In Search of WM(S)D

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).

The problem, however, with these story lines is that they are at odds with each other. Indeed, the reason we are in Iraq in the first place is that significant parts of the Bush administration really want to be there. Wolfowitz, even with his caught-in-the-headlights look, doesn’t want to give up on this—doesn’t (perhaps sensibly) want to trust Iraqis with the process of democratization. And for much of the non-Powell side of the administration, only over their dead bodies would we turn back to the U.N. Not to mention, Rumsfeld surely thinks we can fight our way out of this.

So, dangerously, the story line from the Bush writers is full of divided motivations and intent.

If the Bushies can’t succeed with their narrative, we default to the alternative. The plotline becomes: Who’s responsible for this mess?

What if the Bushies lied to get us into this war? What if lots of people conspired to lie?

There are, in this regard—and very bad for the Bushies—the Brits.

Even the very smart media people in the Bush White House probably did not think through the fact that hooking up with Blair meant that we were going to hook up with British media—a more sour, more skeptical lot than our own. Major parts of the Brit press—including the BBC—have turned against their government in something of an us-or-you face-off. There’s now the sexed-up dossier and a dead civil servant (in terms of story line, the suicide of David Kelly, the weapons expert and BBC source, will function something like the suicide of Vince Foster—it provides the sinister subtext). And the sense that the Blair government hangs in the balance.

Now, not only does the British fudging of the evidence cast further doubt on the Bushies’ WMD sales pitch, but it makes the U.S. media more competitive. If the British media has found a story, why haven’t we? If they’re having fun, we should be having fun, too! The Brits, in their own competitive view, see the U.S. media as running three to four weeks behind them. Indeed, that’s a good narrative strategy: When you don’t have a clear story line, follow somebody else’s.

In the second act, after the smoking gun has been uncovered (or at least when the smoke from the smoking gun is swirling all around), there begins, for the Bush writers, the inevitable process of trying to assign the gun to somebody else.

This is the moment that in hindsight is always the one remembered as when the confession should have occurred. And indeed, someone obviously urged contrition from the president at his press conference last week. But while he got as far as the obligatory buck-stops-here mea culpa, he did not confess to the main charge: overselling the weapons.

That hot potato still exists—if the weapons aren’t found, someone will be stuck holding it.

Blame is in play.

It’s on the CIA now. It’s hovering near Condi Rice (who hovered near the president during his press conference). It keeps moving and spreading. The inevitable effect of reassigning the blame is that you start to really piss people off. Indeed, you piss off vast and powerful parts of the bureaucracy itself. And the bureaucracy, loyal only to itself, inevitably turns on you.

This is when, at the end of the second act, the other shoe drops—and it’s often a rebelling (read: leaking) bureaucracy that drops it. This is when we find out it’s not just sixteen words or a dodgy dossier but a big plan, a concerted effort—as that little box of italicized names in the New York Times of the latest American war dead grows.

And then the Blair government falls—which really gives the story a powerful kick.

Meanwhile, the Bushies are seeing this story in pulpier and less literary terms. For them, it’s a patriotic tale. A nation triumphant. It’s not about individuals, or this or that person’s career, but about national pride and aspirations.

There is, of course, a big audience for that sort of pageantlike drama. There’s also the fear theme that comes into focus now—uncovered cells, more arrests, more orange alerts. And then the September 11 motif—which may or may not have declining power.

Likewise, there are various potent plot twists and “wow” factors the Bushies are counting on.

Producing Saddam Hussein would be a trump card—of course, if the box in the New York Times keeps growing, that trump card would be one of depreciating value. (And not producing him may be something of a reverse trump card.)

Getting Osama would also really be a wow—he could be worth ten approval points overnight.

That approval rating, the Bushies know, is the real engine of the story. It’s the ultimate commercial imperative (and the true interactive element).

The media won’t go against great box office. On the other hand, if the approval rating, which has fallen from 86 to 56 percent, keeps on dropping, the Bushies are screwed.

But the polls remain equivocal.

That’s the problem now and the cause of the uneasiness: Nobody knows what the audience is thinking.

Does it rally for a long campaign, or is it distracted from it? Is it in a shock-and-awe mood (could it be put back in a shock-and-awe mood?), or is that so over with?

How to get its attention? The Brits at least have a suicide.

And yet nobody wants the muddle to go on forever.

A compelling story has to be told.

Either you have a hero, or you have a villain.

You have success, or you have failure.

There are rules.

In Search of WM(S)D