The President’s Dilemma

“Suppose they gave a war
and nobody came?” is the title of a 1970 anti-Vietnam War
movie whose overuse nearly rendered it trite before that war
ended. As a result, when Iraq war opponents invoke it today,
the question carries little gravitas. In fact, it seems
absolutely lightweight if not lighthearted.

President Bush faces an equally
vexing communications problem. He sees himself as a war president
forced to confront a dire threat to the continuity of U.S. dominance
in vital regions of the world ­ hence the Iraq war ­
and to western values and civilization ­ thus the global
war on terror. His problem, unlike that in the movie on Vietnam,
is that the U.S. public has been so uninvolved in both wars for
so long that the president must keep reminding the country that
there is this activity called “war” going on in their
name and he is warrior-in-chief.

This chasm of day-to-day disinterestedness
separating the public from the president’s conduct of the war
has slowly but inexorably changed qualitatively over recent months
into opposition ­ and has steadily grown. Latest opinion
polls find 54% say that invading Iraq was a mistake. Only 34%
believe Bush is handling Iraq well, while 60% say the results
in Iraq have not been worth the cost in lives or the price in
national treasure. The latest headlines in the papers are likely
to maintain the downward pressure on these percentages. After
all, having to “lower sights on what can be achieved in
Iraq” and editorials pleading that “someone tell the
president the war is over” (Washington Post and New
York Times
, respectively) hardly inspire confidence.

Bush is even having difficulty
of late in keeping the top ranks of the administration “on-message.”
In late July, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Chairman
of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers, stopped referring
to the world-wide anti-terror effort as the “global war
on terror,” substituting instead the “global struggle
against violent extremism.” Their objective, reportedly,
was to reinforce the idea that ending terror attacks and rebuilding
Iraq ­ as opposed to destroying it ­ involved many skills
and programs that were within the purview of other departments
and government agencies.

No dice. “War” doesn’t
appear anywhere in the new formula, although “struggle”
and “violent” do. On August 3, in a speech in Texas,
Bush steadfastly “stayed the course” by speaking five
times the words “war on terror” while disdaining to
pronounce the Rumsfeld-Myers alternative.

The next day, during a brief
press conference, Bush dismissed as “rumors” and “speculation”
suggestions by, among others, General George Casey, the senior
U.S. commander on the ground in Iraq, that U.S. troops would
begin to be pulled from Iraq in 2006. This is not the first time
the administration has repudiated the considered judgments of
those who are experts on matters of war. There is the infamous
pre-war rebuke by Secretary Rumsfeld of the Army Chief of Staff
who had estimated that several hundred thousand troops would
be needed to occupy Iraq. And Bush himself rather cavalierly
dismissed a July 2004 CIA National Intelligence Estimate of Iraq’s
political, economic, and security situation at the end of 2005
with the remark that “The CIA laid out several scenarios.And
they were just guessing.”

Understandably, Bush has consistently
refused to talk about timelines for withdrawing as that would
signal the possibility that the Iraq war ­ or at least the
U.S. involvement in the war ­ conceivably could end before
his second term expires in January 2009. After all, Bush has
also declared that Iraq is the central front in the global war
on terror, and if the central front collapses, the global war
itself may fade away or morph into a concern of national and
international law enforcement agencies and courts.

As it is, the war that Bush
gave the U.S. public and the world is losing adherents at home
and abroad. In July, the Army National Guard, Army Reserve, Navy
Reserve, and Air National Guard missed their monthly goals for
new recruits and, for the first ten months of Fiscal Year 2005,
are running 16-23 percent below their quotas. Among allies, one
of Bush’s staunchest ­ Italy ­ is already pulling troops
out of Iraq ­ well before the expected timeline.

What is becoming clear is that,
except for those whose lives have become entwined with the fighting
in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other unnamed places, the U.S. public’s
commitment to the Iraq war has always been emotionally shallow
and intellectually tepid. Emotionally, the overwhelming majority
of the public has never become vested or engaged because it has
never been asked to sacrifice directly. Yes, for many months
a majority expressed support for the administration’s policies
in Iraq, but much of this was the “normal” emotional
response of “rallying to the flag” and supporting the
troops rather than rallying to the policy and the necessity of
war. Intellectually, every justification given in 2002 and early
2003 for invading Iraq and throwing Saddam Hussein out of power
­ including now even the creation of a democracy in Iraq
that would serve as an example to the rest of the region ­
has completely unraveled.

What is emerging from the ashes
of the administration’s flagging war “policy” is the
public’s realization that the White House never had a coherent
domestic political program that addressed the nation’s non-defense
needs and priorities. The demands of wartime served to hide this
omission in Bush’s first term, but the burgeoning public opposition
to the Iraq war may force the administration’s hand on the timing
and extent of U.S. military disengagement ­ and undercut
the president’s cherished war image.

In the end, the president’s
conundrum is how to re-engage ­ make that “engage”
­ the U.S. public in a misadventure based on overestimating
the power of politicians to manipulate public sentiment and force
events to conform to their “vision” of themselves in
the world and in history.

How can one be a leader if no one wants to follow?

How can one be commander-in-chief
if no one wants to join the military?

How can one aspire to be ­
and be remembered as ­ a warrior president without a war?

Col. Daniel Smith, a West Point graduate and Vietnam
veteran, is Senior Fellow on Military Affairs at the Friends
Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobby in the public
interest. He can be reached at: