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  xMonday, July 07, 2003

inquirer gives "bring 'em on" the thumbs-down


The Philadelphia Inquirer was less than impressed with Bush's swaggering "bring 'em on" rhetoric.
U.S. soldiers are dying and dodging guerrilla bullets in a hot and hostile country and their commander-in-chief says, "Bring 'em on"?

Mr. President, do you live in a play house or the White House?

No matter how Ari Fleischer tries to spin it, childish taunts such as that are not the calibrated words demanded of the United States president at this turn of history's wheel.

Calibrated does not mean sterile or soft. But a president's words have global impact. And these words have people here and abroad scratching their heads about this war that's supposedly over, but clearly continues.

The President's macho quip rankles in particular because American troops have been put at greater risk by the awful U.S. planning for Iraq post-Saddam. From the moment U.S. forces so ably captured the Iraqi capital, it was the United States' legal and moral obligation to act as provider and protector of the Iraqi citizens with whom the President always said we had no quarrel.

Instead, there's been as much chaos as calm, as much pillaging as progress. As of Thursday afternoon, combat deaths since the May 1 "end" of the war stood at 25 American and 14 British soldiers.

The tumult has led the U.S. reconstruction chief in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, to request more troops and civilian personnel.

That recommendation slammed headlong into a familiar problem: the unwillingness of top administration officials to let reality intrude on their hubris. In fact, the President's quip came as he ridiculed those who suggest more troops are needed to stabilize Iraq.

Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz assured America before the war that Iraqis would gladly welcome U.S. troops. They assumed Iraqis would gratefully accept the Iraqi exiles the Bush team had handpicked as Saddam's replacements. They predicted a smooth transition to democracy requiring no help from individual nations or the United Nations, and little investment of American dollars, thanks to Iraqi oil riches.

The reality evolving on the ground is vastly different from that gauzy picture. Yet those officials still seem loathe to admit any mistakes.

So here are a few items, call it a get-real list, to get the Bush team's head out of the clouds and into the hot and hostile reality where U.S. soldiers bravely toil on:

Get real about the number of U.S. troops needed to establish and maintain order for months to come. Retiring Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki estimates that as many as 300,000 soldiers might be needed. (Current troop size is about 158,000.)

Get real about the full scope of reconstructing Iraq - its cost and duration. Repeating a sound bite - "As long as it takes, and not a moment longer" - is no answer. It's political camouflage. Americans don't expect exact promises, just reasonable estimates. The U.N. Development Program says reconstruction could cost $30 billion over two-and-a-half years (not including the tab for U.S. troops). The Council on Foreign Relations projected $20 billion a year for at least 10 years. Is that true? If so, then...

Get real about cutting taxes. The incumbent is the only president in the nation's history to cut taxes in the middle of a hot war. Now, the only thing soaring higher than presidential rhetoric about freedom is the country's deficit. And those tardy Iraqi oil revenues have been spent several times over by U.S. planners. So...

Get real about spurning the value of the United Nations. Responses from U.S. pleas for help from other nations have been skimpy. Officials in India reportedly want a "better understanding" of U.S. plans for Iraqi civil order and democracy before committing. Who can blame them?

Get real about the democratic aspirations you unwisely inflated among the long-oppressed, divided Iraqi population. Sure, it would have been smarter to get electricity flowing, the streets safe, courts and banks operating before launching into risky elections. But now America has made promises. Reneging on them only puts its troops at greater peril.

The trick here is to persuade people without jobs, water or phones to be patient. One hint: Don't use he-man colloquialisms that suggest you see the situation as Americans vs. Iraqis.

Finally, get real about admitting mistakes, about reliance on wildly optimistic scenarios. That's the only path to effective remedies.

So much rides on this gamble. Not just the future of Iraq, though that alone is vital. American credibility. Middle East peace. The war on terror.

Despite the White House's hype and flim-flammery, there were decent arguments to fight this war. The initial battle was swiftly won. But America may now stand on the edge of blunders of colossal scope.

At such moments, an American president needs to do better, much better, than: "Bring 'em on."

Some of Bush's defenders point out that the President wasn't literally inviting guerillas -- not terrorists, thank you very much -- to attack US forces, but such feeble posturing entirely misses the point. As the Inquirer notes, Bush's bellicosity shows a staggering disconnect with the apparent situation in Iraq, and for that matter, it's a thoroughly lame example of Presidential posturing anyway.

Moreover, as I've said before, it's one thing for a President to express confidence in our military and in America ultimately prevailing. It's quite another thing for Bush to issue a trash-talkin' personal challenge to express his apparent lack of fear from Iraqi insurgents he doesn't have to face. While the Iraqi insurgents aren't exactly leaving calling cards with that phrase on the bodies of the US forces they kill -- there's no question that the guerillas are all too willing to take Bush up in his challenge. And why not? Empty threats are a sign of weakness, not strength, and even if Bush's comments didn't directly provoke any of the ongoing attacks -- Bush's defenders, thinking they're helping, point out that Iraq's insurgency hardly needs another reason to resust the US occupation -- it's difficuly to imagine that they deterred any, either.

No matter how you spin it, Bush let his mouth write a check someone else's butt is going to have to cash. That isn't bravery, it's cowardice.

(via Oliver Willis)





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