In the final paragraph of the New York Times’ Jan. 2 story about the impending new Iraq strategy, President George W. Bush is quoted as telling members of the Baker-Hamilton commission that “victory” was still his goal. “It’s a word the American people understand,” Bush reportedly said. “And if I start to change it, it will look like I’m beginning to change my policy.”
The wording is ambiguous. Did Bush not want to look like he’s changing his policy, or did he not want to change his policy? Either way, it’s a grim state of affairs. It suggests that a reduction of American troops—forget a pullout, simply a reduction, or even a lowering of their profile—is not on this president’s agenda. It also suggests that he believes the American people don’t want it to be on his agenda, don’t want him to change his rhetoric or his policy.
As he told his generals when he visited the Pentagon a few weeks ago (again, according to the Times story), “What I want to hear from you is how we’re going to win, not how we’re going to leave.”
In short, nothing has changed. The midterm elections—which amounted to a clear referendum on Bush’s policies—never happened. The Baker-Hamilton report’s critique is as dismissible as its prescriptions.
What’s going on here? Does President Bush simply want to avoid admitting that he’s been wrong? Or does he really think he’s been—and still is—right?
Probably both. His unwillingness to acknowledge mistakes, however profound or trivial, is legendary. Yet it’s also the case, as a few former high-ranking officials have recently told me, that he genuinely believes he’s on “the right side of history” when it comes to Iraq, the war on terror, the freedom agenda—all of which he sees bundled into a single grand vision (as distinguished, and self-consciously so, from his father, who was famously and explicitly the opposite of a visionary).
It’s a dangerous sign when politically ailing sitting presidents read biographies of Harry Truman, as Bush has apparently been doing for a while. It’s like failing artists who take solace from the fact that van Gogh didn’t sell many paintings in his lifetime either. Maybe they’ll end up like van Gogh, too, appreciated years later. Then again, maybe they’re just lousy artists. Besides, history books hardly speak the last word. The Adams-admiring Joseph Ellis has serious problems with Thomas Jefferson; the Jeffersonian Sean Wilentz is deeply skeptical about John Adams; the Hamilton-boosting Ron Chernow doesn’t care much for either.
And so it’s distressing to read in the Washington Post of a meeting last month at which Bush told congressional leaders “that Truman’s approach to dealing with the Cold War was not initially popular but that he was vindicated by history—the implication being that Bush would be vindicated about Iraq as well.”
White House spokesman Tony Snow downplayed this implication, saying Bush didn’t mean to liken himself to Truman. But look at Bush’s commencement address last May at West Point, where he drew the comparison explicitly:
By the actions he took, the institutions he built, the alliances he forged and the doctrines he set down, President Truman laid down the foundations for America’s victory in the Cold War. … Today, at the start of a new century, we are again engaged in a war unlike any our nation has fought before—and, like America in Truman’s day, we are laying the foundations for victory.
But these comparisons are far from flattering. Where are Bush’s institutions and alliances—his Marshall Plan or NATO? What (besides the discredited, and somewhat retracted, one about pre-emption) are his doctrines? Truman was unpopular in his day because many people didn’t like the direction his Cold War strategy was taking them. Bush is unpopular because, it becomes clearer by the day, he doesn’t seem to have a strategy.
One thing Bush does have, however, is an ironclad commitment to his visions. This can be an admirable trait, or it can be the hallmark of a delusional; it depends on the vision. Another thing about Bush—something frequently forgotten until we’re reminded of it—is that he tends to mean what he says (also a quality that’s neither here nor there when it comes to gauging wisdom).
Bush has said countless times that Iraq is the central battleground in the war on terror and that winning the war on terror is vital for the future of civilization. He seems to believe this; several of his high-ranking officials confirm that he does believe this. Yes, it’s odd that he hasn’t done much in support of this belief—for instance, he hasn’t done anything remotely like putting the country on a war footing—but much about this administration’s war policies have been odd. (For instance, an argument might have been made, back in the spring of 2003, for mobilizing a small number of American troops or for disbanding the Iraqi army, but not for doing both, and yet this administration did just that.)
Everything that Bush has said, and everything that he has revealed about his character, adds up to this: He almost certainly is not going to budge from Iraq; he is likely to pour more American troops in—as many as the Army and Marines can manage (which isn’t all that many more)—before he pulls any out. He’s playing for History (most definitely with a capital H), which, he seems convinced, is on his side.
Will Congress shut down the war? Not likely. Contrary to myth, Congress didn’t cut off funding for the Vietnam War until after Richard Nixon pulled out nearly all the troops. Even so, even now, the Democrats are still plagued by the charge that they lost that war. If Congress cuts off, or sharply cuts back, funding for the Iraq war, and if things subsequently get worse, who will be blamed in 2008 and beyond? The question answers itself. Purse strings are unwieldy instruments for such purposes, in any case. Few legislators of either party favor a total, immediate pullout from Iraq. Yet even if Congress somehow collectively decided how many troops should be withdrawn or redeployed, and what those left behind should do, it would be another task entirely to translate that decision into budgetary terms—and politically all but impossible to do so while the White House and its supporters sternly warn from the sidelines that the cuts will “hurt the troops.”
Bush may yet surprise us. If he doesn’t, the next two years are probably going to be hell.