The American presidency has been called “A Glorious Burden” by the Smithsonian Museum, and the loneliest job in the world by historians. As we approach Christmas 2006 Anno Domini, President Bush is surely fully seized of the loneliness and burden of his office.
For rarely has a president stood more alone at a moment of high crisis than does our president now as he makes his crucial policy decisions on the Iraq War. His political opponents stand triumphant, yet barren of useful guidance. Many — if not most — of his fellow party men and women in Washington are rapidly joining his opponents in a desperate effort to save their political skins in 2008. Commentators who urged the president on in 2002-03, having fallen out of love with their ideas, are quick to quibble with and defame the president.
James Baker, being called out of his business dealings by Congress to advise the president, has delivered a cynical document intended to build a political consensus for “honorable” surrender. Richard Haas (head of the Council on Foreign Relations) spoke approvingly of the Baker report on “Meet the Press,” saying: ” It’s incredibly important … that the principle lesson [of our intervention in Iraq] not be that the United States is unreliable or we lacked staying power … to me it is essentially important for the future of this country that Iraq be seen, if you will, as Iraq’s failure, not as America’s failure.”
That such transparent sophism from the leader of the American foreign policy establishment is dignified with the title of realism only further exemplifies the loneliness of the president in his quest for a workable solution to the current danger.
Not surprisingly the most recent polls show just 21 percent approval of his handling of the war — an 8 percent drop since the election, and that mostly from Republicans and conservatives. Overall, his job approval level is down to 31 percent.
If Washington gossip is right, even many of the president’s own advisers in the White House and the key cabinet offices have given up on success. Official Washington, the media and much of the public have fallen under the unconscionable thrall of defeatism. Which is to say that they cannot conceive of a set of policies — for a nation of 300 million with an annual GDP of over $12 trillion and all the skills and technologies known to man — to subdue the city of Baghdad and environs. Do you think Gen. Patton or Abe Lincoln or Winston Churchill or Joseph Stalin would have thrown their hands up and said, “I give up, there’s nothing we can do”?
Or do you suppose they would have said, let’s send in as many troops as we can assemble to hold on while we raise more troops to finish the job. If the victory is that important — and it is — then failure must be unthinkable, even if it takes another five or 10 years.
And yet, when I exclusively interviewed two members of the Baker commission last week, they explicitly told me that they didn’t propose increased troop strength because their military advisers told them it wasn’t currently available.
Well, in 1943, we didn’t have the troop strength for D-Day in 1944, and in 1863, we didn’t have the troop strength (or the strategies) for the victory of 1865. But we had enough to hold on until the troops could be recruited and trained (and winning strategies developed). And so we do today. I have been told by reliable military experts that we can introduce upward of 50,000 combat troops promptly — enough to hold on until more help can be on the way.
Sometimes, current tactical logistical weaknesses must not be used as an excuse for, or a signal of, strategic failure. In 1861, newly elected President Abraham Lincoln faced such a dilemma over the siege of Ft. Sumter. He had decided to ignore his military advice to surrender the fort. While the final published version of his explanation for this decision in his July 4, 1861 Message to Congress did not reflect his personal anxiety in coming to that decision, it might be useful to President Bush to read Lincoln’s first, unpublished, draft — which did reflect his mental anguish as he tried to decide. All his military advisers, after due consideration, believed that Fort Sumter had to be evacuated. But Lincoln’s first draft read:
“In a purely military point of view, this reduced the duty of the administration, in this case, to the mere matter of getting the garrison safely out of the Fort — in fact, General Scott advised that this should be done at once — I believed, however, that to do so would be utterly ruinous — that the necessity under which it was to be done, would not be fully understood — that, by many, it would be construed as a part of a voluntary policy — that at home, it would discourage the friends of the Union, embolden its foes, and insure to the latter a recognition of independence abroad — that, in fact, it would be our national destruction consummated. I hesitated.” (see “Lincoln’s Sword,” pp 79-80; by Douglas Wilson).
Lincoln was alone in the self-same rooms now occupied by George Bush. All his cabinet and all his military advisors had counseled a path Lincoln thought would lead to disaster. He was only a month in office and judged by most of Washington — including much of his cabinet — to be a country bumpkin who was out of his league, an accidental president. Alone, and against all advice he made the right decision — as he would do constantly until victory.
Mr. President, you are not alone. The ghost of Old Abe is on your shoulder. God Bless you and Merry Christmas.