Bush Family Values

I never know if i’ll be thinking, as I read the Times at breakfast, that reasonable men have reasonable disagreements—maybe it is a good idea to “free” Iraq—or that all reason has discreetly departed. Or, perhaps, that we have entered one of those surreal historical moments that reasonable men simply don’t have the language for.

The Times has assumed its most official kind of voice. Its Pentagon reporters command the front page. Other reporters are in war training. The tone is sober, meticulous, striving to be nonjudgmental—intent on ignoring all the various elephants in the room.

When the Times has General Tommy Franks discussing the intricacies of mobilization, everything seems serious and competent. But then as soon as you get to the numbers and the costs, everything becomes dreamlike and obtuse. The New York Post business pages might be better at handling these numbers than the Times front page—we need a War-Cost-o-Meter.

And then we’re paying Turkey $15 billion to be our ally? Huh? But the Times, more or less pointedly, hasn’t used the almost-unavoidable phrase checkbook diplomacy once. (Has anyone thought to offer a similarly sized retirement package to Saddam?)

“Tonally, television tends to make more sense than the Times – possibly because it doesn’t try to make sense.”

And there’s Wolfowitz, whom the Times alternately treats as Strangelovian and charming (there was a recent story in which the Times had Wolfowitz squirming about never having been in the Army himself—but as he squirmed, he seemed, in the Times’ respectful going-to-war tone, cuddly, too).

And then, complementing the Times coverage, there was that full-page ad from the Department of Homeland Security urging Times readers to get their duct-tape family terror kit ready. Certainly surreal. (Do Homeland Security staff really have their kits all made up at home? Does Howell Raines have a kit in his house?)

Tonally, television tends to make more sense than the Times—possibly because it doesn’t try to make sense. It’s just all about countdown (MSNBC replaced Phil Donahue with Countdown: Iraq) and pictures of equipment, stylized soldiers, and big planes taking off.

But then there was Dan Rather’s interview with Saddam, and that was certainly off-the-charts surreal.

Dan Rather, of course, is always a little surreal. And here he was with the most wanted man in the world, warmly grasping his hand in his own.

And Saddam himself: He looked good. I liked his suit. He seemed substantially more reasonable (and less interesting) than Michael Jackson (and Dan Rather was no Martin Bashir) and less monstrous than Robert Chambers (“Am I a monster? No”), whose interview followed Saddam’s on CBS.

But the weirdest thing to me was Dan doing this again. Dan back in Baghdad, just like in 1990, getting his “get.” The whole thing elaborately repeating itself—without any kind of humor or self-consciousness at all.

The Democrats, too, of course, are in a tonal black hole. Somehow the Bush people seem canny and in control—the Times certainly takes their lists of rationalizations and possible smoking guns seriously—whereas the Democrats seem rather silly and contemptible for their earnestness.

Nobody is quite acknowledging—not the Times, or Dan Rather, or the Democrats, and certainly not the White House—that it’s plainly odd to be back here on the eve of war with Iraq. (It’s not just Dan’s interview that’s a rerun.) Or possibly the oddness is just written into the story—we’re accustomed to the elephants by now.

Certainly, the fixation has been squarely up-front—there’s been practically no effort at hiding it at all. Let’s state the obvious: Those lost, halcyon days of the first Gulf War are the ever-present background to doing this all once more. How could they not be? Who doesn’t want to return to his—or his father’s—finest moment?

Arguably, we haven’t seen, among respectable nations, such a derring-do determination to go to war since, well, possibly before 1914. It’s a breach of modern norms: One is never supposed to want to go to war; one is supposed to be dragged into war. It seems like an odd strategic mess-up, too: Don’t begin by saying you want to be at war and then seek justifications; rather, look for ways to avoid war, and then have your hand forced.

But the Bushies have been nothing less than open about it: They’re desperate to do Iraq; they need to do it; they will do it.

There have been, though, no cable-news talk shows debating the nature of neurotic obsession—the son’s dealing with the father’s issues. (Obviously, though, given his repeated delineation of Bush the Father and Bush the Son, this is on Saddam’s mind.) Nor even has there been much discussion of the possibly cynical nature of all this: that it worked so well once before, so why not do it again? (Elisabeth Bumiller did refer the other day in the Times to the “political capital from a war,” with “victory a turnkey to legislative success.”) There’s been scant wag-the-dog talk here—not like with the Clinton adventures, when you could make that reference and suggest a large and conspiratorial subtext and have lots of people eager to believe it. There have been few Strangelove references, either (even about Wolfowitz).

We’ve been assiduously treating this Iraq war as normal—at least as far as wars go—rather than unique to the Bushes.

The argument is in many ways rather quaintly old-fashioned: hawk versus dove. Hawks argue for the efficiency of war (the Times, notably, often seems to accept this argument), and doves argue about its vast and grievous hurtfulness.

Even the millions of protesters seem to regard the prospect of war as a basic moral or strategic disagreement—MR. PRESIDENT, LET THE INSPECTIONS WORK, read a particularly forlorn set of placards. Or some revert to the oil view—which, however mendacious, would still be a straightforward reason to go to war. Even the most extreme and creative lefties seem to have no real language for distinguishing the Bush motivation from any other kind of aggression.

And yet the question lurks. Sometimes it’s phrased as “Why now?” But that’s still strategic and moral, when perhaps it should be larger, more theatrical: “What’s the character motivation? What’s the emotional payoff?”

There is, weirdly, the grandness of it all. The operatic quality. The zeal. The demonizing. The ever-greater building of the tension. The duct tape.

Surely, too, it’s out of balance to have staked everything on Iraq—the economy, the world order, the favorability rating of the president himself.

Then to have made it so entirely us against almost everybody else—to have, at almost every point, emphasized our dead-set determination in contrast to all the more moderate voices (in diplomacy, you always try to align with the moderate voices)—is hardly textbook politics.

And to have let it go on for so long is, in any conventional political-operations manual, crazy.

It is all so counterintuitive that it can only mean there is another really big idea here. It isn’t just happenstance or a mistake. Rather, this is being craftily managed. Stage-managed, if you will.

Everybody may just be too polite or cowed or impressed with the whole operation (or afraid of it) to bring up with any insistence the history-repeating-itself-as-farce thing.

In some sense, there may even be a tendency to think that history will repeat itself verbatim. Even improve upon the first time around.

There was, after all, negative opinion then—but it reversed itself almost immediately. Fascination just took over. It was great television. (In the initial hours, it was most of all CNN that was being rooted for.) It was irresistible.

As U.S. forces and a potpourri of allied friends began to move across the desert—unstopped, unstoppable—the enthusiasm got even greater. There was the sudden, unexpected supremacy of the American fighting man over the desert (the first time we had seen the American fighting man decked out in new military techno-garb—in fact, the first time we’d seen the American fighting man in action mode since Vietnam). And then there was this joke army fighting us—and the burnt-out carcasses of the machinery it left behind. (This was the moment: Everywhere in the world, from Berlin to Moscow to Prague to Bucharest to Kuwait, when you pushed back against the bully, he fell.)

The president was swept up—however fleetingly—in as much popularity and good feeling as, arguably, an American president has ever known. The man was really reinvented. All that inarticulateness and Wasp awkwardness, and those poor media skills, were suddenly transformed into authenticity and decisiveness and pluck. For a minute there, he must have felt that he was who he believed he was. The man in the mirror matched the man on television. I know that I certainly thought, What a guy!

But then, of course, it all got messed up. They didn’t play it through (didn’t get Saddam). Didn’t hold onto it.

But here we are again.

And if it’s too much—certainly it’s hokey, not to mention dangerous—that the same guys are trying to do the same thing once more, I think the smart money believes they’re going to pull it off.

That, shortly, a screaming will come across the sky with a destructive virtuosity heretofore unimagined. Never before in the history of warfare, the smart money assumes, will there have been an attack so choreographed and one-sided.

So it’s not going to really matter that the whole deal was something of a put-up job—a forced construct—because when it works even better than it worked twelve years ago (after all, we’ve really improved all this stuff), when we roll in like nobody’s business, when the Iraqi Army runs for its life, this victory, like all victories, is going to be irresistible, too (the White House and Pentagon are so confident of this that, for the first time in a generation, they’re getting ready to bring reporters to the front). The American media will swoon—and the American people will be glued to their sets, cheering the winner, who is us.

And, of course, the French and the Germans will, in a New York minute, be on the side of the victors, too. You’ll never find a frog or Kraut who doubted the president. Everyone—Iraqis, lefties, Euros—will acquiesce (and fawn), and George Bush will be acclaimed some really marvelous man of the moment. Strong, steadfast, determined, invincible—ready to stand up to all manner of tyrants and yellow-bellied world opinion.

And this time the Bushies no doubt believe they won’t blow it.

Bush Family Values