Why Bush stillwon't change his strategy.
In the final paragraph of the New York Times' Jan. 2 story about the impending new Iraq strategy, President George W. Bush is quoted as telling members of the Baker-Hamilton commission that "victory" was still his goal. "It's a word the American people understand," Bush reportedly said. "And if I start to change it, it will look like I'm beginning to change my policy."
The wording is ambiguous. Did Bush not want to look like he's changing his policy, or did he not want to change his policy? Either way, it's a grim state of affairs. It suggests that a reduction of American troops—forget a pullout, simply a reduction, or even a lowering of their profile—is not on this president's agenda. It also suggests that he believes the American people don't want it to be on his agenda, don't want him to change his rhetoric or his policy.
As he told his generals when he visited the Pentagon a few weeks ago (again, according to the Times story), "What I want to hear from you is how we're going to win, not how we're going to leave."
In short, nothing has changed. The midterm elections—which amounted to a clear referendum on Bush's policies—never happened. The Baker-Hamilton report's critique is as dismissible as its prescriptions.
What's going on here? Does President Bush simply want to avoid admitting that he's been wrong? Or does he really think he's been—and still is—right?
Probably both. His unwillingness to acknowledge mistakes, however profound or trivial, is legendary. Yet it's also the case, as a few former high-ranking officials have recently told me, that he genuinely believes he's on "the right side of history" when it comes to Iraq, the war on terror, the freedom agenda—all of which he sees bundled into a single grand vision (as distinguished, and self-consciously so, from his father, who was famously and explicitly the opposite of a visionary).
It's a dangerous sign when politically ailing sitting presidents read biographies of Harry Truman, as Bush has apparently been doing for a while. It's like failing artists who take solace from the fact that van Gogh didn't sell many paintings in his lifetime either. Maybe they'll end up like van Gogh, too, appreciated years later. Then again, maybe they're just lousy artists. Besides, history books hardly speak the last word. The Adams-admiring Joseph Ellis has serious problems with Thomas Jefferson; the Jeffersonian Sean Wilentz is deeply skeptical about John Adams; the Hamilton-boosting Ron Chernow doesn't care much for either.
And so it's distressing to read in the Washington Post of a meeting last month at which Bush told congressional leaders "that Truman's approach to dealing with the Cold War was not initially popular but that he was vindicated by history—the implication being that Bush would be vindicated about Iraq as well."
White House spokesman Tony Snow downplayed this implication, saying Bush didn't mean to liken himself to Truman. But look at Bush's commencement address last May at West Point, where he drew the comparison explicitly:
By the actions he took, the institutions he built, the alliances he forged and the doctrines he set down, President Truman laid down the foundations for America's victory in the Cold War. … Today, at the start of a new century, we are again engaged in a war unlike any our nation has fought before—and, like America in Truman's day, we are laying the foundations for victory.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of George W. Bush by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.