Exactly what kind of trouble is the president in?
The White House, the Democrats, and the media—all puzzled—are trying to make this calculation. You sense the precision instruments at work, measuring opinion and Zeitgeist air quality. Writers of all biases have been sent back to further develop the plot—we’ve gotten to the cliff-hanger without being sure of the outcome.
Or it’s like an interactive narrative—we can pick from opposite scenarios:
- This postwar (or post-postwar) querulousness is just a blip for the president, and, as so often before, the Bush political and communications experts will make the necessary adjustments (or do the requisite bullying) and, with relative media quiescence, charge on.
- The war and its aftermath—which is unfolding pretty much exactly as the antiwar forces said it would—have created a situation of great vulnerability for the president, which the media, goaded by the Democrats, will poke and prod with mounting pleasure. The president and his men will become more and more defensive and, as the bullying becomes more brazen, prone to greater and greater mistakes. Hence the stage is set for political calamity.
But which is it? It can’t be both.
It’s slightly surreal and unnerving to be caught without a clear story line—to be in such an unscripted moment. It’s highly uncommercial to have the story meander like this without narrative momentum. Everybody looks foolish and unprofessional. Certainly it’s rare for this White House and its consummate script doctors. And the media, which has grown so dependent on the White House writers, is now uncertain where to go on its own (it’s part of the problem—the media expects that the Bushies will come up with some great new plot twist).
Self-doubt sets in for everyone. Such self-doubt, of course, further complicates the outcome. Anyway, at midsummer, with no character having the big Mo firmly on his or her side, let’s take an opportunity to explore the various elements of the varied story lines and get ready for the plot to really thicken in the fall.
The extent of the screwup in Iraq is nearly as great as it could possibly be. Nothing works in the country, a war of attrition continues and grows, and the U.S. bears all of the responsibility. It isn’t just a bad situation, but if, having so grandly assumed this gargantuan and imperial task, we don’t make it into a good situation, we’ve failed. The Bushies promised nothing less than Democracy in the postwar raj. What were they thinking? They didn’t, obviously, plan an exit strategy. (In Afghanistan, we were able to simply pack up and go.) Nobody left any wiggle room—there’s no graceful fallback.
Now the president’s men are caught with their mouths open.
The recent pictures of Wolfowitz in Iraq were priceless: Standing in the rubble at the conjunction of fantasy life and real life, there was a dazed-looking man with a quizzical expression (the senators who interrogated him upon his return definitely seemed less cowed or impressed than they used to be by his fantasy).
Still, while this is really bad, it hasn’t yet been hung permanently around Bush’s neck. It’s a setback, but, in story terms, it’s still a transitional moment. The president could, in other words, get out of it (or get away with it).
To this end, the Bushies seem to have two alternative plotlines they’re pursuing:
The first is the proposed Iraqization of the conflict, which might create an opportunity for slipping out the back without too much notice. There has been the sudden, rushed assembly of an Iraqi government-in-waiting—an unwieldy and near-comical Noah’s ark of U.S. friends and many-hued Iraqi ethnics. And there’s the idea to privatize the security apparatus. That is, private security companies would hire Iraqis and get the boys from Memphis and Shreveport out of view. And then, at the same time, if they can’t turn it over to the Iraqis, who may be at odds with the basic themes of the story the Bushies are still determined to tell, there’s an effort to find other foreigners to get involved—the Bushies have pressed Japan, apparently much against the Japanese popular will, to send 1,000 troops. There’s even talk about returning to the U.N. for some global-community approval.
Simultaneously with trying to put someone else into the line of fire, there’s the effort to fight our way out of the calamity. The deaths of Uday and Qusay represent, the Bush administration promises, a huge victory in that respect. The pacification program is yielding demonstrable results (although the week that saw the death of Saddam’s sons has been the bloodiest since the war officially ended).