President Bush and US Senator Russ Feingold have taken dramatically different approaches to the traditional August break from Washington intrigues.
Bush has gone into hiding, while Feingold has gone to talk with Americans.
It should not come as much of a surprise that the man who has gotten in touch with the country's grassroots--Feingold--has recognized the need to set a timeline for the withdrawal of all US forces from Iraq. Nor should it be shocking that aides to the man who has cut himself off from the national discourse--Bush--have trotted out tired old excuses for rejecting Feingold's proposal to set a December 2006 deadline for extracting US troops from the Middle East quagmire.
As he has in the past, Bush is spending August in seclusion, holed up behind the security fences that surround his ranch in rural Texas. According to official accounts, he is attempting to read a book about salt and to learn how to ride a bike without falling off. Unofficially, but quite obviously, he has spent most of his time dodging requests for face time with Cindy Sheehan, the mother of one of the more than 1,800 Americans killed in the President's ill-fated invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Feingold has gone a completely different route from Bush. He has traveled extensively, and made himself available to anyone who wants to talk with him about the Iraq imbroglio at more than fifteen town-hall meetings in his home state. What Feingold has heard during listening sessions with constituents across the heartland state of Wisconsin has emboldened him to become the first senator to call for setting a date to end the occupation and bring the troops home.
"I call what I am doing breaking the taboo," the Democrat who is being boomed as a potential 2008 presidential candidate said. "[Most] senators have been intimidated and are not talking about a time frame. We have to make it safe to go in the water and discuss this. A person shouldn't be accused of not supporting troops just because we want some clarity on our mission in Iraq."
Of course, the Bush Administration--which has resisted all efforts to provide clarity as regards the Iraq mission--dismissed Feingold's call by claiming that "It would...send the wrong message to our troops. We are serious about completing the mission, and they need to know that they have our full support. And it would send the wrong message to the enemy, who, as the President has said many times, would just then have to wait us out."
In fact, there is nothing further from the truth. As Feingold noted, the former chief of Australia's armed forces, General Peter Cosgrove, has been arguing that the foreign troop presence has fueled terrorist activity in Iraq. Noting that Cosgrove has called for foreign troops to leave Iraq by the end of 2006, Feingold said, "Those remarks were constructive, and we need to be having this discussion here at home. I am putting a vision of when this ends on the table in the hope that we can get the focus back on our top priority, and that is keeping America and the American people safe."
While the White House bumbles deeper into the quagmire, it is Feingold who says he wants to take steps to establish an exit strategy that will "undermine the recruiting efforts and the unity of insurgents, encourage Iraqi ownership of the transition process and bolster the legitimacy of the Iraqi authorities, reassure the American people that our Iraq policy is not directionless and, most importantly, create space for a broader discussion of our real national security priorities."
The differences between the Bush and Feingold approaches are easily explained: Bush refuses to listen even to the concerns of the grieving mothers of America's war dead. Feingold, on the other hand, has listened closely enough to recognize that the American people want a way out of the Iraq mess. And while the Wisconsin senator's way may not be the perfect route--as he readily admits--it provides the impetus for a real debate that honest observers of the crisis have been longing for.
© 2005 The Nation