George W. Bush wanted to be Harry Truman (patron saint of embattled presidents) in his State of the Union speech, but he may have reminded voters of Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove. You know the famous scene: the giddy pilot in a cowboy hat hops aboard his own payload to Armageddon.
Say this about the president: he is going to stick with his vision, his strategy and his decisions on Iraq – no matter what the world, the American voters, the new Democratic Congress, the ’08 presidential contenders or even his fellow Republicans want.
All the buzz before the speech was that Bush would do something of a quick shuffle past Iraq. Yes, there was much domestic throat clearing – more than a half hour’s worth of it (though not a single mention of Katrina and New Orleans) – but when it came time to turn to Iraq and the “war on terror” he did not flinch.
Nothing he said was remarkably new – which, in and of itself was nothing short of remarkable.
Bush said, with all earnestness, that his goal in Iraq and the Middle East was – and our goal must be – to “remove conditions that inspire hatred” there. However, it is hard to find a dispassionate observer of the war who thinks that we have achieved that goal. Sadly, even many of our own military people say that just the opposite is true. Our presence has inflamed hatred, not doused it.
Without a trace of irony, he told the Congress: “Whatever you voted for, you did not vote for failure.” But most Americans have concluded that we already have failed.
The speech was worlds away from the dim and dolorous address he gave the other week on the details of his new Iraq strategy – troop escalation, reinforcement or surge. Surrounded by the bright lights and trappings of authority, he was workman-like and confident. He was gracious in acknowledging Nancy Pelosi’s breakthrough as the first female Speaker of the House. And measured by the number of times he got Speaker Pelosi to stand up and applaud, he did a decent job of suggesting measures that he and the Democratic Congress could work on together.
But all of that was beside the point. The war in Iraq has cost 3,000 lives, half a trillion dollars – and, just as important, has cost the United States precious standing and moral authority in the world at large. All of that has and will damage us diplomatically, militarily and economically. The dollar is down, the Euro is up; America, sadly, is regarded in much of the world as almost as great a threat to peace as the “evil” people we have been fighting for six years.
None of that seems to matter much to the president.
He seems to live in a different world. Most of us increasingly live in a wiki world, where the digital, online search for information and enlightenment is a collaborative enterprise – the cumulative, exponential power of many minds.
Our president, whom I used to view as a gregarious man, does not scour the world for information. He likes the “one riot, one ranger” Texas Ranger theory of life. I think back to 2000, and remember the bus he rented on the campaign trail in New Hampshire. It had a big captain’s chair, and even a small Persian rug and a clock on the wall, but there was something isolating about it – it was not configured to accommodate a big crowd of people gathering around. He seemed to be relieved to escape into it.
Now he wants the Democrats to join him in creating a “special advisory council on the war on terror.” It may be a little late for that – like asking them to join him for the payload ride down.