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.
It's also time to reassess what has been the Bush administration's strongest argument for staying the course—that if we fail in Iraq, "al-Qaida will be emboldened." 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.
Some of President Bush's remarks this morning were not so much wrong or right as simply odd. For instance, in recounting America's view of the world before 9/11, he said:
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...
Where to begin?
First, complacent as many Americans may have been in those halcyon years between the Berlin Wall's crumbling and the Twin Towers' toppling, nobody—least of all Bush's predecessors in the White House—mistook the Middle East for a "nice and cozy" place.
Second, Bush is right about "the root causes" of extremism, but he has done virtually nothing to "address" them. 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.
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.
Again, does he believe all this, or does he just think he needs to keep up an encouraging face? Has he learned anything the past four years, and if he has, what will he do the next year and a half? Is he looking to solve the crises in Iraq, or is he just running out the clock so that his successor has to make the tough decisions?
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.