Monday night, as I listened to President Bush’s five-step program for getting our troops out of Iraq, I finally understood what we really need: a 12-step program.
I didn’t know George Bush back when he was an alcoholic. (I don’t really know him now, except for what I see on television and read in second-hand accounts.) But I’ll bet he was a lot like the man I saw Monday night: unwilling to recognize the mess he is in, unwilling to own his responsibility for making that mess, and obsessed with changing the behavior of certain evil but poorly defined “enemies” rather than his own behavior.
In an excellent analysis for the online magazine Slate, William Saletan pointed out how passively Bush described America’s problems in Iraq: “History has placed great demands on our country. ... We did not seek this war on terror, but this is the world as we find it.” In Bush’s version, we didn’t go to Iraq of our own volition, ignoring the pleadings of our best friends and allies. We just find ourselves here, like the drunk who finds himself in a bar with a half-finished fifth of Jack Daniels on the table. The Abu Ghraib detainees? We woke up with their blood on our fender. You can’t expect us to remember how it got there. Why are people making such a big deal out of it?
Our poor preparation for the Iraqi insurgency? Bush tells it like this: “The swift removal of Saddam Hussein's regime last spring had an unintended effect. Instead of being killed or captured on the battlefield, some of Saddam's elite guards shed their uniforms and melted into the civilian population. [They] have reorganized, rearmed and adopted sophisticated terrorist tactics.”
Saletan’s comment is dead-on: “The mistake isn’t that Bush failed to prepare for guerrilla tactics commonly adopted against occupiers. It isn’t even a mistake; it’s an ‘unintended effect.’ The cause of that effect is Saddam's ‘swift removal,’ not Bush or anyone in his administration who engineered the removal.”
When a problem has to be admitted, it is someone else’s fault: “The early performance of Iraqi forces fell short.” Bush didn’t rush them into battle too soon, train them inadequately, or unreasonably expect them to defend our goals with their lives. They just “fell short,” that’s all. Pick up those dice and roll them again, George. Maybe they’ll fall long next time.
I used to get angry when I listened to Bush, because I thought he was wrong. Monday I felt sad, because I realized that he’s delusional. What else can you make of this: “The terrorists’ only influence is violence and their only agenda is death. Our agenda in contrast is freedom and independence, security and prosperity for the Iraqi people. And by removing a source of terrorist violence and instability in the Middle East we also make our own country more secure. Our coalition has a clear goal understood by all: to see the Iraqi people in charge of Iraq for the first time in generations.” Polls show that 80% of Iraqis want us to leave. Do they have no agenda but death? Do they belong to the “all” who understand that our goal is to put the Iraqi people in charge?
I used to think Bush was a con man, like his recently estranged ally Ahmad Chalabi. But con men tell lies that they expect people to believe. Who are these claims supposed to fool? Am I really supposed feel “more secure” now that photographs from Abu Ghraib are all over the Middle East?
Mostly, I have to admit, my sadness is for myself, my country, and the other victims of my President’s reality problem. If the Iraqi people have been cast as the innocent strangers in a drunken accident, we Americans are the long suffering family who can only hope that our man snaps out of it before it’s too late. He’s running through our retirement money at a ferocious pace, and the kids will have to pay off our debts if they can. And of course, our servicemen keep getting caught in the middle of his fights.
I don’t know why I didn’t see it sooner. Already last summer it was obvious he thought he was in a barroom brawl. He told the Iraqi insurgents to “bring it on,” for God’s sake. But I must have been in denial.
Now I can only wonder what it’s going to take to make him bottom out. His NATO co-workers gave him a stern talking-to back when this all began, but he just got mad at them. His buddy Tony Blair, of course, has his own problems with reality. (I hear his country is thinking about throwing him out too.) One by one, all the President’s friends are realizing that they can’t defend him any more. Some Republicans like John McCain never did like him, so it wasn’t surprising he wouldn’t listen to them. But his own terrorism czar, Richard Clarke, wrote a book to tell him what’s what, and now General Tony Zinni, who was his Middle East envoy a few years ago, has written another book (with Tom Clancy, no less) telling him to wake up and smell the coffee. But nothing gets through. Not even George Will or Tucker Carlson can convince him that he has a problem.
And now, finally, the public – good and faithful wife that we are – is starting to lose hope. At first we wouldn’t let anybody speak against our man. We called his critics “disloyal” and “unpatriotic”. They were the ones who had a problem, not our President. We defended him so long that we made fools of ourselves. But now his approval ratings are going down day by day.
That was the whole point of this speech, of course – to reassure us that everything is fine and keep us from leaving him. But the speech didn’t change anything, it was just the same old promises: “The rise of a free and self-governing Iraq will deny terrorists a base of operation, discredit their narrow ideology, and give momentum to reformers across the region. This will be a decisive blow to terrorism at the heart of its power, and a victory for the security of America and the civilized world.” Yadda, yadda, yadda. Someday, down the road, things will get better. “And when that day comes the bitterness and burning hatreds that feed terrorism will fade and die away. America and all the world will be safer when hope has returned to the Middle East.”
As much as I’d like to dream that dream, we’ve heard it all before. It’s too late to fix things with words, even if he reads them cleanly off the teleprompter and pronounces them correctly. Things were going to get better when Baghdad fell, and when we captured Saddam. He even stood on that aircraft carrier and told us that things were already better, that the mission was accomplished. Now, he says, it’s all going to start getting better after June 30, or when Iraq has elections, or sometime.
I’d love to believe that. We all would. Nobody likes admitting that their president has a problem. But we’ve got to stop enabling this guy with our wishful thinking, our excuses, and our votes. Hard as it is, we have to throw the bum out.
Tough love. It’s the only way.
25 May 2004
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