Bush Upbeat as Iraq Burns

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

September 24, 2004

George W. Bush was a supporter of the war in Vietnam. For a while.

As he explained in his autobiography, "A Charge to Keep: My Journey to the White House":

"My inclination was to support the government and the war until proven wrong, and that only came later, as I realized we could not explain the mission, had no exit strategy, and did not seem to be fighting to win."

How is it that he ultimately came to see the fiasco in Vietnam so clearly but remains so blind to the frighteningly similar realities of his own war in Iraq? Mr. Bush cannot explain our mission in Iraq and has nothing resembling an exit strategy, and his troops - hobbled by shortages of personnel and by potentially fatal American and Iraqi political considerations - are certainly not fighting to win.

As the situation in Iraq moves from bad to worse, the president, based on his public comments, seems to be edging further and further from reality. This is disturbing, to say the least. The news from Iraq is filled with reports of kidnappings and beheadings, of people pleading desperately for their lives, of American soldiers being ambushed and killed, of clusters of Iraqis being blown to pieces by suicide bombers, and of the prospects for a credible election in January tumbling toward nil.

The war effort has deteriorated so drastically that the administration is planning to take more than $3 billion earmarked for crucial reconstruction projects and shift them to security programs designed to ward off the increasingly deadly insurgency. A classified National Intelligence Estimate prepared for the president contained no really good prospects for Iraq. The best-case scenario was a country with only tenuous stability. The worst potential outcome was civil war.

The intelligence estimate was prepared in July, and the situation has only worsened since then.

Even Republicans are starting to voice their concerns about the unfolding disaster. When asked on CBS's "Face the Nation" whether the U.S. was winning the war in Iraq, Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, said, "No, I don't think we're winning." He said the U.S. was "in deep trouble in Iraq" and that some "recalibration of policy" would be necessary to turn things around.

Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican, said on "Fox News Sunday": "The situation has obviously been somewhat deteriorating, to say the least." He said "serious mistakes" have been made and that most of them "can be traced back to not having sufficient numbers of troops there."

These are not doves talking. These are supporters of President Bush who support the war in Iraq and believe it can be won. But they're also in touch with reality.

President Bush does not share their sense of alarm. He acknowledged that "horrible scenes" are being shown on television and the Internet, but he was unmoved by the gloomy intelligence estimates. According to Mr. Bush: "The C.I.A. laid out several scenarios. It said that life could be lousy, life could be O.K., life could be better."

Que sera, sera.

The president said he is personally optimistic and he delivered an upbeat assessment of conditions in Iraq to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday. Iraq, he said, is well on its way to being "secure, democratic, federal and free."

If you spend more than a little time immersed in the world according to Karl Rove, you'll find that words lose even the remotest connection to reality. They become nothing more than tools designed to achieve political ends. So it's not easy to decipher what the president believes about Iraq.

This is scary. With Americans, Iraqis and others dying horribly in the long dark night of this American-led war, the world needs more from the president of the United States than the fool's gold of his empty utterances.

Perhaps someone can dislodge the president from Karl's clutches, shake him and tell him that his war is a tremendous tragedy with implications far beyond the election in November.

At the moment there is no evidence the president understands anything about the war. He led the nation into it with false pretenses. He never mobilized sufficient numbers of troops. He seemed to believe the war was over in May 2003. And he seems not to know how to proceed now.

The tragic lesson of Vietnam is staring the president in the face. But he'll have to become better acquainted with the real world before he can even begin to learn from it.