Sunday, January 14, 2007

Keep Digging
Just watched Bush on 60 Minutes. Astonishing. Almost five years into this thing, if you start from early 2002 when the internal push to war really got going, he still doesn't demonstrate the most basic understanding of how the factors in Iraq and throughout the middle east push on each other.

Asked if he felt like he owed the Iraqis an apology, he said no, and instead suggested that part of the domestic problem he's facing is that Americans don't believe Iraqis are sufficiently grateful for being liberated from the dictator. It was hard to miss the impression that he shares this view.

Admitting that the country is not stable, he still defended taking out Saddam as "removing a source of instability."

He basically shrugged off the Democrats' coming attempts to block the troop increase, as well as the public resistance to the strategy, noting that "sometimes I'm the commander-in-chief, sometimes the explainer-in-chief... that's why I'm doing this interview." What was missing, from the interview as evidently from the speech last week (which I didn't watch), was any actual, y'know, explanation as to how escalating the war in the way contemplated would help advance us toward the desired outcome of stability in Iraq, them standing up/us standing down, etc.

There were weasel words about thuggish killer Moqtada al-Sadr, whom Bush seemed to be trying to imply was "an enemy of the United States" without actually saying so. In a way, though, this is encouraging, as it might signal that he understands the nominal Iraqi PM is more beholden to Sadr than he is to the Americans. After all, we can just cut off support; the Shi'ite militants can cut off his head, balls, et al.

And there were some pro forma sentiments about how tough it is to talk with families of those killed in the line of duty, with Bush showing his core political stripes by noting that many have said to him, "Don't let my loved ones die in vain." Those who might have another view--"don't let any more families suffer the pain ours has to endure"--weren't mentioned. I'm not saying that Bush is uncaring or callous to those families; I'm sure he's moved when he's with them. But I also believe, based on everything I've seen and read, that he takes from that emotional experience only the sentiments that reinforce his existing views.

Those views remain frightfully uninformed. There's no sense, listening to this man, that he's contemplated the notion that the American presence might be doing more harm than good. There was no mention of the institutional strain on the armed forces, how badly positioned we'd be as a country to respond to crisis elsewhere, how we would conduct the larger war against Iran that it seems the administration at least wants to bluff willingness to take on, and of course no notion either of the problems that come with a country already in deficit fighting a war on credit, or that the distribution of sacrifice--a few hundred thousand families bearing it all, the rest of us mostly wishing the news were less depressing--is unfair or immoral.

The last two years of a president's second term are not a good time to attempt big things, and I think the country has a certain expectation of its lame duck chief executives. Clinton spent his last two years fending off impeachment, pushing a lot of small-bore measures, and coming fairly close but tragically short of resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict. Reagan, perhaps the last true lame duck by virtue of the Democrats' decision not to pursue impeachment over Iran-Contra, was by then pursuing a foreign policy of de-escalating the Cold War that had wide bipartisan support; domestically, he did next to nothing. Both Clinton and Reagan enjoyed high approval ratings in their final two years.

Bush is taking a different approach. Thoroughly repudiated in the 2006 midterms, relatively unpopular even among many Republicans who see him as an anchor as well as true conservatives who feel that he's transgressed against their principles, he's still pushing, pushing, pushing to somehow "win" an unwinnable war. Maybe it's the sad consequence of never having been forced to clean up his own messes throughout a stunningly privileged life. Maybe it goes back to the managerial weakness of not being willing to entertain a diversity of views and have all the advisers fight it out on the merits of their arguments. Maybe it's just supreme narcissism. But either way, he's bidding fair to leave the presidency as the most reviled two-termer ever, doing long-term damage to the country's international standing, economic health, military might, and internal comity. While almost everyone wishes he'd just lie down in his hole, Bush keeps digging.

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