If you think U.S. troops are outnumbered in Iraq, you should have seen President Bush fending off the White House press corps Tuesday morning. “You just spoke about the suicide bombers in Iraq as being desperate. But as yesterday’s attack show[s], they’re also increasingly successful,” one reporter told Bush. “There’s been a much more somber assessment [of the U.S. predicament] in private,” noted another. “Senior U.S. intelligence officials on the ground in Iraq have estimated that we have, at most, six months to restore order there and quell the violence, or else we risk losing the support of the Iraqi populace,” said a third. “Do you feel that the attacks that have happened recently will discourage some countries to contribute troops or manpower?” asked a fourth. “Isn’t there a limit to American patience, particularly in an election year?” asked a fifth.
Bush did his best to puncture the pessimism. “The foreign terrorists are trying to create conditions of fear and retreat,” he argued. “[They] believe that we’re soft, that the will of the United States can be shaken. … They want countries to say, ‘Oh, gosh, well, we better not send anybody there, because somebody might get hurt.’ That’s precisely what they’re trying to do. And that’s why it’s important for this nation and our other coalition partners to stand our ground.” To questions on every aspect of the postwar conflict—U.S. troops, Bush’s $87 billion appropriation request, donations and reinforcements from other countries—Bush responded with the language of intimidation, defiance, and will.
I’ve seen this struggle for the psychology of a nation at war before. Four years ago, NATO’s military commander, Gen. Wesley Clark, faced a similar barrage of pessimism from the press and from members of Congress hostile to President Clinton’s war in Kosovo. The skeptics argued that our adversary, Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, had proven to be too mentally strong for us and that we should back off. Clark turned that argument on its head: By refusing to let Milosevic break our will, we would break his. Milosevic “may have thought that some countries would be afraid of his bluster and intimidation,” said Clark. “He was wrong. … He thought that taking prisoners and mistreating them and humiliating them publicly would weaken our resolve. Wrong again. … We’re winning, Milosevic is losing, and he knows it.”
I never believed Bush’s claim that overthrowing Saddam Hussein was essential to the war on terror. I’m angry that Bush continues to invoke that bogus rationale for the invasion. But the assassinations and indiscriminate bombings we’re witnessing in post-Saddam Iraq really are part of the war on terror. We can’t crumple under this pressure any more than we could have crumpled four years ago in the showdown with Milosevic. Bush is right, just as Clark was right: War is a contest of wills.
That’s why it’s so troubling today to see Clark join in the same self-fulfilling wave of determined pessimism and obstruction he battled four years ago. “This president didn’t know how he wanted [the Iraq war] to end. He doesn’t know what he’s doing today,” Clark charged in Sunday’s Democratic presidential debate. “I would not have voted [for the] $87 billion. … The best form of welfare for the troops is a winning strategy. And I think we ought to call on our commander in chief to produce it. And I think he ought to produce it before he gets one additional penny for that war.”
I don’t know whether we’ll win the postwar if Congress approves the money Bush asked for. But I know we’ll lose it if Congress doesn’t. That’s what happens when a nation at war starts to think like the Wes Clark of 2003. Just ask the Wes Clark of 1999.