It’s Not About Bush

The four-part Iraq speech cycle on which the president has embarked, and that culminated yesterday in his remarks before the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, may well mark a turning in his public leadership of the war. His arguments on the war, and his assertions about what is happening on the ground and what is desired there, were more comprehensive, seemingly more candid, and thus more persuasive than he has been in the past 12 months. Coupled with today’s voting it may mark a real turning point.

One of the things I think the president communicated most effectively, if mostly between the lines, was the sense that some decisions a president faces don’t promise good outcomes no matter which way he comes down. These are decisions that carry deep implications, and promise real difficulty.

And one such was: To move on Saddam or not?
Do nothing about Saddam, or nothing that hasn’t been done before, and you keep in place a personally unstable dictator who has declared himself an avowed enemy of America, who will help and assist its foes at a crucial time, and who has developed and used in recent memory and against his own citizens weapons of mass destruction. Do nothing and you face the continuance of a Mideast status quo encrusted by cynicism and marked by malignancy.

But remove Saddam and you face the cost in blood and treasure of invasion, occupation and the erection of democracy. It’s all a great gamble. It could end with the yielding up of a new ruling claque as bad as or worse than the one just replaced. You could wind up thinking you’d bitten off more than you could chew and were trying to swallow more than you could digest.

No matter what Mr. Bush chose, what decision he made, he would leave some angry and frustrated. No matter what he did, the Arab street would be restive (it is a restive place) the left would be angry (rage is their ZIP code, where they came from and where they live), and Democrats would watch, wait, offer bland statements and essentially hope for the worst. Imagine a great party with only one leader, Joe Lieberman, who approaches the question of Iraq with entire seriousness. And imagine that party being angry with him because he does.

Mr. Bush chose to remove Saddam and liberate Iraq from, well, Saddam. And maybe more. Maybe from its modern sorry past. Pat Buchanan said a few months ago something bracing in its directness. He said a constitution doesn’t make a country; a country makes a constitution. But today, in the voting, we may see more of the rough beginnings of a new exception to that rule. News reports both in print and on television also seem to be suggesting a turn. They seem to suggest a new knowledge on the ground in Iraq that democracy is inevitable, is the future, and if you don’t want to be left behind you’d better jump in. One senses a growing democratic spirit. A sense that daring deeds can produce real progress.

‘Tis devoutly to be wished, and all of good faith must wish it.

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In his speech yesterday the president said the obvious: that the intelligence received in the buildup to the war was faulty. He asserted that Saddam’s past and present history justified invasion nonetheless. This left me thinking again about a particular part of the WMD story. I decided my own position in support of invasion after Colin Powell warned the U.N. in dramatic terms of Saddam’s development of weapons that were wicked, illegal and dangerous to the stability of the world. It is to me beyond belief that he was not speaking what he believed to be true. And I believed him, as did others.

Later Howard Dean, that human helium balloon ever resistant to the gravity of mature judgment, said of the administration that they lied us into war. He left no doubt that he meant they did it deliberately and cynically. But there seems to me a thing that is blindingly obvious, and yet I’ve never seen it remarked upon. It is that an administration that would coldly lie us into Iraq is an administration that would lie about what was found there. And yet the soldiers, searchers and investigators who looked high and low throughout Iraq made it clear they had found nothing, an outcome the administration did not dispute and came to admit. But an administration that would lie about reasons would lie about results, wouldn’t it? Or try to? Yet they were candid.

Wouldn’t it be good if our serious journalists and historians looked into what happened to weapons that Saddam once used and once had? He abused weapons inspectors who came looking, acting like a man who had a great deal to hide. And wouldn’t it be good for our serious journalists and historians to look into exactly how it is that faulty intelligence, of such a crucial nature and at such a crucial moment, came to America and Britain? It is still amazing. Oh, for journalists and historians who would look only for truth and not merely for data that justify their politics and ideology.

*   *   *

I have been thinking about what hasn’t worked, in the year since the 2004, election about the president’s communication of his aims and efforts in Iraq. Or rather why it didn’t work, why it seemed unpersuasive, why his statements seemed more repetitive than memorable. The president’s focus was fractured, and by a number of things. By ill judgment—deciding Social Security was the new No. 1 issue. By bad luck—Katrina, etc. And by tone deafness, from “You’re doing a heck of a job, Brownie” to Harriet Miers. The Iraq picture got blurred. But when a political picture gets blurred, people wonder if the blurring isn’t deliberate and diversionary, a way of taking everyone’s eyes off the facts. Skepticism grows.

And there is I think another part. It is that this White House believes way too much in spin.
David Brooks noted last Sunday on “Meet the Press” that in private Bush aides are knowledgeable and forthcoming about the war—this is working, this isn’t, we made a mistake here and are fixing it in this way—but that in public they rely too much on platitudes and talking points.
It’s true. The Bush White House treats the message of the day as if it were the only raft in high seas. Hold, cling, don’t let go. Their discipline seems not persuasive but panicky.

They think their adherence to spin is sophisticated and ahead of the curve, but it is not. What is sophisticated is to know that the American people have been immersed in media for half a century and know when they’re being talked to by robots who got wound up in the spin shop. They are not impressed by rote repetition, cheery insistence or clunky symbolism. They see through it. When you have the president make a big speech and he’s standing under the sign that says VICTORY, the American people actually know you’re trying to send an unconscious message: Bush equals victory, Bush will bring victory, victory is coming. It’s not so much nefarious as corny.

There is the sense sometimes with this White House that they learned more from Bill Clinton than from Ronald Reagan. What did Mr. Clinton and his spinners and handlers and media mavens and compulsive line-givers teach us? “It’s all about Bill.” He’s the man, he’s at the center, he’s so brilliant. He had a tough childhood, he’s building a legacy, it’s Bill Bill Bill.

The Bush White House—and the president—have in the same way made Iraq a Bush drama. Bush won’t cut and run, Bush has personal relationships, Bush is like Harry Truman, Bush will hold to his word. Look, he’s landing on an aircraft carrier. It’s all about Bush.

Modern White Houses think the man has to be the emblem of the actions. But thinking this way is not helpful, not in any serious way, and the Bush White House should stop it. Because it’s mildly creepy; because it puts too much on your guy, which means he has to be lucky for everything to work, and nothing’s worse to rely on in politics than luck. And most important because it’s actually not about Bush, it’s about America.

Ronald Reagan fought a war, but he didn’t think it was about him, he thought it was about America. He didn’t think it was about his principles; he thought it was about America’s. He didn’t land on aircraft carriers; he built them.

This war isn’t about Bush, or shouldn’t be, or can’t be if it is to have meaning, and to end in success. It’s bigger than that. It’s bigger than him.