Today is Day 1 of the President’s 5-day campaign to counter growing public opposition to the war in Iraq. Public confidence in Mr. Bush’s conduct of the war has sunk so low, he needs to undertake more than a five-day campaign with a built-in withdrawal date. Just as this war will outlast his presidency, so must the momentum toward victory he creates by his leadership. In this, the President is failing. Regardless of the political consequences, he must reassert the leadership he has shown before.
Almost four years ago President Bush said we were in a “global war on terror,” which — in the inevitable Pentagon acronym — became the “GWOT.” Mr. Bush was transformed, even in the hostile media, into a wartime president, a role he seemed to relish. But since his reelection, Mr. Bush hasn’t acted like a wartime president and the “GWOT” has been reduced in the public’s mind to fighting terrorist insurgents in Iraq. If it’s just Iraq, it’s not a global war. If it’s only to be fought — in Mr. Bush’s formulation until the Iraqis “stand up” and we “stand down” — then it is not a war that will affect the lives of those Americans who aren’t serving in the military or have a family member or friend who is. The President should credit Americans more than that. They understand, just as the President does, that the goal of the Islamic terrorist states is to destroy our way of life. He takes for granted our continued understanding and support when he should, instead, be buttressing it every day against the unremitting anti-war onslaught.
Every wartime president must perform tasks his peacetime counterparts need not. A president must, while listening to his military advisers, be the final decision maker on war planning. Mr. Bush is performing this task unevenly. His resolve seems to wax and wane. In this war, much more than those that came before it, war plans must achieve publicly demonstrable results. Americans are willing to make sacrifices if they understand what is bought with their blood and treasure. But this war, which is being fought openly in Iraq and Afghanistan and covertly elsewhere, has been reduced to the same sort of routine daily horror that Vietnam became. Iraq, from what the public can see, is all pain and no gain.
Wartime presidents must lead their people. In this, Mr. Bush has fallen flat. It’s not enough to say we must complete the mission. It’s not nearly enough to repeat the truism that our soldiers are performing bravely, with skill and humaneness not seen before in history. As important as those facts are, they pale in comparison to what we aren’t told: What is the mission? Who are our enemies, and where are they? How are we going to attack and defeat them? What, specifically, are they trying to do and how are we going to stop them? We know none of those things from the President. To say what he says again and again — without saying much else — leaves wartime opinion-making to Vladimir Putin, Russell Feingold, Chuck Hagel and Cindy Sheehan.
Wartime presidents have to tell our people what is going on, and why. They have to ask people to make sacrifices and explain, in compelling terms, why those sacrifices are essential to the future of the nation. And though he is not failing in the war planning task Mr. Bush is on the road to making as much of a hash of it as LBJ did in Vietnam.
FOR THE PAST WEEK, America has been deluged with the overheated rhetoric of one mother who has lost her son in this conflict. Whatever you think of Cindy Sheehan, she has been an effective voice for those who condemn President Bush for the war in Iraq, and are so consumed with rage at Dubya that they are incapable of thinking about anything else. And their incapability is infectious so long as the President isn’t inoculating us against it. Is there such a thing as the GWOT, or is it just another rhetorical tool? Forget Cindy Sheehan. Listen to Rosemary Palmer.
As the Washington Post reported last Wednesday, “The day after burying their son, parents of a fallen Marine urged President Bush to either send more reinforcements to Iraq or withdraw U.S. troops altogether. ‘We feel you either have to fight this war right or get out,’ said Rosemary Palmer, mother of Lance Cpl. Edward Schroeder II.” What Ms. Palmer says now is precisely what our professional military has said about every war since World War II. They are saying it now but only quietly, in confidence, and almost exclusively to each other. They know that this war needs to be fought — hard, fast, and effectively — to be won at the least cost in American lives. They will do that, and win, if they are allowed to do the job as it must be done. If.
In a meeting a couple of weeks ago, a senior DoD official said that in Iraq, “we’re not winning yet, but we’re holding our own.” How can that be, two years into the fight, unless we are hobbling our forces politically? The objective in Iraq is not a Nixonian “peace with honor” but victory. And victory cannot be achieved in Iraq alone. Back in June, I asked another senior DoD official a question that obviously discomfited him. It was simple enough. I began with the fact that we have mensurated (i.e., three dimensional, accurate within a yard or two) targeting coordinates for the terrorist sanctuaries in Syria. (The fact that Syria is a sanctuary for terrorists who kill Americans in Iraq has not been disputable for more than a year.) I asked why, then, weren’t we attacking the sanctuaries? He gave an answer that — from the look on his face — made him even more uncomfortable than the question. He said, “There are nations with which we don’t want to go to war now.” And therein lies the rub. President Bush must not write the plans for the GWOT on a palimpsest of Vietnam.
Whatever the effect may be on the 2006 and 2008 elections, the war must be prosecuted with all the speed and force we can muster — and that is more than we now use — toward victory. The President needs to explain to us, in detail, what defeat would mean to us and the rest of the civilized world. He needs to tell us where we are fighting, and how. We need not know every covert operation that may be going on, but we need to be told how many nations we fight in, and why. He needs to say that the fight continues, under many covert guises, and that we mean to defeat the enemy wherever he may be, whichever regimes must be destroyed, and by whatever means, fair or foul, we must use to achieve the defeat of Islamic terrorism. And when the President tells us these facts, they must be accompanied by decisive action that carries out these intents.
The time for Mr. Bush to do this grows short, because there is a whiff of defeatism in the air. Some congressional Republicans, fearing the impact of the war in 2006, are breaking openly with the President. Last week Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel repeated his charges that the administration is disconnected from reality on Iraq, and that we’re losing the war there. If we listen to those such as him, his judgment will become reality. Yesterday, Trent Lott added fuel to the fire by implying, on Meet the Press, that Mr. Bush had made the decision to go to war in Iraq in early 2002, long before the President took the Iraq case to the U.N. There will be more defections as the clock ticks down to the 2006 election. After that, Mr. Bush will — formally — be a lame duck. And it will be too late.
Because Mr. Bush is allowing the anti-war left to dominate public debate, America is being led to believe that victory in Iraq is the only goal in the war, and that such a victory is impossible to achieve. Both beliefs are false. But it is not enough for Messrs. Cheney and Rumsfeld to go about stating the obvious truths. There is no substitute for personal leadership by the President. Actually, there is: leadership by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and CBS News. None of them received 53 million votes last November. So where is the guy who did? We need him, right now and for more than the next five days.
TAS contributing editor Jed Babbin is the author of Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe Are Worse Than You Think (Regnery, 2004).
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