime press conference.
We certainly did. Indeed, listening Tuesday night, one must concede the convictions, the earnestness and the resolve of the president that he is doing what he believes best for America. And he has put his presidency on the line behind those beliefs.
“The consequences of failure in Iraq would be unthinkable,” he declared. “Every friend of America would be betrayed to prison and murder as a new tyranny arose. Every enemy of America would celebrate, proclaiming our weakness and decadence, and using that victory to recruit a new generation of killers.”
There is truth here. Prison and murder were the fate of America’s allies when China fell in 1949 and Saigon in 1975. Millions who had declared themselves on our side in the war against communism paid with their lives. The president is also right that America’s enemies will rejoice in any U.S. defeat.
That raises the question. Why did he risk such a defeat and humiliation?
Who failed to alert him as to what the consequences might be before he invaded? Who told him this would be a “cakewalk”? Who said we would be welcomed with flowers, that democracy would blossom in Iraq and across the Middle East? Who led him up the garden path? And why are they still there?
President Bush’s dilemma is this: Americans may agree that a defeat in Iraq would be a disaster, but they are not convinced that democracy in Iraq is so vital that Americans should bleed and die indefinitely to attain it.
And why should they be?
They signed on to a war to disarm and destroy a tyrant, not to decide what kind of government Iraq has. The US commitment to democracy in Iraq is a classic case not only of mission creep, but of bait-and-switch.
In his opening statement, Bush gave five reasons why the “success of free government in Iraq is vital.” Not one justifies a war.
“A free Iraq is vital,” he said, “because 25 million Iraqis have as much right to live in freedom as we do.” Fine. So do 17 million Syrians and 70 million Iranians. Is it our duty, also, to invade and fight for their freedom? Or is that perhaps their job?
“A free Iraq will stand as an example to reformers in the Middle East.” But do these “reformers” really lack for examples of freedom? And if their fathers could overthrow the old imperial powers themselves, why cannot the sons rid themselves of their own miserable tyrants?
“A free Iraq will show that America is on the side of Muslims who wish to live in peace, as we’ve already shown in Kuwait and Kosovo, Bosnia and Afghanistan.” But if we’ve already shown that in Kuwait, Kosovo, Bosnia and Afghanistan, why in blazes do we have to show it again in Iraq? How much proof do these people need that we are on the “side of Muslims who wish to live in peace”?
“A free Iraq will confirm to the Muslim world that America’s word, once given, can be relied upon even in the toughest times.”
Now, this is a crucial point. US credibility is on the line. But who made the rash judgment to put it there? And is President Bush now asking Americans to support a wider war because he blundered in committing his country to democracy in a land where it never existed and where thousands are willing to fight to the death to resist our style of democracy?
“Above all, the defeat of violence and terror in Iraq is vital to the defeat of violence and terror elsewhere, and vital, therefore, to the safety of the American people.”
Here we come to the great Wilsonian fallacy that may yet destroy the Bush presidency. He has embraced the nonsense that unless Iraq is free, America is unsafe. But Iraq has never been free; yet, America has almost always been safe and secure.
The president calls failure in Iraq unthinkable. But the alternative may be an open-ended war the American people never signed on to, and, if present polls are any indication, may not be willing to support indefinitely.
Iraq is not Vietnam, but, for President Bush, there are troubling similarities to other unhappy moments in American history. Truman’s presidency was broken by the “no-win war” in Korea. LBJ’s presidency was broken by his failure to “win or get out” of Vietnam.
What does a president do if he believes a war is just and necessary, but the people come to believe it is the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong enemy?
We are not at that point yet, but we are getting there. And President Bush had best begin to think the unthinkable.