The Two Vacuums

I had the odd and wholly unexpected experience of feeling supportive of a troop increase until I saw the president’s speech arguing for it. What a jarring, furtive-seeming thing it was.

Surely the Iraq endeavor and those who’ve fought in it and put their hopes in it deserve more than collapse, withdrawal and calamity. But . . . 20,000 more troops, who’ll start to arrive over the next few months, and we’ll press the Iraqi government to be tougher? A young journalist who is generally supportive of the president said, “So this is it? The grand strategy is to repeat a strategy they weren’t able to execute the first time they tried it?”

What a dreadful mistake the president made when he stiff-armed the Iraq Study Group report, which had bipartisan membership, an air of mutual party investment, the imprimatur of what remains of or is understood as the American establishment, and was inherently moderate in its proposals: move diplomatically, adjust the way we pursue the mission, realize abrupt withdrawal would yield chaos. There were enough good ideas, anodyne suggestions and blurry recommendations (blurriness is not always bad in foreign affairs—confusion can buy time!) that I thought the administration would see it as a life raft. Instead they pushed it away. Like the old woman in the flood who took to the roof and implored God to send a boat to save her. A hunk of wood floated by as she prayed with fervor. A busted wooden door floated by as the waters rose and she doubled her prayers. Finally she cried “God, I asked you to save me and you didn’t send a boat!” And the voice of God answered: “I sent you a hunk of wood and a door!”

We don’t always recognize deliverance when it arrives.

Got it—don’t be meThere was something unnerving about the speech, from the jumpy beginning to the stumbles to the sound glitches. A jittery affair, and some dusk hung over it. At the end I suspected the president’s aides had instructed him again and again not to strut or have an edge. He perhaps understood that as: Got it—don’t be me. He couldn’t do wounded wisdom, but he could repress cocky cowboy. The result was that he seemed not chastened but effaced, not there. It was odd. One couldn’t find the personal geography of the speech.

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Nothing in it really worked. “I had a sinking feeling,” said a conservative journalist afterward. An old Republican hand: “He looked like he was over his head.” Of the call for bipartisanship: “A tad late.”

John McCain looked pale—he looked like a ghost among the pillars—as he gave reaction on Fox from the Capitol. His voice was soft, feathery, like a speaker who’d been knocked flat on the way to the podium. “I’d much rather lose a campaign than lose a war,” he said. I wondered if he was thinking, Once again this man sinks my fortunes. It’s South Carolina all over again! Dianne Feinstein seemed grave on CNN. “Oh, my heart fell,” she said of the president’s proposal. “I was very disappointed by it.” She wanted more attention to Mideast peace efforts.

Pat Buchanan on MSNBC warned of what would happen if the U.S. simply withdrew or maintained the status quo: “I think the president’s gonna get this last chance, but I think it’s the last one.” There has been something gallant in the old battler who’d opposed the war taking no pleasure in the current crisis. Democratic foreign affairs veteran Richard Holbrooke on PBS: The speech was “an astonishing event. . . . The president is doubling down on every bad bet.” Republican veteran Ken Duberstein: “I found myself watching the speech thinking, ‘I want to believe.’” He did not hide his skepticism.

The question that suddenly began to crop up in all the talk after the speech was: What will fill the vacuum if America simply says, “We gave it our best, but the Iraqi people didn’t seem to want to cooperate in their freedom, so we will have to leave”? The talk was grim and believable. Ethnic cleansing, religious warfare, geopolitical machinations potentially harmful—almost certainly harmful, and deeply so—to America and the West. One argument seems tired and not true. It is that if we leave Iraq, the terrorists of the world will have a safe place in which to gather, coalesce, plan and move. They already have such places, in the Mideast and outside it, and maybe here. Terrorists hide, and the world is full of hiding places.

But there are two vacuums in the Iraq story. The first is the vacuum that would be filled in Iraq if America withdrew tomorrow. The second is the power vacuum that will be created in Washington if the administration is, indeed, collapsing. The Democrats of Capitol Hill will fill that one. And they seem—and seemed in their statements after the president’s speech—wholly unprepared to fill it, wholly unserious in their thoughts and approach. They seem locked into habits that no longer pertain, and absorbed by the small picture of partisan advancement at the expense of the big picture, which is that the nation is in trouble and needs their help. They are sunk in the superficial.

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When Nancy Pelosi showed up at the White House Wednesday to talk with the president it was obvious she’d spent a lot of time thinking about . . . what to wear. She wrapped herself in a rich red shawl. Dick Morris said it looked like a straitjacket. I thought she looked like a particularly colorful mummy. She complained that the president had not asked for her input as he put together his plan. He should have. But what would she have brought to the table if she’d been asked to it? It is still—still!—unclear.

The other night after the speech, Rahm Emanuel, on PBS, was pressed for what he would have the president do. He blinked as if the question were a diversion. He was there to say Bush is Bad. Why bother with what might be good?

Right now, in the deepest levels of the American government, intelligence and military planners should be ordered to draw up serious plans for an American withdrawal, and serious strategies for dealing with the realities withdrawal will bring. It would not be the worst thing if the Maliki government knew those plans were being drawn up. It might concentrate the mind.

What is paramount is a hard, cold-eyed and even brutal look at America’s interests. We have them. I’m not sure they’ve been given sufficient attention the past few years. In fact, I am sorry to say I believe they have not.