There's nothing inherently wrong with a president having a war trophy to remind him of the valor and sacrifice of his troops.
Time magazine reported this week that President George W. Bush shows off to select visitors the pistol Saddam Hussein held in his lap when U.S. soldiers pulled him out of his spider hole last December.
The mounted gun, presented on behalf of the soldiers who nabbed Saddam, is kept in the president's private study just off the Oval Office. It's a better use for the room than repeated rendezvous with intern Monica Lewinsky.
But the idea of a president showing off war trophies in a war not yet won is unsettling, as if the capture of Saddam had been the end instead of a beginning.
It reinforces the image of Bush the cowboy, galloping into battle heedless of consequences, unable to come to grips with how that image has inflamed rather than helped in the war on terror, seemingly blind to the way the Iraq war has diminished his presidency and America.
As John Chipman, director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said this week in issuing the respected British think tank's latest annual survey, "The Iraq intervention was always likely in the short term to enhance jihadist recruitment and intensify al-Qaida's motivation to encourage and assist terrorist operations. . . . The U.S. is realizing the awful truth that the first law of peacekeeping is the same as the first law of forensics: 'every contact leaves a trace.' "
Is Bush really so superficial that he can't understand the mistakes he's made? In April, he groped but could name nary an error in answer to a question.
Is he really so blind to the no-win circumstances in which U.S. troops are mired in Iraq that he can't marshal the will and resources to plot a clear path out of the morass, talking instead in vague terms, as he did Tuesday, of the "need to stay the course and . . . help a free society emerge"?
The image of his study, where the Washington Post reports he also keeps a Taliban brick and some Bush bobble-head dolls, is all wrong. Where in calmer times that clubbiness would be reassuring, it's disturbing in a national leader who should be confronting the bad choices he's made and the worse options ahead - but who never admits to them.
And those easy-listening phrases often have trap doors.
At an impromptu open-air news conference Tuesday, the president tried to convey resolve and firmness in the face of terrorist provocations.
But he flubbed it by redefining "victory" in Iraq as a determination to stay no matter what al-Qaida does.
"The mission of the enemy is to get us to retreat from Iraq," Bush told reporters, ". . . which we are not going to do."
Yet that's not our mission, no way.
If that's the goal, we hand al-Qaida a titular victory when we do leave Iraq, as we inevitably must one day. The president's words also reinforce the terrorists' tactical mission - to put maximal pressure on the shaky Iraqi interregnum to kick us out before Iraqi police and army forces can fill the security vacuum. Iraq would then descend into our worst nightmare, becoming a terrorist swamp atop the world's second-largest reserves of oil, bent on sucking No. 1 oilpot Saudi Arabia down with it.
Of course, we probably wouldn't leave if the new Iraqi government asked us to, no matter what we're promising now or what might be in a new U.N. resolution. Yet that, too, defeats what should be our paramount goals, as defined by Chipman of the strategic-studies institute, to press for "an efficiently executed plan for the full handover of sovereignty to Iraq and stronger international support of that strategy."
On one level, Bush is right to insist that the United States won't retreat in the face of terrorist attacks. We won't.
But promoting the idea that U.S. troops will never leave Iraq reinforces Iraqi doubts and discourages nations who otherwise might pitch in under a more internationalist umbrella. U.S. taxpayers who've already shelled out $119 billion and buried more than 800 of their sons and daughters also deserve to be told how much more to expect.
The faces of those men and women should shine forth from Saddam's pistol. And in contemplating it and them, the president must remind himself that - just as America goes to war not over sloganeering, but out of national necessity - it remains one of the core duties of the commander in chief to chart those troops' way home.
Sullivan is The Plain Dealer's foreign-affairs columnist and an associate editor of the editorial pages.
© 2004 The Plain Dealer