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A Calamity Foretold
Bush’s Lethal Way Forward

The Dear Leader in headlights

Too bad I didn’t follow my own therapeutic advice. President Bush’s speech was short, anti-climatic, lamely written but for a couple of lines, and contradictory. The press is bending over backward to make his retreads look authentic and new. The Times calls it a change in tone and substance, and banners its early web story with this fallacy: “Bush Admits Errors in Iraq.” But it isn’t the first time. Not by a long shot. Bush was admitting errors in Iraq back in December 2005 (to name one case). Back in March it was Condi Rice admitting to “multiple” errors. In July 2005 it was Douglas Feith, since resigned from his Pentagon post, admitting errors. And so on. The “admission of errors” bit has the repetitive feel of those admissions by crack addicts who think every admission can have the weight of a redemptive second chance. The admission of errors is itself an addiction. What’s remarkable with this Iraq war is how easily the press buys into the charade every time, without fail. Newspapers can’t resist the combination of words, admits errors, when it attaches to the nation’s most powerful (whether it’s members of the Bush junta or the one-man junta known as Donald Trump, who’s not known for admitting much of anything). The press was in error when it failed to question the rationale for the war in 2002 and 2003. It’s been in error for failing to put Bush and his compulsive if calibrated admissions in perspective. It’s in error tonight for granting this latest speech an unquestioning gravity it doesn’t deserve.

Billed as a “new way forward,” the speech announces no new strategy, no change of course. Adding troops and lifting a few restraints on how those troops can be used is not a change in strategy. It’s a minor tactical adjustment—in the wrong direction. Baghdad won’t be pacified by stepping up the bombings, the neighborhood chases, the tearing down of door after door in search of “insurgents and terrorists.” We are nevertheless back to the Vietnam strategy, where troops had the green light to burn down villages once it was vaguely established that they’d faced hostile fire from them. How is the strategy in Iraq any different when the president says that “This time, we will have the force levels we need to hold the areas that have been cleared.” How is this any different from the White House’s “Clear, Hold and Build” strategy so ballyhooed by Rice in October 2005? Ah, says the Bush, “In earlier operations, political and sectarian interference prevented Iraqi and American forces from going into neighborhoods that are home to those fueling the sectarian violence. This time, Iraqi and American forces will have a green light to enter these neighborhoods ­ and Prime Minister Maliki has pledged that political or sectarian interference will not be tolerated.” So the United States is ready to declare war on every militia in Iraq? Let’s see how long that strategy lasts when the body-bag count starts rising, although that’s not the biggest problem with the “new” strategy.

The biggest problem is that the American occupation has less credibility in Iraq than it does in the United States. Putting more American boots in Iraqis’ faces can only bump up the insurgents’ recruitment and a reversion to the war’s initial stages—when Iraqis were more or less unified in battle against the Americans. The Sunni-Shiite civil war might be put on hold for a while. The “resistance,” as most ordinary Iraqis see the fight against the Americans, will skyrocket. As might the Cambodia and Laos effects of this war: Iran and Syria. “ Iran,” Bush said, “is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.” Is he suggesting that that extra carrier group he “ordered” to the Persian Gulf is there to expand the war across borders?

Needless to say, none of this has anything to do with a defining battle for the 21 st century or a central front in the war on terror. None of the dead American soldiers so far, or those to come, will have died in defense of freedom, either in the United States (where freedom is corroded daily and threatened further by the Bush administration more than it can ever be by al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and Iraq’s insurgents combined, even if they were to pull off more attacks here) or in Iraq, where freedom has been a choreographed illusion since the day the American occupation has been brandishing it as a mask for its own enabling of brutality. It has to do with protecting Iraq’s oil reserves and protecting Saudi Arabia and Kuwait’s undemocratic regimes from collapse. It has to do with abetting the authoritarian regimes of Egypt and Jordan, and with ensuring that a dozen major American bases in Iraq haven’t been built in vain. But we could lose Iraq tomorrow, as we have already re-lost Afghanistan: it would not damage American national security more than the Bush junta’s doings in the last five years have damaged it by annihilating American credibility in most of the world’s eyes and mortgaging the nation’s power, militarily and, to some extent economically, for a few years to come.

The pity is that the only certainty is a continuing war and bloodbaths, although one other certainty is in play here: the press’ romanticizing of a presidency (“a lonely road” is how the unfailingly clueless Katie Couric described the jungle Bush is traveling) while reasserting, from every perspective, an implicit assumption that the United States has a rightful, unquestioned role to play in policing the world. No one is questioning a fundamental assumption underlying this perspective—that the United States is the “leader of the free world.” It may be its only superpower. But its leader? Consider what that implies: That Bush is the leader. The 32 percent president isn’t even the leader of his own nation anymore. He certainly isn’t the world’s. Iraqis know it. And no president has ever won a war with public opinion against him. Iraqis know that, too.

What’s about to unfold in Iraq isn’t different from what’s been unfolding since 2003. But to use a favorite phrase of Bush’s, “make no mistake about it”: it’s Bush’s doing. Everyone else is just profiting—insurgents, “terrorists,” Pentagon procurers, Halliburton, Iran, Syria… If it were all a confederacy of dunces we might have a laugh in the end. But it’s a confederacy of rogues and murderers, and our own president, leader of the free world, has proved to be no better than one of the confederates, if not its leader.

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