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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

World leader pretend

In Stanley Kubrick’s classic nuclear-age noir comedy “Dr. Strangelove,” the paranoid, delusional Gen. Jack D. Ripper (played by the eternal Sterling Hayden) uttered words that, even from the distance of 1964, put today’s American military debacle in the making in bright relief.

Ripper, in explaining why he had ordered a SAC bomber wing to attack Russia, justified the action with a burst of malign justification couched in military history – condemning the role of politicians in the art of war.

“Do you recall what Clemenceau once said about war?" Ripper asked his adjutant, Col. Mandrake (the equally indelible Peter Sellers). "He said war was too important to be left to the generals. When he said that, 50 years ago, he might have been right. But today, war is too important to be left to politicians. They have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought."

Jack D. Ripper said that forty years ago; he was right then and he’s right today. But by extension, if politicians lack the mental abilities of generals, it’s also safe to say that politicians shouldn’t presume to know better than the generals when it comes to application of strategic thought.

That is the folly in the making of President George Bush, who tonight announced his intent to add 21,500 more American forces to the war effort in Iraq, against the best advice of his military leadership. With his willingness to depart from the counsel of his war council, tried and tested and generals for a damn good reason, President Bush prepares to deepen the misadventure that will finally doom his presidency, damage his party, and all but destroy the global moral credibility of the United States for years to come.

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The hamfisted logic of the speech, its potential to be the fodder of satire won't escape writers and comedians in the future: the fact that George Bush made what may be the defining national address of his presidency from the library in the basement of the White House. It wasn't offered in the loftier, more regal trappings of the East Room, not even from the workaday space of the Oval Office, but from the location that may be closer to a bunker than anywhere else in the White House.

Siege mentality? Try "surge" mentality. That word has dominated administration thinking for the last month. Its primary evangelist, none other than the president, was clearly, visibly under siege on Wednesday. His eyes and eyebrows had the shape of a man terrified of being found out, someone trying hard to keep an impossible secret. He had the look of a man with what the late Hunter S. Thompson called "the fear."

Newsweek’s Howard Fineman observed that the commander-in-chief "spoke with all the confidence of a perp in a police lineup."

President Bush stood at the podium and spoke to the American public with the dazed bewilderment of a man mounting the gallows. In fact, his 22-minute, 3,956-word address bore the seeds, if not the fruit, of his own political obituary. It finally sounded the death knell of his bid for common cause with the American people, who soundly repudiated his policies at the polls in November. But President Bush also saw the abandonment of many in his own party – Senators Brownback, Collins, Hagel, Voinovich and others who jumped from the leaking ship of state into their own lifeboats.

"This is a dangerously wrong-headed strategy that will drive America deeper into an unwinnable swamp at a great cost,” Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement.

Hagel, himself a Vietnam veteran, said it was “wrong to place American troops into the middle of Iraq’s civil war,” warned that Bush’s plan would “cost more American lives, sink us deeper into the bog of Iraq; making it more difficult to get out; cost billions of dollars more; [and] further strain an American military that has already reached its breaking point.”

The question becomes how a man who half a dozen years ago carried his sense of the American people – their desires and dreams – into the White House could be so profoundly deaf to the desires and dreams of those same Americans, and more besides, in the current undertaking in Iraq.

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What makes this escalation in troop strength so galling – the word “surge” being yet another example of the administration’s strategy of misnomer, and nothing more – is the fact that it’s been tried before at least four times before, with outcomes as gradually disastrous as those we can expect this time. Past performance is no guarantee of future, better, results.

"The situation in Iraq is unacceptable to the American people -- and it is unacceptable to me," the president said. "Our troops in Iraq have fought bravely. They have done everything we have asked them to do. Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me," he said with a gratuitous humility, appearing to own up to what Americans have known for years.

Later, Bush the brilliant military strategist explains what's gone wrong in the sectarian crucible of Baghdad.

"Our past efforts to secure Baghdad failed for two principal reasons: There were not enough Iraqi and American troops to secure neighborhoods that had been cleared of terrorists and insurgents. And there were too many restrictions on the troops we did have. Our military commanders reviewed the new Iraqi plan to ensure that it addressed these mistakes. They report that it does. They also report that this plan can work."

But those generals had their arms twisted to come around to his way of thinking. We know that's true by listening to the president not so long ago, in a moment of lucidity.

"It's important to trust the judgment of the military when they're making military plans," Bush told The Washington Post in an interview in December. "I'm a strict adherer to the command structure."

Jack D. Ripper would be proud.

Then Bush the student of history weighs in with his vision of postwar Iraq.

"Victory will not look like the ones our fathers and grandfathers achieved. There will be no surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship. But victory in Iraq will bring something new in the Arab world -- a functioning democracy that polices its territory, upholds the rule of law, respects fundamental human liberties, and answers to its people. A democratic Iraq will not be perfect. But it will be a country that fights terrorists instead of harboring them -- and it will help bring a future of peace and security for our children and our grandchildren."

Baked into this overview is the abiding insistence that the American vision of democracy is the only one that matters. Left unsaid is the fact that many of the "terrorists" he speaks of are Shiites and Sunnis who, for all their long-held sectarian differences, are of like mind and action in determination to drive the Americans from their country.

Also implicit in his speech, whose final sentences invoke the word "prevail," is the shopworn American notion of winning and losing.

As we've noted before, in the Iraq war, those words and the United States' relation to them are fraught with many interpretations. When you're talking about the Bush strategy, those words deserve to bear quote marks.

The words “winning” and “losing” are worthless in the context of the current conflict precisely because they fail to recognize the currency by which advantage and disadvantage are measured in the current conflict.

Those words – and their absolutist, zero-sum-game cousins, “victory” and “defeat” – are the historical products of a style of warfare reflecting traditional benchmarks of military success: the subjugation of an enemy’s standing army; the decimation of an enemy’s economy and infrastructure; the defeat and humiliation of an enemy’s political leadership; the capitulation of an enemy’s civilian population either through outright occupation or by exploiting affinities and sympathies (what we called “winning hearts and minds” in the era of the Vietnam War).

None of those factors is really in play in the current situation in Iraq. Even the administration’s use of the word “enemy” rings hollow: in the old sectarian swirl of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, we don’t even have a firm idea of who “the enemy” really is.

But finally, with the planned escalation of our military presence in Iraq, Bush undercuts the presumed objective behind their introduction: a freestanding Iraqi government ready, able and willing to call its own shots.

With the addition of thousands of American troops, the government of Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki has officially no incentive whatsoever to do what must be done to nurture and sustain itself as a government. The Maliki government knows that no matter what, the American watchdog will likely be there for the foreseeable, and with a bigger presence tomorrow than today.

"In going for more troops, Bush is picking an option that seems to have little favor beyond the White House and a handful of hawks on Capitol Hill and in think tanks who have been promoting the idea almost since the time of the invasion," wrote Michael Abramowitz, Robin Wright and Thomas E. Ricks in the Washington Post this week.

But the president's thinking remains contagious. It still has its supporters on the Hill (the diehards within his own party) and, obviously, within the administration. The new secretary of defense, Robert Gates, announced that the deployment orders for those troops would be signed after the speech without delay. They will be tomorrow, if he hasn't done it already.

And still others were willing to "stay the course." “It is definitely feasible to secure the population.” That’s what Jack Keane, formerly the U.S. Army vice chief of staff and now a Bush policy adviser, told Charlie Rose on Jan. 8, completely missing the point of both the initial objective of the war and the ultimate objective of adding more troops. The Iraq war’s objective has never been to “secure the population.” Our current concern has been to quell the sectarian violence – Shiias against Sunnis -- that was a fact of Iraqi life 1,300 years before the United States was. In that respect, the mission of the United States is approaching a fool’s errand.

"The year ahead will demand more patience, sacrifice, and resolve," the president said from the basement of the house he lives in. "It can be tempting to think that America can put aside the burdens of freedom. Yet times of testing reveal the character of a nation. ... "

But after the last three years and ten months, after an exercise in folly that has cost us 3,016 lives and costs us $8 billion a month, this country doesn't need exercises in character-building -- any more than President Bush was inclined to engage in nation-building not so long ago.

In 1988, R.E.M. released a song whose poetic prescience is nothing less than phenomenal, given our current circumstances. The song "World Leader Pretend" (written and recorded, oddly enough, in the administration of President Bush's father, Bush #41), contains lyrics that suggest a universality of arrogance:

This is my mistake, let me make it good
I raised the wall
and I will be the one to knock it down "

President Bush is erecting a wall -- not a physical structure like the one proposed for the southern borders of this nation, not the serpentine experiment in Middle Eastern apartheid that separates Israel from the Palestinian territories.

President Bush is raising a wall separating this nation -- its values and traditions and mosaic of worthy cultures and aspirations -- from the world this nation presumes to lead.

For the good of this nation, the American people -- their collective strength, their unstoppable populist power -- must be the ones to knock it down.
Image credit: Bush and al-Maliki: U.S. Government (public domain); Sterling Hayden and Peter Sellers: publicity still from "Dr. Strangelove," Columbia Pictures

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