mission not accomplished

Frank Rich calls it in today’s New York Times — the war in Iraq is over, and we lost… Our president, mired in the Plamegate scandal and stalked by the families of the dead American soldiers he ordered into battle, is experiencing approval ratings that are, for all intents and purposes, the same as those of LBJ just before he called for America’s withdrawal from Vietnam, and it doesn’t appear as though things are going to play out any differently for this president from Texas than they did for the last one. Unable to commit more troops, and unwilling to risk Republican seats in the 2006 elections, Rich contends that Bush has no choice but to find a way out. Here’s a clip:

Like the Japanese soldier marooned on an island for years after V-J Day, President Bush may be the last person in the country to learn that for Americans, if not Iraqis, the war in Iraq is over. “We will stay the course,” he insistently tells us from his Texas ranch. What do you mean we, white man?

A president can’t stay the course when his own citizens (let alone his own allies) won’t stay with him. The approval rate for Mr. Bush’s handling of Iraq plunged to 34 percent in last weekend’s Newsweek poll – a match for the 32 percent that approved L.B.J.’s handling of Vietnam in early March 1968. (The two presidents’ overall approval ratings have also converged: 41 percent for Johnson then, 42 percent for Bush now.) On March 31, 1968, as L.B.J.’s ratings plummeted further, he announced he wouldn’t seek re-election, commencing our long extrication from that quagmire…

But just as politics are a bad motive for choosing a war, so they can be a doomed engine for running a war. In an interview with Tim Russert early last year, Mr. Bush said, “The thing about the Vietnam War that troubles me, as I look back, was it was a political war,” adding that the “essential” lesson he learned from Vietnam was to not have “politicians making military decisions.” But by then Mr. Bush had disastrously ignored that very lesson; he had let Mr. Rumsfeld publicly rebuke the Army’s chief of staff, Eric Shinseki, after the general dared tell the truth: that several hundred thousand troops would be required to secure Iraq. To this day it’s our failure to provide that security that has turned the country into the terrorist haven it hadn’t been before 9/11 – “the central front in the war on terror,” as Mr. Bush keeps reminding us, as if that might make us forget he’s the one who recklessly created it.

The endgame for American involvement in Iraq will be of a piece with the rest of this sorry history. “It makes no sense for the commander in chief to put out a timetable” for withdrawal, Mr. Bush declared on the same day that 14 of those Ohio troops were killed by a roadside bomb in Haditha. But even as he spoke, the war’s actual commander, Gen. George Casey, had already publicly set a timetable for “some fairly substantial reductions” to start next spring. Officially this calendar is tied to the next round of Iraqi elections, but it’s quite another election this administration has in mind. The priority now is less to save Jessica Lynch (or Iraqi democracy) than to save Rick Santorum and every other endangered Republican facing voters in November 2006.

Of course, Bush might still have an ace or two up his sleeve… What if, for instance, he decides to have a big wingding, complete with country music (and maybe even rides for kids), celebrating the anniversary of September 11? I know what you’re thinking — “He’d never be so ballsy as to try something like that. Sure, he had the RNC convention in New York, and got some political mileage out of the tragedy, and, sure, he sold us a war in Iraq by tying it to the events that took place in New York that day, although completely unrelated, but would he be so crass as to take something like the anniversary of this country’s most devastating day in recent history and turn it into a pro-war carnival in hopes of improving his approval numbers, and drumming up support (and perhaps recruits) for a war that few Americans believe in?”

Well, it’s worked for him up until now, but I suspect at some point standing in front of an image of the twin towers and talking about the necessity of being in Iraq won’t cut it any more. And I suspect that day is upon us… It’s hard to make the case that we’re safer now, because of our presence in Iraq, when it’s just been discovered that WMD projects are now underway there that didn’t exist before. That’s right, we went to Iraq under the premise that there were WMD, and there weren’t any. Now that we’re there occupying the country, though, it seems as though that’s exactly what’s going on. Ironic, isn’t it?

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