President Bush's adamant insistence that Iraq is halfway rebuilt instead of halfway torn apart -- a glass of water half-full -- is reminiscent of Ronald Reagan's manure story.
The former president's favorite story was about the little boy who found great joy in the pile of manure on the assumption it must mean there was a pony around somewhere.
Optimism is an essential ingredient of a president's arsenal of public relations tools. Americans demand it and are resentful when it is missing in the White House.
But too much optimism without a reasonable basis for it is a bad thing. And Bush is bumping up against the limit.
As the mighty Red Cross and the United Nations prepared to scale back in Iraq because of shocking attacks by Saddam Hussein loyalists, and as the death toll of Americans and Iraqis climbed ever higher, day by painful day, Bush's remarkable assurance that great progress is being made in Baghdad has made even Republicans nervous.
His demand that Congress give him $87 billion more to spend in Iraq and Afghanistan was reluctantly granted. But with many American schools crumbling and many Americans jobless, his questionable premise that the Iraqi schools and economy are rapidly being improved by American money seems risky for a man who is facing a close re-election battle with only half the voters thinking he's doing a good job.
Since we taxpayers are borrowing money we don't have (because of Bush's tax cuts) to finance the latest $87 billion bill for Iraq, we have a duty to ask what we will have to show for it. Will it be wisely spent to make Iraq stable? Will it make Iraqis grateful for their freedom and prosperity? Will our standing in the world improve?
When Bush was asked whether American troops would be coming home in another year or would still be in Iraq in force, he denounced the question as a "trick" and refused to answer. Bush should put politics aside; Americans deserve a serious response.
Bush's personal assurance that there are sufficient U.S. troops in Iraq seems hollow -- many of those soldiers are exhausted, in danger and eager to go home. They need reinforcements and backup. Defense chief Don Rumsfeld's memo that Iraq will be a mess for a long, long time has punctured the administration's equanimity.
Worse for Bush, there is worry that the administration is not leveling with the American people. It may or may not be true, as the White House insists, that the press is too harsh in assessing Iraq's lack of security. But Bush's acceptance of daily murders as the expected cost of fighting terrorism is baffling.
Six months into its occupation of Iraq, America has not failed in Iraq _ at least, not yet. And certainly there are no tears for Saddam Hussein, wherever the evil scoundrel is hiding. But a victim of the war in Vietnam, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is right when he says that "time is not on our side" in the need to make Iraq a functioning country again.
Bush is convinced he is right that his post-war Iraq policy is working and that his critics are wrong. It was a telling moment when he said he will assure voters next year that "the world is more peaceful and more free under my leadership and America is more secure."
Bush irrevocably has staked his presidency and U.S. credibility on what happens in Iraq. As long as Iraqis are not governing themselves, as long as women are too frightened to go to the market and many children still aren't in school, as long as electricity is still an iffy proposition, as long as looting and sabotage are rampant and corruption charges raised with nearly every U.S. contract awarded in Baghdad, as long as no one is safe in Iraq, Bush cannot claim his policy is a success.
The United States is now regarded with suspicion and resentment all over the Middle East, ill will metastasizing around the region at far too rapid a rate.
The White House should say that because of the $87 billion bill in Iraq, next year's domestic tax cut must be reduced. Bush should stop making light of the chaos in Iraq and admit that progress has been slow and that it will take more soldiers to make Iraq secure. Above all, he should outline in detail plans for Iraqi self-governance _ something the administration has refused to do.
There should be immediate transparency so the whole world knows where Iraqi oil proceeds are going _ and it better not be to fill the coffers of American corporations. There should be more sensitivity to Iraqi culture, not less. Iraqis must be given more immediate responsibility for rebuilding their country.
Bush is optimistic that Iraq will never be the quagmire Vietnam was. But the example of an arrogant, corrupt Roman occupation could be more apt. So far, there's a lot of manure and no pony.
Ann McFeatters is Washington Bureau chief of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Toledo Blade. The Block News Alliance consists of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio.
Copyright 2003 Block News Alliance