WASHINGTON — In the thick of the war with Iraq, President Bush used to pop out of meetings to catch the Iraqi information minister slipcovering grim reality with willful, idiotic optimism.
"He's my man," Mr. Bush laughingly told Tom Brokaw about the entertaining contortions of Muhammad Said al-Sahhaf, a k a "Comical Ali" and "Baghdad Bob," who assured reporters, even as American tanks rumbled in, "There are no American infidels in Baghdad. Never!" and, "We are winning this war, and we will win the war. . . . This is for sure."
Now Crawford George has morphed into Baghdad Bob.
Speaking to reporters this week, Mr. Bush made the bizarre argument that the worse things get in Iraq, the better news it is. "The more successful we are on the ground, the more these killers will react," he said.
In the Panglossian Potomac, calamities happen for the best. One could almost hear the doubletalk echo of that American officer in Vietnam who said: "It was necessary to destroy the village in order to save it."
The war began with Bush illogic: false intelligence (from Niger to nuclear) used to bolster a false casus belli (imminent threat to our security) based on a quartet of false premises (that we could easily finish off Saddam and the Baathists, scare the terrorists and democratize Iraq without leeching our economy).
Now Bush illogic continues: The more Americans, Iraqis and aid workers who get killed and wounded, the more it is a sign of American progress. The more dangerous Iraq is, the safer the world is. The more troops we seem to need in Iraq, the less we need to send more troops.
The harder it is to find Saddam, Osama and W.M.D., the less they mattered anyhow. The more coordinated, intense and sophisticated the attacks on our soldiers grow, the more "desperate" the enemy is.
In a briefing piped into the Pentagon on Monday from Tikrit, Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno called the insurgents "desperate" eight times. But it is Bush officials who seem desperate when they curtain off reality. They don't even understand the political utility of truth.
After admitting recently that Saddam had no connection to 9/11, the president pounded his finger on his lectern on Tuesday, while vowing to stay in Iraq, and said, "We must never forget the lessons of Sept. 11."
Mr. Bush looked buck-passy when he denied that the White House, which throws up PowerPoint slogans behind his head on TV, was behind the "Mission Accomplished" banner. And Donald Rumsfeld looked duplicitous when he acknowledged in a private memo, after brusquely upbeat public briefings, that America was in for a "long, hard slog" in Iraq and Afghanistan.
No juxtaposition is too absurd to stop Bush officials from insisting nothing is wrong. Car bombs and a blitz of air-to-ground missiles turned Iraq into a hideous tangle of ambulances, stretchers and dead bodies, just after Paul Wolfowitz arrived there to showcase successes.
But the fear of young American soldiers who don't speak the language or understand the culture, who don't know who's going to shoot at them, was captured in a front-page picture in yesterday's Times: two soldiers leaning down to search the pockets of one small Iraqi boy.
Mr. Bush, staring at the campaign hourglass, has ordered that the "Iraqification" of security be speeded up, so Iraqi cannon fodder can replace American sitting ducks. But Iraqification won't work any better than Vietnamization unless the Bush crowd stops spinning.
Neil Sheehan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "A Bright Shining Lie," recalls Robert McNamara making Wolfowitz-like trips to Vietnam, spotlighting good news, yearning to pretend insecure areas were secure.
"McNamara was in a jeep in the Mekong Delta with an old Army colonel from Texas named Dan Porter," Mr. Sheehan told me. "Porter told him, `Mr. Secretary, we've got serious problems here that you're not getting. You ought to know what they are.' And McNamara replied: `I don't want to hear about your problems. I want to hear about your progress.' "
"If you want to be hoodwinked," Mr. Sheehan concludes, "it's easy."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company