A Humbled President


He seemed almost broken to me. His voice raspy, his eyes watery, his affect exhausted, his facial expression almost bewildered. I thought I would feel angry; but I found myself verging toward pity. The case was so weak, the argument so thin, the evidence for optimism so obviously strained that one wondered whom he thought he was persuading. And the way he framed his case was still divorced from the reality we see in front of our nose: that Iraq is not, as he still seems to believe, full of ordinary people longing for democracy and somehow stymied solely by "extremists" or al Qaeda or Iran, but a country full of groups of people who cannot trust one another, who are still living in the wake of unimaginable totalitarian trauma, who have murdered and tortured and butchered each other in pursuit of religious and ethnic pride and honor for centuries. This is what Bush cannot recognize: there is no Iraq. There are no Iraqis. There may have been at one point - but what tiny patina of national unity that once existed to counter primordial sectarian loyalty was blown away by the anarchy of the Rumsfeld-Franks invasion. The president's stunning detachment from this reality tragically endures - whether out of cynicism or delusion or, more worryingly, a simple intellectual inability to understand the country he is determined that the United States occupy for the rest of our lives.

The low-point was his almost desperate recitation of a poignant email that posited that this war is one between "good" and "evil". I don't doubt the sincerity of the sentiment; I don't doubt either that the murderous extremes of sectarian hatred or religious fanaticism are, at some level, evil. I know that the motives of many people who supported this war - and many who still support it - are honorable. And I know that America is ultimately a force for good in this world. But that doesn't mean that America is incapable or error or immorality. And to reduce the immense complexity of Iraq to such a binary moralism is a sign of a president reaching for comfortable, Manichean abstractions as a replacement for strategic judgment and knowledge. The American people deserve better from a war-president: more honesty, more candor, more realism. Even now; even in the face of the horror we have witnessed for four years; even in the face of the failure that is still staring at us, he still cannot see what he has done or what is still unfolding in the Mesopotamian morass. And he has no policy that effectively matches the crisis with adequate resources. Short of a draft, we don't have them.

None of us wants to lose this war in Iraq; no one wants defeat.

It rips many of us apart to think of the pleasure that some vile human beings may draw temporarily from our retreat. But they gain far more pleasure by America's permanent entrapment in a quicksand from which there is no escape and which has already replenished the ranks of the enemy. I supported this war for a long time; but I cannot honestly blind myself to the reality of failure out of pride or sheer wishfulness. We need a president able to acknowledge this reality, to tell us how to salvage what we can from the wreckage of a broken country, how to disengage in a way that maximizes our interests and weakens our enemies. Only on those grounds can we unite again and find a way forward. Not on these grounds; not with this president; not without many, many more troops for many, many more years.

But it seems he will get his way; and his party will live with the consequences. So, alas, will all of us. If the Democrats and adult Republicans cannot stop this slow march to an even lower circle of hell, then we have only one recourse yet: to pray that we're wrong, that a miracle can happen, and that the enormous sacrifices of so many good, brave and brilliant men and women are not ultimately in vain.

(Photo: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty.)