Bill Clinton should be green with envy. George W. Bush, Clintons successor and bird of a feather in his quest to stay out of the jungles of Vietnam, in one fell swoop has addressed doubts about both his personal courage and his solidarity with soldiers risking their lives in Iraq. Bushs turkey day trot to Iraq for dinner was a masterful stroke in public relationsat least in the short-term. In the long-term, it could put the Bush presidency further in the soup (or the gravy, as the case may be).
A closer examination of Bushs public relations stunt raises questions about its sincerity and wisdom. The headlinefrom a cooing press ready to gobble up any story on a particularly slow news daywas that the president risked his life to show support for the troops.
Yet Bushs holiday jaunt was shrouded in so much secrecy, even by the standards of this hyper-secretive administration, that he faced very little personal dangereven in hazardous Baghdad. The trip was so hush-hush that the presidents parents werent even told that he wouldnt be showing up for the family gathering in Crawford, Texas. And by sneaking into and out of the fortified Baghdad International airport in darkness on Air Force Onewhich has many technologies to foil missile attacksBush was very safe against the fairly crude means of striking aircraft possessed by the Iraqi insurgents. Although Senator Hillary Clinton ventured out of the airport to visit troops on the front lines during her visit the next day, the president took no such risk and remained in the fortified area for his two-and-a-half hour stay in Iraq. The tight security arrangements obviously satisfied the presidents hyper-cautious Secret Service protectors. Unlike a bird for Thanksgiving dinner, Bush had little chance of being fired upon.
And Bushs mission was designed less to shore up the morale of U.S. military personnel than it was to knock the stuffing out of war critics at home. Criticism had been intensifying about a spike in the number of body bags coming back from Iraq and the presidents attempt to hide them from the American people by not attending soldiers funerals. Bushs foraging in Iraq for a warm meal somewhere was really an attempt to scavenge for better press anywhere he could find it. Security restrictions were bent just enough to take a film crew from Fox News and other friendly reporters along to record the presidents daring do.
CNN, a network less captive to the administration line, interviewed Iraqis on the record and American military personnel off the record and got a less favorable assessment of the presidents visit. Many Iraqis wondered why Bush met only with a few members of the U.S. hand-picked Iraqi Governing Council and not with a single ordinary Iraqi citizen. Also, one soldier told CNN that although it was nice of the president to come for a visit, that soldiers main goal remained getting out of Iraq alive.
That candid statement by somebody actually taking fire in the turkey shoot against American GIs should lead to questions about the sincerity of symbolic pats on the backs for the troops. Recently, politicians and bureaucratswho have done their best to personally avoid combatneedlessly risking the lives of American troops in faraway foreign military adventures has become as American as pumpkin pie. If they had wanted to support the troops, they wouldnt have sent them there in the first place.
Questions of sincerity aside, Bushs pilgrimage to Iraq may backfire in the long-term. Bushs last macho public relations gimmicklanding on an aircraft carrier in a military flight suit under the banner of mission accomplishedsurely did. The subsequent costly guerrilla war has belied such spin. Similarly, the presidents spreading of holiday cheer in Baghdad may tie him even more closely to a policy that is likely to fail. Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon visited Vietnam, but that did not prevent a subsequent U.S. defeat in the war.
Bush is unlikely to get many foreign troops to help suppress the Iraqi guerrillas and is politically constrainedif he wants to have any hope of reelectionfrom throwing more U.S. forces into the quagmire. Thus, the insurgencyemboldened by talk of exit strategies circulating in Washington and by plans to accelerate turning the country over to self-rulewill not go away and will probably get worse. The guerrillas, like those in Vietnam, know that the Achilles heel of the American superpower is a citizenry that tires of foreign military adventures when they are of dubious value for national security. Henry Kissinger (a man who should know) once said that if guerrillas are not losing, they are winning.
During the Bushs trip, he tried to jawbone a victory by using testosterone-laden slogans, such as we will prevail and we will stay until the job is done. Facts on the ground, however, show that those statements contain more hot air than the Bullwinkle balloon in the Macys Thanksgiving parade.
Despite all of the intentional spin during his tour of the Baghdad airport, Bushs Iraq policy may be best symbolized, although inadvertently, by the central photo op of the trip: the president presenting a turkey to the troops.
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.
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