On to Iran?

A deflated commander in chief tries to rally the nation behind one last push in Iraq -- and maybe beyond.

Topics: George W. Bush, Iraq war, Iraq, Middle East

On to Iran?

Throughout the long century to come, any future leader contemplating sending American troops into combat should carefully watch a tape of George W. Bush’s speech to the nation Wednesday night — and ponder its underlying lessons. This was Bush deflated, his arrogance temporarily placed in a blind trust, looking grayer than ever with his brow furrowed with lines of worry. How humiliating for Bush to be forced to say with a stony face, “The situation in Iraq is unacceptable to the American people — and it is unacceptable to me.”

This is what happens to a commander in chief when his vision of victory becomes a struggle for survival, when confident talk of a slam dunk on the way in is replaced by a clamor to slam the door on the way out. This is what happens to a president who is losing a war — and who is reduced to begging for more time, another chance, to set things right.

Little more than a year ago, Bush unveiled what was then billed as his “Strategy for Victory in Iraq.” Speaking to the midshipmen at the Naval Academy in late November 2005, the president declared in a confident tone, “Coalition and Iraqi security forces are on the offensive against the enemy, cleaning out areas controlled by the terrorists and Saddam loyalists, leaving Iraqi forces to hold territory taken from the enemy, and following up with targeted reconstruction to help Iraqis rebuild their lives.”

As a portrait of reality, that ranks up there with “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” Suffice it to say that a limited number — a very limited number — of Iraqis have been able to rebuild their lives. Bush himself said Wednesday night with uncharacteristic albeit belated honesty, “The violence in Iraq, particularly in Baghdad, overwhelmed the political gains the Iraqis had made.”

Anytime a president commands network prime time for a White House address, it is a political moment, even if Bush himself is immune from the direct wrath of the voters. Yet it is misleading to look at the strategy behind the Iraq speech in traditional Republicans-versus-Democrats terms. Bush was speaking to a far narrower audience than the nation at large. The situation in Iraq is too dire for the president to dream of converting Democrats or even independent voters to the cause of staying the course. Bush was playing to the only constituency he has left — the Republican base.



Even at a time when GOP incumbents who face difficult 2008 reelection fights have become militant critics of escalation (Sens. Gordon Smith, of Oregon, and Norm Coleman, of Minnesota, are two), Bush still commands the personal loyalty of much of his party despite the deepening Mesopotamian morass. All the major presidential contenders (Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and, of course, John McCain) bowed to heavy pressure from the White House not to dissent too audibly in their public comments about Bush’s speech and plan for a troop surge.

The White House knows the limitations of the powers of Congress in wartime, even with legislators as aroused as the incoming Democrats. Virtually all congressional attempts to force Bush to change his strategy in Iraq would be vulnerable to a presidential veto, which could be overridden only by a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress. As long as the president holds on to his Republican base in Congress — plus Joe Lieberman, who was pointedly singled out in the speech — he can continue to run the war his way.

But it is clear that Bush understands at this stage in the war that even loyal Republican voters need convincing. A revealing moment in the speech came when Bush stepped out of character and tried to address the inherent skepticism of his audience: “Many listening tonight will ask why this effort will succeed when previous operations to secure Baghdad did not.” The president’s answers were weak, such as when he claimed, “This time, we will have the force levels we need to hold the areas that have been cleared.” Few military experts — outside of perhaps the geopolitical strategists at Fox News and neoconservative think tanks — believe that Bush’s plan to deploy 21,000 more soldiers in Baghdad and Anbar province will do the job. Even Bush sounded tentative on this score when he began a sentence, “Even if our new strategy works exactly as planned…”

Ever since Bush denounced the theretofore unknown “Axis of Evil” in his 2002 State of the Union Address, at a moment when the nation was still fixated on the horrors of Sept. 11, it has been instructive to listen for new rhetorical gambits in major presidential speeches. That is why it is possible that the most fateful words that Bush uttered from the White House library on Wednesday night were these: “Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria.”

Even though the Democrats have won the rhetorical war in labeling the Bush war plan as escalation, 21,000 additional troops is pretty small potatoes by the standards of prior wars such as Vietnam. But expanding the battlefield to the borders of Iran and Syria — if that was indeed what Bush was suggesting — now that would qualify as escalation, as even Henry Kissinger might admit.

Bush may well have bought himself a little more room for maneuver in Iraq with his attempt at donning sackcloth and ashes. But trapped in an abysmal situation largely of his own making, it is worth wondering what Bush’s own secret exit plan might be. Is his latest speech — and the troop surge — a last show of muscular resolve before Bush bows to political reality and the willful ineptitude of the Maliki government and reluctantly sets a timetable for withdrawal? Or will Bush’s last-desperation gambit be a wider war that touches Iran and Syria? Either way, it is a cautionary reminder of what happens when you go to war with the president you’ve got rather than the president you’d like to have.

Walter Shapiro is Salon's Washington bureau chief. A complete listing of his articles is here.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>