War Stories

Bush Goes a Bridge Too Far

The president’s latest dumb speech.

In his speech this morning before the American Legion’s national convention, President George W. Bush may have gone a bridge too far. It was the first of several speeches he plans to deliver in the coming days to rally support for the war in Iraq (and, not incidentally, for Republicans in November). But one passage in particular reveals that the campaign is getting desperate:

The security of the civilized world depends on victory in the war on terror, and that depends on victory in Iraq.

Here’s the question: Does anybody believe this? If you do, then you must ask the president why he hasn’t reactivated the draft, printed war bonds, doubled the military budget, and strenuously rallied allies to the cause.

If, as he said in this speech, the war in Iraq really is the front line in “the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century”; if our foes there are the “successors to Fascists, to Nazis, to Communists”; if victory is “as important” as it was in Omaha Beach and Guadalcanal—then those are just some of the steps that a committed president would feel justified in demanding.

If, as he also said, terrorism takes hold in hotbeds of stagnation and despair, then you must also ask the president why he hasn’t requested tens or hundreds of billions of dollars for aid and investment in the Middle East to promote hope and livelihoods.

Yet the president hasn’t done any of those things, nor has anyone in his entourage encouraged him to do so. And that’s because, while the war on terror is important and keeping Iraq from disintegrating is important, they’re not that important. Osama Bin Laden is not Hitler or Stalin. Baghdad is not Berlin. Al-Qaida and its imitators don’t have the economic resources, the military power, or the vast nationalist base that Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union had.

So, the speech sends the head buzzing with cognitive dissonances. There’s the massively exaggerated historical analogy (which should have been obvious, if not insulting, to the World War II veterans in the audience). And there’s the glaring mismatch between the president’s gargantuan depiction of the threat and the relatively paltry resources he’s mustered to fight it.

Such dissonances could further diminish, not revive, his support.

President Bush is right about one thing: It would be a mistake to withdraw all our troops from Iraq—though, even here, he’s right for the wrong reason. The danger is not, as he warns, that al-Qaida would take over Iraq. That’s an exceedingly improbable scenario. First, al-Qaida’s numbers in Iraq are small. Second, other well-armed militias, both Sunni and Shiite, would ferociously resist any such attempt to take power.

The real danger is that Iraq might devolve into anarchy and total civil war, the likes of which would make the present turmoil seem placid by comparison. Killings could soar into the hundreds of thousands, even millions. Neighboring countries, whether for aggrandizement or security, would feel compelled to intervene—Iran siding with the Shiites, Saudi Arabia bolstering the Sunnis, Turkey suppressing the Kurds—and, from there, one good spark could set off a horrendous war across the whole region.

Bush doesn’t see this danger—he chooses not to see it—because it plays against his ideology. He views the world as locked in a titanic struggle between, as he put it in today’s speech, the forces of “freedom and moderation” and the forces of “tyranny and extremism.” This is, in his mind, “the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century.”

He acknowledges that some of these dark forces are driven by “different sources of inspiration”—some are Sunni, some Shiite, some homegrown terrorists. But he claims that they nonetheless “form the outlines of a single movement, a worldwide network of radicals that use terror to kill those who stand in the way of their totalitarian ideology.” As for the sectarian violence between the Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq—a phenomenon that would seem to cast doubt on this Manichean vision—Bush explains it away as having been “inspired by Zarqawi.” Certainly Abu Musab al-Zarqawi encouraged sectarian violence, but to say he contrived it is ludicrous.

It’s not simply ludicrous; it leads to bad policy. It reflects a gross misunderstanding of Iraqi society (which is far more complex than a checkerboard of freedom fighters versus extremists)—and of the real enemies we face (which are far less monolithic or unified than the president seems to believe).

Not all of our enemies are fascists, and not all of our friends are democrats. The danger—really, the crisis—looming in the Middle East is not the threat to freedom and democracy but rather the threat to stability. This is the bugaboo Bush does not want to face. He has said, over and over, that his predecessors’ infatuation with stability is what caused the festering stagnation and resentment that bred the terrorists who mounted the attacks of Sept. 11. “Years of pursuing stability to promote peace had left us with neither,” Bush said this morning. That’s a matter of debate. In any event, the new danger is that Bush’s neglect of stability to promote freedom will leave us with neither of those things—to the still-deeper detriment of peace: a trifecta of world misery.

There are dangers. Bush is not mustering the resources to deal with them, mainly because we do not have the resources. He needs—we need—assistance from international players who have an even greater interest in preventing Iraq from collapsing or a regional war from erupting. However, Bush will not be able to rally this assistance as long as he makes statements like, “We will take the side of democrats and reformers throughout the Middle East.” To the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, and others, that sounds as if Bush would take the side of people who want to overthrow their regimes. He couldn’t be serious; he is, after all, friendly with those regimes. But what is he up to? What are his real intentions? Why bail him out on Iraq if he sees freedom’s triumph in Iraq as the harbinger for the rise of “reformers” throughout the region?

To pursue a sound policy in the Middle East, to impede civil war and worse, would require Bush to shift gears—to drop his rhetoric on spreading some abstract concept of freedom (at least as a centerpiece) and to resume the long-standing pursuit of stability. Such a shift may be too humbling for Bush to endure. And so, as long as he keeps giving speeches on the war in Iraq and the war on terror, the cognitive dissonances will buzz ever louder.