A Day of Implausible Farce

When the polls are bad, any president holds a press conference.  Thursday, May 24, they were bad (again)

 

More Americans – 72 percent – now say that “generally, things in the country are seriously off on the wrong track” than at any time since the Times/CBS News poll began asking the question in 1983. The figure had been in the high 60’s earlier this year.

 

The old-fashioned conservative Andrew Sullivan (big on small government and low taxes and individualism over community, but gay, but devoutly Catholic, but then fond of the current pope at all), says he doesn’t think even the GOP alarmists expected this, what he calls “a staggering indicator of how disgruntled Americans are.”

 

The numbers on the war in Iraq are just awful –

 

A large majority of the public – 76 percent, including a majority of Republicans – say that the additional American troops sent to Iraq this year by Mr. Bush have either had no impact or are making things worse there. Twenty percent think the troop increase is improving the situation in Iraq.

 

The Sullivan analysis –

 

The 20 percent is the core support for the Republican Party. The Democrats haven’t won over everyone else yet – but any opposition party in this climate has a massive advantage. Bush has indeed become Carter – except he’s had two terms to poison the brand of conservatism.

 

And one of his readers –

 

Bush said today that we should expect an escalation of violence in Iraq because the enemy know that September is a key date for political opinion. So, let me get this straight: if there is less violence, it obviously means the surge is working, and if there is more violence it means the enemy is desperate to get us out and the surge is working. And the two people who get to decide if the surge is working are the architect of the surge (Petraeus) and the man who gave the surge the go-ahead (Bush). What are the odds we’ll hear in September that the surge is not working?

 

Sullivan –

 

The Congress ultimately has the power and, in my view, is wise to let this “surge” gain momentum this summer to see if it truly can make an iota of a difference. We should absolutely listen to Petraeus in September. But no general is going to declare his own initiative a failure. We have the critical criteria – political benchmarks and data on sectarian violence and terror attacks. The president himself has given us the benchmarks. And in September, we get to tell him who the real deciders are: the American and the Iraqi people.  It’s called democracy. It’s what we’re fighting for.

 

That’s a bit idealistic. If the man says he is the decider – and throws in everyone’s face the fact that he was elected to be just that – then no report will matter a whit, nor will any data.  Everyone knows September will be more of the same.  We cannot quit now, and the decision is we will not quit, or change one thing.  He decides. No one else does. That’s just the way it is.

 

The precise numbers on the matter don’t matter much –

 

76% believe the war is going badly.

63% support a timetable for withdrawal in 2008.

76% think the surge is either making things worse or having no impact.

Only 15% support open-ended funding. The rest either want to cut off funds completely or make them conditional on benchmarks.

Large pluralities trust Democrats more on foreign policy (51%-31%) and on making decisions about the war (51%-33%).

 

Kevin Drum argues this the day both houses of congress passed just what the president wanted – full funding for the war with no timelines for anything, and with benchmarks the presisent can waive if he wishes, and reporting requirements he will say are unconstitutional –

 

Sure, politicians shouldn’t blindly look to polls to decide where they stand. But when, by huge margins, polls back up the positions you already have, it means you could certainly stand to show a little more spine defending those positions. Dems have a substantial lead over Republicans on foreign policy for the first time in ages, but they could lose that lead pretty quickly by looking weak and indecisive. The American public wants to be out of Iraq by next year. Democrats ought to be the ones to insist that that happen.

 

They could equally insist the president speak only in Swedish and Vice President Cheney perform Swan Lake in a tutu, or that we have universal healthcare under a one-payer government system that removes the for-profit corporations out of the business of satisfying their shareholders by strangling any attempt to access what might be costly treatment.  “Insisting” is futile.  What’s the point?

 

But with poll numbers like these, and the mess at the Justice Department where no one knows why those attorneys were fired, and the immigration bill the president favors angering everyone on the right (no amnesty – and all those people should just go home), it was time for a press conference.

 

Of course this didn’t help at all

 

As President Bush took a question Thursday in the White House Rose Garden about scandals involving his Attorney General, he remarked, “I’ve got confidence in Al Gonzales doin’ the job.”

 

Simultaneously, a sparrow flew overhead and left a splash on the President’s sleeve, which Bush tried several times to wipe off. 

 

Deputy White House Press Secretary Dana Perino promptly put the incident through the proper spin cycle, telling ABC News, “It was his lucky day… everyone knows that’s a sign of good luck.”

 

They do? See the video here and watch the ABC anchor say this – “Seems a passing sparrow took an opportunity to weigh in on what the President had to say.” 

 

Perhaps Mother Nature was sending a message to change the topic to global warming and climate change and all that – just a reminder of the other world, the real one, the one that’s dying fast.  You can read it all sorts of ways, but it just happened.  Hold press conferences outdoors and such a “poop-drop on the president” was inevitable. The timing was not felicitous, but chance happenings are like that.  Of course, out here in Hollywood you could never get the scene into any movie.  It’d be penciled out of the working screenplay in the first script meeting – too obvious and too implausible, unless you’re producing a teen-comedy farce thing.

 

On the other hand, the press conference was full of the implausible and had elements of farce, without much comedy.  Of course how many observers have noted the president seems to be, at all times, something of a clueless teenager – petulant, rebellious, a bit of a bully, and quite unable to think things out while at the same time mocking those who have thought things out? I guess we all once found that charming. I guess we wanted James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause” – moody but intense, and able to see through any and all pretense and shake things up for the better.  We got something else instead – one of the frat boys from “Animal House.”

 

Fred Kaplan offers a good analysis of what happened – the kid just made no sense, and angrily insisted he was making perfect sense.  Those of us who have taught teenagers just sighed.

 

Kaplan opens with this –

 

If you tuned in at the end of George W. Bush’s press conference Thursday morning, just in time to watch him defend the immigration bill, you caught a glimpse of the leader he might have been, the “compassionate conservative” of the 2000 Republican Convention – impassioned, inclusive, empathetic, yet practical.

 

If you sat through the rest of the conference, which dealt mainly with the war in Iraq, you saw the bedraggled president he has become – defensive, doctrinaire, scattershot, and either deceptive or delusional.

 

Iraq has dominated the agenda for four years now, yet the president “still sees the conflict through a prism rife with cliché.”

 

Is that fair?  We did get “lost puppy following us home” theory once again – if we fail in Iraq, the terrorists will follow us home.  This time we got variations – (1) “If we were to fail, they’d come and get us. (2) If we let up, we’ll be attacked. (3) It’s better to fight them there than here.”

 

Kaplan maintains that this is nonsense, on three distinct levels –

 

First, the vast majority of the insurgents have nothing to do with al-Qaida or its ideology. They’re combatants in a sectarian conflict for power in Iraq, and they have neither the means nor the desire to threaten North America.

 

Second, to the extent that the true global terrorists could attack us at home, they could do so whether or not U.S. troops stay or win in Iraq. The one issue has nothing to do with the other.

 

Third, what kind of thing is this to say in front of the allies? If our main goal in bombing, strafing, and stomping through Iraq is to make sure we don’t have to do so on our own territory, will any needy nation ever again seek our aid and cover? Or will they seek out a less blatantly selfish protector?

 

Teenagers just don’t think things through. It’s an altogether emotional argument – from the gut, to appeal to gut feelings (a visceral argument, as in viscera). Think it through as an adult and it does fall apart – but then that takes patience, and what do they call it… maturity?

 

The problem was compounded too by a press corps that decide to play the adults in the scene, and got all logical.  They asked about reports that the our presence in Iraq has, in fact, strengthened al Qaida – there are more than enough of those. But that got this reply, a new concept never stated before – “Al Qaida is going to fight us wherever we are.”  But, but… Before the obvious follow up question, there was this cut-off – “The fundamental question is, ‘Will we fight them?'”  In short, don’t ask about the illogic of saying we have to fight them there, but we don’t, because we have to fight them everywhere

 

But Kaplan gets all adult and logical –

 

First, it isn’t true. U.S. troops are deployed, to varying degrees, all over the world; al-Qaida is fighting us in only a couple of places and, even there, hardly as the dominant force.

 

Second, by making such remarks, the president is only hyping al-Qaida’s power. What a great recruitment slogan: “Al-Qaida – fighting wherever the Americans are!”

 

Third, if the claim is true, why doesn’t Bush play strategic jujitsu? He should amass a lot of troops someplace where we have a great advantage, lure al-Qaida to come fight us, then spring the trap and crush them. Clearly, Iraq isn’t that place.

 

Kaplan thinks too much.  We’re not supposed to do that.  And he the rips into the Bush administration’s strongest argument for staying the course -that if we fail in Iraq, “al-Qaida will be emboldened.”

 

That is a mixed bag –

 

The argument may be true. Then again, if we keep fighting to no avail in Iraq, al-Qaida might be emboldened as well – and, the longer this futile fight goes on, and the longer they can portray us as infidel occupiers, the more resentful warriors they can rally to their cause.

 

By exaggerating both al-Qaida’s significance and its omnipresence generally, President Bush is only helping fulfill his direst fears.

 

At the start of a fight, there’s some strategic sense in hyping the consequences of defeat: It galvanizes the troops, builds popular support, and discourages political critics from even talking about withdrawal.

 

However, if it becomes clear that victory (especially victory as it was originally defined) might be impossible, and if there’s little a commander or leader can do to reverse the trend, it’s strategically shrewd to start lowering the stakes. In this case, the president, in his rhetoric, should start downplaying the role of al-Qaida. And he should start revving up the diplomatic machinery, so that when we do withdraw (or scale back), the move can be presented in the context of some regional security arrangement – in other words, to make it look as little as possible like a rout.

 

That is too hard – that’s thinking things through.

 

But there’s more, like this from the president about how things were, prior to September 11, 2001 –

 

The Middle East looked nice and cozy for a while. Everything looked fine on the surface, but beneath the surface, there was a lot of resentment, there was a lot of frustration, such that 19 kids got on airplanes and killed 3,000 Americans. It’s in the long-term interest of this country to address the root causes of these extremists and radicals.

 

Hey! Who thought that?  Who thought the Middle East was a “nice and cozy” place?  You can’t just make up things. And anyway, we haven’t done jack about any of them there root causes –

 

This is one reason Lebanon is falling apart: Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas swiftly exploited the extremists’ passions, while the United States (and the rest of the Western world) did absolutely nothing to co-opt or counter them and only slightly more to bolster the Lebanese government’s power and appeal.

 

And “spreading democracy” isn’t exactly the answer –

 

Bush still seems to think that democracy is the answer to all problems and that elections are the essence of democracy. Once more, he touted the 12 million Iraqis who turned out at the polls -ignoring how the pattern of their voting only hardened the country’s sectarian divisions. “Democracy,” he said, “has proven to help change parts of the world from cauldrons of frustration to areas of hope.” True, but in places that lack democratic institutions, it has often had the reverse effect. Hezbollah became a major political party in Lebanon, Islamist militia leaders gained a foothold in the government in Iraq, Hamas came to power in the Palestinian territories – all through democratic elections that the Bush administration encouraged.

 

Oh heck, he was just saying things that sounded good.  Kaplan expects too much – that logic and consideration stuff.

 

Others noted this –

 

Q: Thank you, Mr. President. You say you want nothing short of victory, that leaving Iraq would be catastrophic; you once again mentioned al Qaeda. Does that mean that you are willing to leave American troops there, no matter what the Iraqi government does? I know this is a question we’ve asked before, but you can begin it with a “yes” or “no.”

 

THE PRESIDENT: We are there at the invitation of the Iraqi government. This is a sovereign nation. Twelve million people went to the polls to approve a constitution. It’s their government’s choice. If they were to say, leave, we would leave.

 

Duncan Black comments – “I’ll resist pointing out that it was a sovereign nation in early 2003 also.” But more importantly, Representative Lynn Woolsey notes the obvious – “He won’t listen to his military generals on the ground, he won’t listen to outside experts like the Iraq Study Group, he won’t listen to the Congress, and worst of all he won’t listen to the American public.” But he will listen to the Iraqis.  You want us out of there? Don’t write your congressman or senator – write someone in the Iraqi parliament. They have his ear.

 

This is all rather mad, and for those of us old enough to remember, kind of like that Vietnam business.  The president has said no, it isn’t –

 

Now, many critics compare the battle in Iraq to the situation we faced in Vietnam. There are many differences between those two conflicts, but one stands out above all: The enemy in Vietnam had neither the intent nor the capability to strike our homeland. The enemy in Iraq does.

 

In this case Josh Marshall plays the adult in the scene

 

There are so many problems and distortions with this statement that it is difficult to know where to start. But here’s one place. Can we review the main arguments for why we were in Vietnam? Or at least try to distinguish them from the ones for getting out?

 

President Bush appears to be embracing the argument that the Vietnam War was a fight against Vietnamese nationalists who wanted to kick us out of Vietnam but had no interest in us one way or another beyond that. Certainly they weren’t going to launch attacks against the US mainland. But that was the Doves’ argument. The premise of the war was that it was a battleground in the larger Cold War struggle, one against the Soviets (who certainly had the ability and arguably had the intent to attack us), the Chinese (though that’s much more complicated) and international communism generally.

 

In any case, the arguments for staying in Vietnam and staying in Iraq are actually quite similar – and the arguments for leaving actually have a degree of parallelism too.

 

Of course, if we’re worried about armed jihadism, which we certainly should be, it’s really difficult to think of a better way to exacerbate the problem than to permanently occupy a country at the literal and figurative heart of the Muslim and Arab worlds.

 

That is a thought. Then there’s this from the good old days –

 

“If we quit Vietnam,” President Lyndon Johnson warned, “tomorrow we’ll be fighting in Hawaii, and next week we’ll have to fight in San Francisco.”

 

What is it with these Texans?

 

Digby puts it nicely

 

That’s just as crackled as Bush’s nonsensical statement that the “oceans don’t protect us anymore” and that kind of dumbass reasoning is why Johnson was booted out. Jesus. The truth is that we lived under the possibility of nuclear annihilation with intercontinental ballistic missiles for decades. All it would have taken was one little slip-up or a bad moment of judgment and most of the planet could have gone up in smoke.

 

There is no existential threat today that comes close to that, short of being hit by an asteroid, which means we have already proved that we can handle the problem of terrorism without turning into a bunch of hysterical ninnies squealing that they are coming to kill the children every five minutes.

 

But that is the only argument left.  Feel it – don’t think.

 

And at the press conference there was this –

 

Q: Mr. President, yesterday you discussed Osama bin Laden’s plans to turn Iraq into a terrorist sanctuary. What do you think your own reaction would have been five years ago had you been told that towards the end of your term he would still be at large with that kind of capability, from Iraq, no less, and why – can you tell the American people – is he still on the run? Why is he so hard to catch?

 

THE PRESIDENT: … My point is, is that – I was making the point, Jim, as I’m sure you recognized, that if we leave, they follow us. And my point was, was that Osama bin Laden was establishing an external cell there, or trying to, and he’s been unable to do it. Precisely my point. That’s why we’ve got to stay engaged. Had he been able to establish an internal cell that had safe haven, we would be a lot more in danger today than we are. His organization is a risk. We will continue to pursue as hard as we possibly can. We will do everything we can to bring him and others to justice.

 

We have had good success in the chief operating officer position of al Qaeda. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ramzi al Rabium – there’s a lot of names, some of whom I mentioned yesterday, that are no longer a threat to the United States. We will continue to work to bring him to justice – that’s exactly what the American people expect us to do – and in the meantime, use the tools we put in place to protect this homeland.

 

We are under threat. Some may say, well, he’s just saying that to get people to pay attention to him, or try to scare them into – for some reason – I would hope our world hadn’t become so cynical that they don’t take the threats of al Qaeda seriously, because they’re real. And it’s a danger to the American people. It’s a danger to your children, Jim. And it’s really important that we do all we can do to bring them to justice.

 

Yes, that makes no sense – but your very own children could die! It’s what Digby calls “powerful people fear-mongering in complete gibberish.” It has worked before.  It was worth a try. One must assume the president thinks we’re all dumb kids who can be worked with a good scare story.  What happens when the nation matures, and he doesn’t?

 

And too there was this (again) –

 

There’s a lot of people in the world who don’t believe that people whose skin color may not be the same as ours can be free and self-govern. I reject that. I reject that strongly. I believe that people who practice the Muslim faith can self-govern. I believe that people whose skins aren’t necessarily – are a different color than white can self-govern.

 

Doesn’t that seem a tad racist?  Digby thinks so

 

He’s an inspiration.

 

But then, the whole Iraq invasion is essentially racist. Really – why else did we invade a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 except as a grand exercise in “they all look alike to me” mentality? And Bush’s signature line “they’ll follow us home!” is nothing more than off-the-shelf racial fear mongering.

 

You might also remember this

 

In his new book, The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created A War Without End, Galbraith, the son of the late economist John Kenneth Galbraith, claims that American leadership knew very little about the nature of Iraqi society and the problems it would face after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

 

A year after his “Axis of Evil” speech before the U.S. Congress, President Bush met with three Iraqi Americans, one of whom became postwar Iraq’s first representative to the United States. The three described what they thought would be the political situation after the fall of Saddam Hussein. During their conversation with the President, Galbraith claims, it became apparent to them that Bush was unfamiliar with the distinction between Sunnis and Shiites.

 

Galbraith reports that the three of them spent some time explaining to Bush that there are two different sects in Islam – to which the President allegedly responded, “I thought the Iraqis were Muslims!”

 

We are dealing with a defensive and angry teenager. And all ten Republican candidates who want his job if he leaves at the end of the eight years, are kind of the same –

 

These are the same ten men who say that the threat of Islamic terrorism is the most serious threat the world has ever faced and that they will “follow the terrorists to the gates of hell.” Those ten men are the ones who are running as the heroes who will kick any ass that stands in their way of defending truth, honor and the American way. Is it really too much to ask that know some basic facts about what is fueling the fighting in Iraq and what the threats we face actually are? Talk about the soft bigotry of low expectations…

 

This merely illustrates that for the base of the Republican Party, this election is stripping away all the codes and all the artifice about “compassionate conservatism” and going back to basics: fear and loathing of women and non-whites. They don’t care about fetuses and they don’t care about Jesus and they don’t really care about “family values” except to the extent it keeps their prerogatives in place. After years of listening them drone on about the culture war, they are likely to nominate a someone who is either a gun grabbing, cross dresser from New York City or a flip-flopping Morman from Taxachusetts – their “principles” and their insistence on “cultural affinity” are a crock. The only thing they really care about is trash-talking racist machismo. Let’s admit that and deal with it shall we, instead of playing these ridiculous culture war games and allowing them to twist us into a pretzel? The issue is clear:

 

Americans, do you want another arrogant cowboy dumbshit like George W. Bush running the world for another eight years? If so, vote Republican, because that’s the only thing they have to offer.

 

That a little harsh – but do we really want an adult now?

 

Andrew Sullivan, after attending a speech, worries about Barack Obama

 

At a couple of points in his speech, he used the phrase: “This is not who we are.” I was struck by the power of those words. He was reasserting that America is much more than George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and Gitmo and Abu Ghraib and Katrina and fear and obstinacy and isolation. And so he makes an argument for change in the language of restoration. The temperamental conservatives in America hear a form of patriotism; and the ideological liberals hear a note of radicalism. It’s a powerful, unifying theme.

 

Sullivan may actually have to vote for a liberal.  On the other hand, maybe it’s just voting for an adult.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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