It was announced recently that sometime early next year the troops will be coming home from Iraq. Of course, 85,000 others will be taking their place, but that doesn’t mean this is any less significant a moment in the ongoing public trial of the president’s Iraq policy. Americans have learned about the frustration and futility of the occupation from the body bags returning to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, but soon they will learn something even more important from the survivors: what has really been going on in Iraq?
Whereas Americans now have only soldier-blogger Chief Wiggles, they will soon have 85,000 sources of undiluted, first-hand information. President Bush should be delighted. He has recently gone on the offensive, complaining about media filtration, and vowing to take his case directly to the people.
Bush’s increasingly distrustful harangues against the media would be familiar to Richard Nixon, whose “boys” came home in 1970 and tossed their medals onto the White House lawn. But the problem is not that Bush’s critique lacks truth; it simply lacks credibility. How does Bush know his advisers are better informed than journalists in Iraq, and how does he know what the media is saying if he never watches, listens to, or reads it? While the Democrats are having a serious and necessary debate about where they stand on foreign policy, the White House is trying desperately to keep Republicans in line, to show that dissent on Iraq is “just a Democrat thing.” Bush has shown that he wants both guns and butter, and now he wants to have his cake and eat it, too: he is hoping the Democratic candidates have such a fierce debate on Iraq that it destroys them, while having the public believe that the Democrats’ positions are nonetheless insincere and politically motivated.
But the Republican ranks are beginning to break and blow Bush’s cover: John McCain and Jim Leach of Iowa are leading the breakaway on Capitol Hill; former Bush ally Thomas Kean is steadfastly demanding the secretive administration cough up sensitive documents for his Iraq intelligence inquiry.
The New York Times has indicted Bush for his “bubble” (remember the good ol’ days when “bubble boy” was a character on “Seinfeld?”), but to some extent the problem is not Bush’s bubble, but the bubble in which the administration has casually attempted to place the public and even the Congress, by obstructing Kean’s inquiry, sheltering the Plame affair leaker, and casting the debate over troop numbers as some sort of partisan opportunism by Democrats looking ahead to November 2004.
Bush has benefited immensely from the fog of statistical war. McCain and others have recently pointed out that while there may be 130,000 American troops in Iraq, only 28,000 are actually on patrol at any moment. While the president blames the media and the Democrats’ treachery, opportunism and partisanship, the troops are spread too thin even to protect the deputy secretary of defense’s Baghdad hotel. Meanwhile, highly-trained special forces, conscripted into menial tasks because of the labor shortage, are getting killed while guarding port-o-potties. Rumsfeld and top Iraqi general John Abizaid insist that increasing force size just adds more targets, despite bipartisan calls for more troops. When an average of 30 attacks on Americans occurs every week, a refusal to send more troops is like asking a very good army to be perfect. Isn’t this the kind of ingratitude the White House loves to attribute to Democrats?
On the international front, while spokesmen for the administration continue to bait Paris and Berlin, discount America’s abysmal international image, and insist that the planet is safer without Saddam’s still-missing weapons of mass destruction, the world’s attitude toward Washington’s panhandling last month in the United Nations has, 15 billion dollars of charity aside, basically been “Do you want freedom fries with that?” Much of the world has a genuine problem with America’s National Security Strategy; to chalk that up to anti-Americanism demonstrates a bubble ripe for an unpleasant bursting.
Bush supposedly hates when he sees internal dissent in the newspaper, and maybe he hates any dissent, period. Outside the bubble, the problem is not the media, it’s not Democratic gamesmanship, it’s not “Old Europe,” it’s that Bush is way behind on the learning curve, and all the president’s Sancho Panzas don’t have the nerve to apprise him of the bitter truth, don’t have any faith that he’ll listen, or just don’t realize it themselves.
A support-the-boys attitude threatened to squelch all opposition during the war. Then Bush landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln in a flight suit and announced the end of major combat operations, and now that we are finally having a real debate, Bush hates it. The greatness of America’s founders might just be the tremendous resilience of the system they designed: just when a political culture based on Sept. 11 demagoguery and the administration’s dogma of coerced uniformity threatens to disembowel public debate, democracy provides.
Americans need to be vigilant in the twelve months until the election to make sure a vigorous debate over foreign policy does not degenerate into mere shouting. As for Bush, he needs to be vigilant about widening his circle of advisers, before they lead him further into the quagmire.
Aaron Goode is a senior in Calhoun College.