Frank Rich in the New York Times:
Like the Japanese soldier marooned on an island for years after V-J Day, President Bush may be the last person in the country to learn that for Americans, if not Iraqis, the war in Iraq is over. “We will stay the course,” he insistently tells us from his Texas ranch. What do you mean we, white man?
A president can’t stay the course when his own citizens (let alone his own allies) won’t stay with him. The approval rate for Mr. Bush’s handling of Iraq plunged to 34 percent in last weekend’s Newsweek poll – a match for the 32 percent that approved L.B.J.’s handling of Vietnam in early March 1968. (The two presidents’ overall approval ratings have also converged: 41 percent for Johnson then, 42 percent for Bush now.) On March 31, 1968, as L.B.J.’s ratings plummeted further, he announced he wouldn’t seek re-election, commencing our long extrication from that quagmire.
But our current Texas president has even outdone his predecessor; Mr. Bush has lost not only the country but also his army. Neither bonuses nor fudged standards nor the faking of high school diplomas has solved the recruitment shortfall. Now Jake Tapper of ABC News reports that the armed forces are so eager for bodies they will flout “don’t ask, don’t tell” and hang on to gay soldiers who tell, even if they tell the press.
The president’s cable cadre is in disarray as well. At Fox News Bill O’Reilly is trashing Donald Rumsfeld for his incompetence, and Ann Coulter is chiding Mr. O’Reilly for being a defeatist. In an emblematic gesture akin to waving a white flag, Robert Novak walked off a CNN set and possibly out of a job rather than answer questions about his role in smearing the man who helped expose the administration’s prewar inflation of Saddam W.M.D.’s. (On this sinking ship, it’s hard to know which rat to root for.)
As if the right-wing pundit crackup isn’t unsettling enough, Mr. Bush’s top war strategists, starting with Mr. Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers, have of late tried to rebrand the war in Iraq as what the defense secretary calls “a global struggle against violent extremism.” A struggle is what you have with your landlord. When the war’s über-managers start using euphemisms for a conflict this lethal, it’s a clear sign that the battle to keep the Iraq war afloat with the American public is lost.
What lies ahead now in Iraq instead is not victory, which Mr. Bush has never clearly defined anyway, but an exit (or triage) strategy that may echo Johnson’s March 1968 plan for retreat from Vietnam: some kind of negotiations (in this case, with Sunni elements of the insurgency), followed by more inflated claims about the readiness of the local troops-in-training, whom we’ll then throw to the wolves. Such an outcome may lead to even greater disaster, but this administration long ago squandered the credibility needed to make the difficult case that more human and financial resources might prevent Iraq from continuing its descent into civil war and its devolution into jihad central.
Thus the president’s claim on Thursday that “no decision has been made yet” about withdrawing troops from Iraq can be taken exactly as seriously as the vice president’s preceding fantasy that the insurgency is in its “last throes.” The country has already made the decision for Mr. Bush. We’re outta there. Now comes the hard task of identifying the leaders who can pick up the pieces of the fiasco that has made us more vulnerable, not less, to the terrorists who struck us four years ago next month.
At the height of the Vietnam War and after the Tet offensive demonstrated the “last throes” of the Viet Cong, Sen. George Aiken of Vermont suggested that we just declare victory and go home.
The best that we can hope for is a stalemate…even now the White House is admitting that their vision of “democracy on the march” in Iraq is an uneasy coalition of factions that will look like post-Tito Yugoslavia. And we all remember what happened there — Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo. Or do we?