Bush bungles a press conference.
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 his agenda for four years now, yet he still sees the conflict through a prism rife with cliché.
The topper, which he has recited several times before, is that if we fail in Iraq, the terrorists will follow us home. He uttered a few variations of the line this morning: "If we were to fail, they'd come and get us. … If we let up, we'll be attacked. … It's better to fight them there than here."
Clearly, this is nonsense, on three 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?
At today's press conference, President Bush tagged on a sort of addendum to this cliché, one that I hadn't heard him utter before. Asked about reports that the U.S. presence in Iraq has in fact strengthened al-Qaida, he replied, "Al-Qaida is going to fight us wherever we are," adding, "The fundamental question is, 'Will we fight them?' "
The dissonances here are a bit subtler, but again three things stick out.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of George W. Bush by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.