Bush’s “Victory at Hand” Rhetoric Breeds Doubt in American Power Among Allies and Foes


Sidney Blumenthal has a powerful piece in Salon today. He strikes out at the “Turning Point” and “Victory” rhetoric that continues to emanate from the White House.
If there were another President in the White House, I think that a rhetoric of defeat, of being stalled, or having made incorrect choices would also be tough. But we passed the point where “Big Lie-ism” was really working long ago. Now, Bush’s failure to speak squarely about the realities in Iraq make America look even weaker and as if the nation simply denies clear realities.
Such reality-denial probably emboldens Iran to push harder — sensing nonsensical weakness rather than clear-eyed, sober realism in the White House. To restore a sense of America’s real abilities among allies and foes, American leaders are going to have to demonstrate that they are making tough choices about our military deployments and resources and to restore credibility to our brand.
So far, Bush’s rhetoric breeds more doubt than confidence, and that is a bad position to be in when negotiating, even informally, with Iran over its nuclear pretensions.
From the Blumenthal article:

Bush has been proclaiming Iraq at a turning point for years. “Turning point” is a frequent and recurring talking point, often taken up by the full chorus of the president (“We’ve reached another great turning point,” Nov. 6, 2003; “A turning point will come in less than two weeks,” June 18, 2004), vice president (“I think about when we look back and get some historical perspective on this period, I’ll believe that the period we were in through 2005 was, in fact, a turning point,” Feb. 7, 2006), secretary of state and secretary of defense, and ringing down the echo chamber.
This latest “turning point” reveals an Iraqi state without a social contract, a government without a center, a prime minister without power and an American president without a strategy. Each sectarian group maintains its own militia. Each leader’s influence rests on these armed bands, separate armies of tens of thousands of men. The militias have infiltrated and taken over key units of the Iraqi army and local police, using them as death squads, protection rackets and deterrent forces against enemies. Reliable statistics are impossible, but knowledgeable reporters estimate there are about 40 assassinations a day in Iraq. Ethnic cleansing is sweeping the country. From Kirkuk in the north to Baghdad in the middle to Basra in the south, Kurds are driving out Turkmen and Arabs, Shiites are killing Sunnis, and the insurgency enjoys near unanimous support among Sunnis. Contrary to Bush’s blanket rhetoric about “terrorists” and constant reference to the insurgency as “the enemy,” “foreign fighters are a small component of the insurgency,” according to Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Patrick Cockburn, one of the most accurate and intrepid journalists in Iraq, wrote last week in the Independent of London that “the overall security situation in Iraq is far worse than it was a year ago. Baghdad and central Iraq, where Shia, Sunni and Kurd are mixed, is in the grip of a civil war fought by assassins and death squads. As in Bosnia in 1992, each community is pulling back into enclaves where it is the overwhelming majority and able to defend itself.”
While Prime Minister Maliki has declared his intention to enforce an unused militia-demobilization decree proclaimed by the now disbanded Coalition Provisional Authority in 2004, he has made no gesture beyond his statement, and no Iraqi leader has volunteered to be the first test case of demobilization. The New York Times Wednesday cited an American official on the absence of action on this front: “‘They need to begin by setting examples,’ an American official in Baghdad said of the Iraqi government. ‘It is just very noticeable to me that they are not making any examples.’ ‘None,’ the official said. ‘Zero.'”
Maliki’s inability to fill the posts of minister of defense and minister of the interior reflects the control of the means of violence by factions and sects unwilling to cede it to a central authority. Inside the new government, ministries are being operated as sectarian fiefdoms. The vacuum at the Defense and Interior ministries represents a state of civil war in which no one can be vested with power above all.
In his speech on Monday referring to another “turning point,” President Bush twice spoke of “victory.” “Victory” is the constant theme he has adopted since last summer, when he hired public opinion specialist Peter Feaver for the National Security Council. Feaver’s research claims that the public will sustain military casualties so long as it is persuaded that they will lead to “victory.” Bush clings to this P.R. formula to explain, at least to himself, the decline of his political fortunes. “Because we’re at war, and war unsettles people,” he said in an interview with NBC News last week. To make sense of the disconcerting war, he imposes his familiar framework of us vs. them, “the enemy” who gets “on your TV screen by killing innocent people” against himself.
In his Monday speech, Bush reverted yet again to citing Sept. 11, 2001, as the ultimate justification for the Iraq war. Defiant in the face of terrorists, he repeated whole paragraphs from his 2004 campaign stump speech. “That’s just the lessons of September the 11th that I refuse to forget,” he said. Stung by the dissent of the former commanders of the U.S. Army in Iraq who have demanded the firing of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Bush reassured the audience that he listens to generals. “I make my mind up based not upon politics or political opinion polls, but based upon what the commanders on the ground tell me is going on,” he said.
Yet currently serving U.S. military commanders have been explicitly telling him for more than two years, and making public their view, that there is no purely military solution in Iraq. For example, Gen. John Abizaid, the U.S. commander, said on April 12, 2004: “There is not a purely U.S. military solution to any of the particular problems that we’re facing here in Iraq today.”

Critics of George Bush, like myself, don’t want to score political points by seeing America struggle in Iraq. If Bush and his advisors had rebuffed critics like Blumenthal and me with clear, unambiguous success — then there would be nothing for us to do but to express our regrets for doubting the brilliance of this Bush presidency.
But that is not the case. Bush has not heeded the warnings and counsel of many and has led the nation into circumstances that are prompting allies to worry about our capabilities and prompting foes to move their national agendas as quickly as possible. Iran did not put us in our current circumstance. Nor did China. Nor did Russia, or Afaghanistan, or Pakistan, or the French.
America’s actions — more than any other nation — have yielded the international environment we find ourselves in today, and we must get real about this — and pull out of the tail-spin Bush has us in.
I will be seeing Blumenthal later today in Florence and many other interesting personalities, including the Department of Justice Chief Investigator of Jim Risen and the New York Times on the warrantless wiretap leak investigation. The conference is entirely off the record but will try to share broad themes later.

— Steve Clemons


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