October 16, 2003,
For months, President Bush has sat on the sidelines, refusing, understandably, to engage the increasingly strident rhetoric of the Democrats' soap-opera-like debate series. But while he's done that, the media here, in Europe, and in the Middle East have all been doing their best to make Iraq look like Vietnam, and neither Mr. Bush nor his administration has effectively answered them. Last week, Mr. Bush finally took a look at the calendar and his poll numbers and began countering what has been coming from not only the media and the Dems, but also the U.N. and individuals within his own administration.
The White House unveiled a new "Iraq Stabilization Group" to be headed by national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice. Contrary to its name, this is only a coordination committee, and is not empowered to take over the job of creating democracy in Iraq. Instead, it's intended to stabilize the U.S. National Security Council and quell the disturbances between State and Defense. There is both more and less than meets the eye.
There's less because creating the group was not as the ever-frustrated Maureen Dowd has written a maneuver to take authority over Iraq away from defense secretary Rumsfeld and give it to Rice or the softer hearts (and heads) at the State Department. Dowd wrote, "The administration that never lets you see it sweat is sweating. . . . The president's foreign policy duenna and his grumpy grampy over at the Pentagon are suddenly mud wrestling." Wrong, wrong, wrong.
There's more than meets the eye because creating the new group was the president's first quasi-public step to resolve conflicts between two popular cabinet officers over the war on terror, one of whom Rumsfeld is likely to stay if there is another Bush term, and the other of whom Powell has already indicated he will leave. This is not some sort of bureaucratic battle between Rice and Big Dog. Instead, it puts Rice in a zebra shirt, standing between Rumsfeld and Powell. Rice is in the unenviable position of refereeing this argument, which she is powerless to end.
To put it charitably, the State Department hasn't overextended itself to help the Pentagon succeed in "postwar" Iraq. Even the notion that there is a "postwar" Iraq is erroneous. We face two kinds of adversaries in Iraq. First, Saddam and his remnants continue to cause bloodshed, and will do so at least until we Bag Dad. More important, Iraq's terrorist neighbors, Syria and Iran, as well as the Saudis, are doing everything they can to prevent democracy from taking root, and to perpetuate the region's violence and instability. State isn't taking the hard diplomatic steps the president needs taken in order bloodlessly to pressure those nations into ending their interference. The promises Powell extracted from Syrian president Bashar Assad in his trip to Damascus were violated before Powell's aircraft was wheels-up on the trip home. Second, there are many forces in the media, in the Democratic campaigns, in the U.N., and in the administration that are working feverishly to make it appear that America's effort to establish democracy in Iraq is failing. And leading the charge to go back to the U.N. and seek a security-council resolution backing the occupation was the State Department.
The push to return to the United Nations the president once again casting his pearls before the swinish Security Council is resulting in a totally predictable failure. It's more than past time the president called a halt to any U.N. proceedings on Iraq. He must realize as the State Department never will that continuing the U.N. kabuki dance puts the face of failure on what, by more reasonable measures, is a success.
Every time the president puts America's hand out to the U.N. for help, it gets slapped away. The political cost of the U.N.'s repeated rejections is enormous, both at home and abroad. U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan has made it clear that he desires regime change in Washington more than he ever desired it in Baghdad. The French and Germans grow stronger only when we grow weaker. And those nations that might help in Iraq or elsewhere in the war against terror see America shrinking.
Perhaps Rice can help the president get past the conflict between Powell and Rumsfeld by getting Powell to recognize the futility of the U.N. I doubt she will. Bush had it right in September 2001 when he said nations were either for or against us in the war against terrorism. While we can't require the U.N. to support us, we also can't allow it to continue to claim, as Kofi Annan brazenly does, that our actions are illegitimate without their sanction. The U.N. can cast a pall over the Iraq campaign and the efforts to build freedom there only if we allow it to. The president should look at the U.N. in the same way he looks at Dan Rather: something to get around. Just like he reaches around the Rathers and Jenningses to talk to the American people, he can and must reach around the U.N. to speak to the nations of the world.
Last week also was the beginning of Mr. Bush's employment of the Reagan Maneuver: The president is going around the liberal media directly to the American people, and it's already working, according to the Time/CNN/Gallup poll released Tuesday. The president's job-approval numbers are above 50% again, and it's attributable mainly to his outreach. That's why you'll be seeing Rice, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Bremer on TV much more in the coming weeks and months. The administration is finally doing an end-run around the major networks and liberal newspapers by making its principals more available to local television and print media, as demonstrated by the president's recent spate of local-TV appearances. One of the many criticisms of the building of Iraq (Saddam left so little infrastructure behind that "rebuilding" is an incorrect term) is that Bremer has been unable effectively to counter the tidal wave of negative spin. No matter how many times he talks to the television cameras himself, the world's media are shouting the worst and almost ignoring the best news coming out. Those such as the BBC (which may as well stand for the Baghdad Broadcasting Company) . . . and the New York Times (which hasn't gotten over its Rainesian opposition to the Iraq campaign) are spinning the news relentlessly. The "q" word quagmire will become the official label for Iraq before the Super Tuesday primaries.
Paul Bremer's Provisional Authority is succeeding in Iraq, but not at the pace of politics. Americans are impatient by nature, and that impatience is being fed by the media, the Democratic presidential candidates, and the U.N.
There needs to be more, much more. Bremer needs his own version of Ari Fleischer not to give some spin briefing like the "five o'clock follies" of Vietnam, but something more akin to the Joe Friday "just the facts, ma'am" dailies the CENTCOM guys did so well during the Iraq campaign. Creating democracy is a civilian job, and Bremer's briefer should reflect that. The briefer should be there every time something happens, not just when Bremer can make himself available.
Mr. Bush hopes for a period of calm in the months before his next election contest. He won't get it in Iraq, in Israel, or at home. What he began last week, particularly in availing himself of the Gipper's strategy of going around the media to the American people, should be his tactic from now through Election Day. If he uses the same strategy on the U.N., he will not only succeed in the election, but also succeed more quickly in winning the war.