Sunday, December 03, 2006

I Stole This From Times Select (and I'm Not Ashamed)

From Frank Rich:

IT turns out we’ve been reading the wrong Bob Woodward book to understand what’s going on with President Bush. The text we should be consulting instead is “The Final Days,” the Woodward-Bernstein account of Richard Nixon talking to the portraits on the White House walls while Watergate demolished his presidency. As Mr. Bush has ricocheted from Vietnam to Latvia to Jordan in recent weeks, we’ve witnessed the troubling behavior of a president who isn’t merely in a state of denial but is completely untethered from reality. It’s not that he can’t handle the truth about Iraq. He doesn’t know what the truth is.

The most startling example was his insistence that Al Qaeda is primarily responsible for the country’s spiraling violence. Only a week before Mr. Bush said this, the American military spokesman on the scene, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, called Al Qaeda “extremely disorganized” in Iraq, adding that “I would question at this point how effective they are at all at the state level.” Military intelligence estimates that Al Qaeda makes up only 2 percent to 3 percent of the enemy forces in Iraq, according to Jim Miklaszewski of NBC News. The bottom line: America has a commander in chief who can’t even identify some 97 percent to 98 percent of the combatants in a war that has gone on longer than our involvement in World War II.

But that’s not the half of it. Mr. Bush relentlessly refers to Iraq’s “unity government” though it is not unified and can only nominally govern. (In Henry Kissinger’s accurate recent formulation, Iraq is not even a nation “in the historic sense.”) After that pseudo-government’s prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, brushed him off in Amman, the president nonetheless declared him “the right guy for Iraq” the morning after. This came only a day after The Times’s revelation of a secret memo by Mr. Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, judging Mr. Maliki either “ignorant of what is going on” in his own country or disingenuous or insufficiently capable of running a government. Not that it matters what Mr. Hadley writes when his boss is impervious to facts.

In truth the president is so out of it he wasn’t even meeting with the right guy. No one doubts that the most powerful political leader in Iraq is the anti-American, pro-Hezbollah cleric Moktada al-Sadr, without whom Mr. Maliki would be on the scrap heap next to his short-lived predecessors, Ayad Allawi and Ibrahim al-Jaafari. Mr. Sadr’s militia is far more powerful than the official Iraqi army that we’ve been helping to “stand up” at hideous cost all these years. If we’re not going to take him out, as John McCain proposed this month, we might as well deal with him directly rather than with Mr. Maliki, his puppet. But our president shows few signs of recognizing Mr. Sadr’s existence.

In his classic study, “The Great War and Modern Memory,” Paul Fussell wrote of how World War I shattered and remade literature, for only a new language of irony could convey the trauma and waste. Under the auspices of Mr. Bush, the Iraq war is having a comparable, if different, linguistic impact: the more he loses his hold on reality, the more language is severed from its meaning altogether.

When the president persists in talking about staying until “the mission is complete” even though there is no definable military mission, let alone one that can be completed, he is indulging in pure absurdity. The same goes for his talk of “victory,” another concept robbed of any definition when the prime minister we are trying to prop up is allied with Mr. Sadr, a man who wants Americans dead and has many scalps to prove it. The newest hollowed-out Bush word to mask the endgame in Iraq is “phase,” as if the increasing violence were as transitional as the growing pains of a surly teenager. “Phase” is meant to drown out all the unsettling debate about two words the president doesn’t want to hear, “civil war.”

When news organizations, politicians and bloggers had their own civil war about the proper usage of that designation last week, it was highly instructive — but about America, not Iraq. The intensity of the squabble showed the corrosive effect the president’s subversion of language has had on our larger culture. Iraq arguably passed beyond civil war months ago into what might more accurately be termed ethnic cleansing or chaos. That we were fighting over “civil war” at this late date was a reminder that wittingly or not, we have all taken to following Mr. Bush’s lead in retreating from English as we once knew it.

It’s been a familiar pattern for the news media, politicians and the public alike in the Bush era. It took us far too long to acknowledge that the “abuses” at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere might be more accurately called torture. And that the “manipulation” of prewar intelligence might be more accurately called lying. Next up is “pullback,” the Iraq Study Group’s reported euphemism to stave off the word “retreat” (if not retreat itself).

In the case of “civil war,” it fell to a morning television anchor, Matt Lauer, to officially bless the term before the “Today” show moved on to such regular fare as an update on the Olsen twins. That juxtaposition of Iraq and post-pubescent eroticism was only too accurate a gauge of how much the word “war” itself has been drained of its meaning in America after years of waging a war that required no shared sacrifice. Whatever you want to label what’s happening in Iraq, it has never impeded our freedom to dote on the Olsen twins.

I have not been one to buy into the arguments that Mr. Bush is stupid or is the sum of his “Bushisms” or is, as feverish Internet speculation periodically has it, secretly drinking again. I still don’t. But I have believed he is a cynic — that he could always distinguish between truth and fiction even as he and Karl Rove sold us their fictions. That’s why, when the president said that “absolutely, we’re winning” in Iraq before the midterms, I just figured it was more of the same: another expedient lie to further his partisan political ends.

But that election has come and gone, and Mr. Bush is more isolated from the real world than ever. That’s scary. Neither he nor his party has anything to gain politically by pretending that Iraq is not in crisis. Yet Mr. Bush clings to his delusions with a near-rage — watch him seethe in his press conference with Mr. Maliki — that can’t be explained away by sheer stubbornness or misguided principles or a pat psychological theory. Whatever the reason, he is slipping into the same zone as Woodrow Wilson did when refusing to face the rejection of the League of Nations, as a sleepless L.B.J. did when micromanaging bombing missions in Vietnam, as Ronald Reagan did when checking out during Iran-Contra. You can understand why Jim Webb, the Virginia senator-elect with a son in Iraq, was tempted to slug the president at a White House reception for newly elected members of Congress. Mr. Bush asked “How’s your boy?” But when Mr. Webb replied, “I’d like to get them out of Iraq,” the president refused to so much as acknowledge the subject. Maybe a timely slug would have woken him up.

Or at least sounded an alarm. Some two years ago, I wrote that Iraq was Vietnam on speed, a quagmire for the MTV generation. Those jump cuts are accelerating now. The illusion that America can control events on the ground is just that: an illusion. As the list of theoretical silver bullets for Iraq grows longer (and more theoretical) by the day — special envoy, embedded military advisers, partition, outreach to Iran and Syria, Holbrooke, international conference, NATO — urgent decisions have to be made by a chief executive who is in touch with reality (or such is the minimal job description). Otherwise the events in Iraq will make the Decider’s decisions for him, as indeed they are doing already.

The joke, history may note, is that even as Mr. Bush deludes himself that he is bringing “democracy” to Iraq, he is flouting democracy at home. American voters could not have delivered a clearer mandate on the war than they did on Nov. 7, but apparently elections don’t register at the White House unless the voters dip their fingers in purple ink. Mr. Bush seems to think that the only decision he had to make was replacing Donald Rumsfeld and the mission of changing course would be accomplished.

Tell that to the Americans in Anbar Province. Back in August the chief of intelligence for the Marines filed a secret report — uncovered by Thomas Ricks of The Washington Post — concluding that American troops “are no longer capable of militarily defeating the insurgency in al-Anbar.” That finding was confirmed in an intelligence update last month. Yet American troops are still being tossed into that maw, and at least 90 have been killed there since Labor Day, including five marines, ages 19 to 24, around Thanksgiving.

Civil war? Sectarian violence? A phase? This much is certain: The dead in Iraq don’t give a damn what we call it.

10 Comments:

Blogger litbrit said...

Thanks so much for posting this, the whole thing, at your place. I've updated my posts at The Last Duchess and Shakes to point people here, should they want to read it despite not having Times Select.

9:59 AM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

no problem dear. this is one beat up ol' grunt who still sees his duty and does it. i don't make a habit of posting stuff from behind their wall. i thought that this was too important to leave alone. if they come to fuck with my i'll say "sorry, sorry, sorry" then giggle. i probably won't do it again. it helps to have cousins and uncles who are all attorneys that would gladly defend any infringement suits for free. from jp's experience they usually will bully blogger into deletion of the post and let it drop. by that time everyone that wants to read it will have done so.

10:04 AM  
Blogger litbrit said...

I wonder what the official rules/laws are when it comes to such things--I mean, the NYT online used to be free. Now, the best parts of it (Frank Rich's column, occasional Judith Warner pieces) are for-pay. But from a newspaper's perspective, haven't blogs always been useful in getting people to check out the whole article--indeed, the whole newspaper--itself? I have always been told that if you put something up on the web, consider it fair game. That means words, photos, ideas...anything can be copy/pasted or downloaded. Even a website's source code, including metatags, if you know how (easy).

Polite, law-abiding people are careful to credit the original website/author/photographer. Rude, law-breaking ones, not so much.

12:23 PM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

i fear that this "firewall" holding action will suffer the same fate as a lot of the music industry has suffered from napster. they will find out that once the genies escape the bottle, they are reluctant to ever return. despite all the weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth in the boardrooms of the record labels (although there have been some changes) record sales are actually up. i mean, what if someone were to take a print copy of the NYT, scan it or use text recognition software and post that on the web?

they need to remember that the internet was conceived and designed with the intention of surviving a nuclear war between the soviets, us and the chinese. it will defy and frustrate any attempts by puny humans to control and harness it.

12:35 PM  
Blogger M.A.Peel said...

I was a student of Fussell's years ago when he was at Rutgers. It was a thrill to take his class on WWI literature --not only to read GWMM with him, but to have him for a guide through all the great war poetry: Sassoon, Blunden, Owen, et al.

Fussell spoke movingly about his own service as a very young officer in WWII--the waste of life was all around him, and given the hierarchy, often in his hands. When he was demobbed, he was drawn to academic life, and first made his mark as an 18th century expert. There was some refuge in Johnson and Pope, bastions of irony themselves.

Ken Burns has a 10-part documentary coming out next year on WWII. I saw an advance screening of some of it. I don't think it's airing until september of 2007, which is too bad. The footage he has uncovered, the stories he tells from the viewpoint of 4 individual families are powerful and speak to the extreme, unnatural horror of battle. The sooner it's in people's living rooms, the better.

1:21 PM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

it has always been thus, hasn't it? i have been reading about alexander's afghan campaign, i read xenophon's brilliant Anabasis at least once a year. and thucydides. and lawrence, well, suffice it to say that i'm a voracious reader. this current debacle has many instances throughout history that echo it's soundings. like mark twain said "history does not repeat itself, sometimes however, it rhymes." thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment.

1:42 PM  
Blogger isabelita said...

No, Bush doesn't CARE what the reality is; he was hired to be a fucking cheerleader, and that's what he's been doing for six years. Cheerleaders just keep cheerin', even when the team is messing up. The Bush/Cheeny/Rove squad has the mindset of people who only play to win, and and in their minds, they must always be winning, one way or another, one spin or another.
They of course have already "won" the looting of the USA game, but they will not "win" anywhere else. No one wins in Iraq or Afghanistan.
I would, if I could, send bloody screaming nightmares to visit this lot in power of our poor old country, nightmares to make them raving mad. Unfortunately, I'm a rational person, don't believe in no ghsots, and feel frustrated and angry at having no more direct way to punish Bush et al.

11:17 AM  
Blogger konagod said...

I wanted to "steal it" and I didn't have the balls (or the time) today.

6:07 PM  
Anonymous shades of blue said...

The only beef I have with F.Rich's article is that he's giving Bush too much credit.
The man and his cohorts are simply psycopaths.

I'm not being trite or flippant, I am serious.
These people are so greedy that it dominates and drives their entire existance.
Can't have enough power/money/control.
People dying?
Oh well, as long as we get what we want.

Yeah I'll get off my soapbox now.

7:19 PM  
Anonymous Jim Schweizer said...

"This article reprinted in full without permission for the purposes of discussion and review, as permitted by Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976."

1:07 PM  

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