Yrotciv in Iraq
Bush's backpedaling on the war.
Harold Pinter wrote a play a while back called Betrayal. (Rent the movie: It's terrific.) The plot was a fairly mundane story about an adulterous affair among affluent London literati. What gives the tale its haunting magic is that Pinter tells it in reverse: starting with the couple breaking up and ending with that first, ambiguous flirtation.
Others have tried this device. Martin Amis used it in a novel called Time's Arrow to make some point or other about the dangers of nuclear war. There is a Stephen Sondheim musical called Merrily We Roll Along, which starts with the hero as an unattractive middle-aged Hollywood power player and ends with him as an idealistic youth gazing toward "the hills of tomorrow." A clever movie several years ago called Memento used the time-backward trick as a way to imitate for the audience the effect of amnesia.
So, it's been used by some of the masters. And it's a good trick: disorienting, as modern art is supposed to be, and with built-in poignance. But that doesn't mean that anyone can pull it off. Frankly, I would have pegged George W. Bush—whose awareness of his own weaknesses is one of his more attractive traits—as just about the last person in the world who would try this literary jujitsu. But in his own narrative of his own war (the one in Iraq), he has done it. If you trace the concept of "victory" in his remarks on Iraq, and those of subordinates, you discover a war that was won three and a half years ago, and today has barely started.
Return with me, if you will, to May 1, 2003. That was the day Bush landed on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, and—under a banner declaring "Mission Accomplished"—declared that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended" and "the United States and our allies have prevailed. (Applause.)" (This is from the official White House transcript.) The White House claimed that the banner was somebody else's idea and that Bush didn't declare victory in so many words. But Bush did use the word "victory," saying that Iraq was "one victory in a war on terror ... " And as I recall, the occasion was pretty triumphal. Perhaps you remember differently. And in his radio address two days later, Bush used the term "victory" unabashedly.
Soon, however, the concept of "victory" became more fluid. There is not just one victory, but many. Or, as then-press secretary Scott McClellan put it in August 2004, "Every progress made in Iraq since the collapse of Saddam's regime is a victory against the terrorists and enemies of Iraq." And there was a subtle shift from declaring how wonderful victory was to emphasizing how wonderful it will be. "The rise of democracy in Iraq will be an essential victory in the war on terror," the vice president said in April 2004.
During his 2004 presidential campaign, Bush said repeatedly that one reason to vote for him over Sen. John Kerry was that he, Bush, had "a strategy that will lead to victory. And that strategy has four commitments." By October 2005, these four "commitments" had been honed down to three "prongs." Then they metastasized into four "categories for victory. And they're clear, and our command structure and our diplomats in Iraq understand the definition of victory." It's nice that someone does.
It was during the 2004 campaign that Bush offered his most imaginative explanation for why victory in Iraq looked so much like failure. "Because we achieved such a rapid victory"—note that it is once more, briefly, a victory—"more of the Saddam loyalists were [still] around."
On May 1, 2006, the third anniversary of "mission accomplished," White House press secretary Scott McClellan was asked whether "victory" had been achieved in Iraq. He said, "We're making real progress on our plan for victory. ... We are on the path to victory. We are winning in Iraq. But there is more work to do." Democrats should shut up because their criticism of the president "does nothing to help advance our goal of achieving victory in Iraq." (Once victory is achieved, presumably, it will be OK for Democrats to criticize.) And make no mistake: "[W]hen the job in Iraq is done, it will be a major victory."
On Aug. 28, criticizing "self-defeating pessimism," Vice President Cheney said there are "only two options in Iraq—victory or defeat." On Aug. 31, Bush said that "victory in Iraq will be difficult and it will require more sacrifice." He predicted that "victory in Iraq will be a crushing defeat for our enemies"—which, as a tautology, is a safe bet.
Which brings us to last week, and Bush's television speech on the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001. "Bush Says Iraq Victory Is Vital" was the Washington Post's accurate headline. And Bush was eloquent. "Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more … " Well, maybe not that eloquent. But his point was the same as Henry V's: Don't give up now! "Mistakes have been made in Iraq," he conceded. He even conceded that "Saddam Hussein was not responsible for the 9/11 attacks." But let us not, for mercy's sake, learn anything from five years of experience. Instead, let's just pretend it all never happened. After all, we won this war back in 2003.
Michael Kinsley is a columnist for the Washington Post and the founding editor of Slate.