End of a Dream
As I watched President Bush Tuesday night, for the first time I felt pity for him, in the same way you cant help feeling sorry for any man at the end of his rope, even if he has brought it on himself. It isnt a matter of desert; its beyond that.
I felt a similar emotion when Saddam Hussein was hanged: A man was finally being crushed by the natural result of his own acts. He was cornered at last, with no way out. It was painful to witness.
For once Bush spoke without conviction. He was trying to salvage a desperate position. The message was no longer that we are winning in Iraq; it was that all is not quite lost.
Which way is the wind blowing? In controversies like the debate over this war, I have a simple rule of thumb: I step back and ask which way the conversions are going. The war has been losing supporters; it has ceased acquiring them. You might expect the Democrats to solidify against it, but the really telling fact is that the Republicans who used to back it are scattering.
After the severe shock of the 9/11 attacks, our natural impulse was to strike back. But at what? At the killers who had killed themselves along with their thousands of victims? That was obviously impossible, but we were so outraged that we were disposed, like a lynch mob, to take revenge on the first plausible suspect presented to us.
And while we were in that mood after all, the lynch mob may be sincerely indignant about a crime some men around Bush and in the media saw their opportunity. They had been waiting and planning for years for a new war on Iraq, one that would finish the job they felt Bushs father had left incomplete in 1991. All that remained was to connect Iraq, in the public mind, to 9/11.
Over the next few months, a concerted effort was made to shift public attention from Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda to Saddam Hussein and Iraq. For a while the War Party tried to find, or at least posit, ties between al-Qaeda and Iraq, as if the terrorism of the one had something to do with the tyranny of the latter. The hypothetical nexus was Saddams supposed weapons of mass destruction, which, we were told, he might hand off to al-Qaeda, which actually regarded him as an apostate, a traitor to Islam.
Many Americans, mostly Bush voters, couldnt distinguish clearly between bin Laden and Saddam; some thought the two were the same man. This made them receptive to the administrations warnings that an even greater shock than 9/11 might be forthcoming, in the form of a mushroom cloud.
Bush made another false connection when he asserted an axis of evil comprising not only Iraq and Iran which, in truth, were bitter enemies but also, absurdly, North Korea. Far from being a working alliance, this was a mad miscellany. More recently Bush has been blaming the chaos in Iraq on Iran and Syria. Now Iran is said to be the great threat to American security.
Meanwhile, of course, the United States has become almost isolated in the world. Our traditional friends in Europe have resisted Bushs attempt to rope them into backing his war. He has indeed spent the political capital he boasted of having after the 2004 election. His most reliable ally, Britains Tony Blair, is finished, along with Bushs own Republican majority at home. Has any president ever gone so swiftly from seeming invincibility to near-disgrace?
And does anyone still think our freedom depends on military victory in Iraq? Bush got the regime change he coveted, but what has it gained us? Those who doggedly support the war are now reduced to vain recriminations against the liberal media who have been skeptical of it, though many conservatives are (at last!) just as skeptical.
Bushs dream of a peaceful, democratic Middle East now seems as insane a misreading of history as the old Marxist dream of a Workers Paradise. He sounds like an arsonist trying to convince us that the blazing city can still be saved. Has he forgotten who lit the match?
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