Monday, October 23, 2006

The optimist-in-chief as political albatross

Anyone who still doubts that President Bush is a lead weight on the GOP’s ’06 political prospects should check out his Sunday morning interview on ABC. Most of what he said would be more suitable for a Democratic campaign commercial, as an illustration of the current gap between presidential assertion and empirical factual reality.

Let’s go to the videotape.

1. When host George Stephanopoulos referred to the phrase “stay the course,” during their discussion about Iraq, Bush sought to correct him: “We’ve never been ‘stay the course,’ George.”

Did he really say “never?” I have to confess that I had a problem with Bush’s remark, probably because I am not suffering from amnesia. I suppose that in the Orwellian world of 1984 - where all past inconvenient remarks were automatically deemed inoperative and stuffed down a “memory hole,” to be “whirled away on a warm current of air to the enormous furnaces which were hidden somewhere” – anything spoken by the leader would be automatically welcomed as credible. The problem in America is, we still have memories, and here’s just a sampling of what those memories yield:

Bush on July 10, 2003: “We’re making steady progress. A free Iraq will mean a peaceful world. And it’s very important for us to stay the course, and we will stay the course.”

Bush on Dec. 15, 2003: “We will stay the course until the job is done. And the temptation is to try to get the president or somebody to put a timetable on the definition of getting the job done. We’re just going to stay the course.”

Bush on April 13, 2004: “We must stay the course, because the end result is in our nation’s interest.”

Bush on Nov. 30, 2005: “Some critics continue to assert that we gave no plan in Iraq except to stay the course. If by ‘stay the course,’ they mean we will not allow the terrorists to break our will, they are right.”

Bush on Aug. 30, 2006: “We will stay the course, we will help this young Iraqi democracy succeed.”

2. Yesterday, Bush was still referring to Iraq’s constellation of warring sectarian militias as a “democracy.” He told Stephanopoulos: “What you’re seeing is a battle for Iraq with a democratic government beginning to get stronger and stronger.”

I had a problem with that remark as well, probably because it is at stark odds with factual reality. The latest reports out of Iraq indicate that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has been alternately unable and unwilling to confront the murderous warring militias (some of which are Shiite versus Shiite) that are virtually embedded in the “democratic” government itself.

His claim that the government is “beginning to get stronger and stonger” is also undercut by the facts on the ground. The spokesman for the U.S. military command in Baghdad, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, late last week provided reporters with a gloomy assessment of the situation, admitting that attempts by U.S. troops to quell the militias “has not met our overall expectations of sustaining a reduction in the levels of violence.” (October has now become the deadliest month of 2006 for U.S. military casualties.)

3. Bush also mischaracterized, yet again, the nature of the violence in Iraq. He said: “Look, here's how I view it. First of all, al Qaeda is still very active in Iraq. They are dangerous. They are lethal. They are trying to not only kill American troops, but they're trying to foment sectarian violence.”

In some past statements, Bush has accurately acknowledged that, according to the best estimates by the smartest experts, al Qaeda is by no means the major terrorist force in Iraq, and that, in fact, the overwhelming percentage of fighters are home-grown Iraqis fighting on ethnic and religious grounds – often with the tacit support of the Iraqi national police. Sometimes Bush makes this distinction, sometimes he doesn’t. Yesterday, again, he didn’t.

4. Bush also said yesterday, “I define success or failure as whether the unity government is making difficult – the difficult decisions necessary to unite the country.” Coupled with his statement that the government is getting “stronger and stronger,” he obviously believes it is on the road to success.

But that claim, again, is undercut by the facts. In recent days, his own people, both at the White House and Pentagon have been busy signaling reporters that Maliki is actually not getting stronger and stronger. They are saying that Maliki needs to shape up fast and develop a series of benchmarks for success, especially on the issue of disarming the militias; as one Bush leaker told the New York Times yesterday, “the time is coming. We can’t be there forever.”

These leaks make it clear that the Bush team, squeezed by domestic political pressure and clearly anticipating that Bush family fixer James Baker’s Iraq Study Group may well recommend a drastic change of strategy before year’s end, is trying to tiptoe towards some kind of performance timetable for the first time – notwithstanding Bush’s aforementioned December 2003 vow that he will not be tempted “to put a timetable on the definition of getting the job done.”

5. Bush said yesterday that he has refused to read the books that have been written about his administration. Granted, many of those books would not be pleasant reading. State of Denial, Cobra II, and Fiasco all document, in meticulous detail (virtually none of which has been refuted by the White House) the succession of miscalculations that have brought us to this perilous moment in Iraq. But when Stephanopoulos asked whether Bush might learn anything from these books “in real time,” the president had a one-word response:


Responses such as these are contributing to the GOP’s political woes this autumn, and imperiling the Republican congressional majority. Conservative columnist David Brooks, assessing the mood of moderate northeastern Republicans in The Times yesterday, said it well: “The core problem with suburban voters is not the decision to go to war; it’s the White House’s reaction to the mess afterward…The people in (suburban) offices manage information for a living, and when they see Republicans denying obvious trends, or shutting out relevant data, they say to themselves, ‘Those people are not like me.’ So there goes your majority.”