The Bush Backlash

In its dash to Baghdad, the administration left its own rear guard exposed.

Stung by widespread criticism of the conduct of the war in Iraq, senior Bush administration officials have become defensive. War is a nasty business, they say, always has been and always will be—and in this one everything is still on track. There is no real reason to worry.

They have a point. Despite recent setbacks, it is indeed far too soon to pronounce the military plans a strategic disaster, and the difficulties encountered so far may well look minor if victory comes relatively swiftly. It’s also important to remember that in going up against Saddam Hussein, the United States is unquestionably on the right side of history.

Yet the Bush team, by refusing to acknowledge any problems and by treating all critics as nervous nellies or quasi-fifth-columnists, is running the risk of compounding its earlier mistakes and opening up a significant credibility gap. Amazingly, what the administration seems not to understand even now is just how much of the flak it is taking is its own fault—an inevitable backlash against the hardball tactics it has used to bring on a war that few others wanted.

Sure, there are some foreigners who are objectively in Saddam’s camp or who are so afraid of American power that they see the United States as a graver threat to the world than Iraq. And there are some Americans who are so divorced from the realities of international politics that they cannot understand the need for the use of force in any situation whatever. But by acting as if the choice on Iraq, and in American foreign policy generally, is between these extreme critics and the administration’s own hardliners—you’re either with us or against us—the Bush team has done a great deal to alienate the broad swath of people lying somewhere in between: those at home and abroad who might well have been brought to some grudging support for this war had it been sold more honestly, more tactfully, and in less revolutionary terms.

By choosing to bully its way forward against all opposition, the administration gambled that a quick, easy war would silence the critics and provide its own retrospective justification. This might still happen, but in its lonely dash to Baghdad, the Bush team has left its own rear guard undefended, not just that of the troops in the field.

The story of how the administration botched its diplomacy with Turkey through arrogance and complacency is familiar by now, as are the consequences. And it was embarrassing but not entirely shocking to see how two years of cavalier disregard for the interests and sensitivities of other countries contributed to the debacle at the United Nations in March, when the most powerful nation in the history of the modern state system had to go begging for the votes of countries such as Cameroon, Guinea, Angola, and Pakistan—and couldn’t get them.

But what has been truly breathtaking has been the speed with which elements of all the major national security bureaucracies have openly distanced themselves from the war plan—not to mention the glee with which so many people in and around Washington pounced upon a relatively minor ethics scandal to make Pentagon adviser Richard Perle the war’s first domestic political casualty.

This blowback owes as much to the style of the administration’s politics as to the substance of its policies. The CIA worried about Saddam’s weapons programs and regional ambitions but was skeptical about Iraq’s connections to terrorism and dismissive of the military capabilities of the Iraqi opposition. Not good enough—its judgment had to be impugned.

The armed forces were willing to go along with the war but wanted to proceed with what investor Benjamin Graham called a “margin of safety” to make sure that the job was done right and that adverse contingencies could be handled easily. Not good enough—its leadership had to be humiliated and its professional recommendations overruled.

The State Department had the temerity to report on and even care about the rest of the world’s anger at the administration’s policies and to suggest possible ways of deflecting such opposition. For this, of course, it was contemptuously ignored.

Ironically, the only abused party not to have sought some form of payback yet are the Democrats, whose own views on national security are so incoherent that they have shunned debate entirely and preferred to cower meekly on the sidelines, hoping the whole storm will somehow pass them by.

When millions of people around the world took to the streets in February to oppose the coming war, British Prime Minister Tony Blair engaged them repeatedly and directly. Acknowledging their right to dissent, and even the nobility of some of their motives, he nevertheless answered their charges point by point, patiently and eloquently explaining why he favored the course he did. George W. Bush, in contrast, made a crack about not listening to focus groups, while his supporters charged the demonstrators with lunacy or perfidy.

All this, and not simply a few unexpected guerrilla attacks in Iraq, is the background to the soft support the administration’s war management has received to date. The saddest part of the story is that it didn’t have to be this way. A less cocky, less high-handed, and less deceptive approach to war might actually have won over many doubters, not simply forced them into temporary submission. But having given no quarter along the way, the Bush crowd should hardly be surprised now when they receive none in return.