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the Boston Globe

Sigh for America

"The Pass of the Moor's Sigh" is the place on the outskirts of a city in Spain where its last Moorish ruler, upon being expelled from Iberia, stopped to weep. His companion rebuked him, as the writer Robert Grudin recounts , for waiting until all was lost to express his feeling. Why did he not manifest his devotion to his realm before, when a different outcome was still possible?

The feeling many Americans have today is that, all but literally, we are being driven out of our beloved country. President Bush will deliver his State of the Union address tomorrow night , and once more an air of unreality will hang over the nation.

The hubris of former such speeches may be absent, but the president, predictably, will discuss Social Security, the economy, the problem of dependency on foreign oil. The rhetoric of bipartisanship will be in evidence, if inauthentically. The chastened Bush will have little or nothing to add on the subject of his new "strategy" in Iraq, although it shows signs of already failing.

Bush's latest rationale for this war is to act in support of "the Iraqi military," but does any such entity exist? Does defending the openly tribal government of Nouri al-Maliki mean that US soldiers are now an adjunct to Shi'ite death squads, even while being their target? If Maliki and Bush are allies, why do they talk past each other? Why should the Sunni leaders of "moderate" Arab states not be alarmed by the tightening US-Shi'a embrace? And when insanity rules, does the fact that an air attack on Iran's nuclear facility would be insane any longer mean it will not happen?

In other words, the "surge" in Iraq that matters is the movement from disaster to catastrophe. A question: How can otherwise rational policy makers and military leaders continue to cooperate in this madness?

That, obviously, is a question that goes to the US Constitution: What happens when a president's dogged determination begins to show itself as an obsessive irrationality? In numerous television appearances last week, interviewers successfully drew Bush out, showing him to be a man in the grip of an idée fixe: He is saving America. From what, now that all explanations for the war have been debunked, he cannot say. But the president's transcendent project of national redemption justifies his isolated inflexibility. That his decisions so palpably undermine US security and lead to unnecessary deaths means little to him because his decisions are deemed correct not by outcomes, but by being his. He is the decider.


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How bad do things have to get before the co-equal branch of the US government begins to act? The Congress, even with Americans overwhelmingly against the war, has been stymied. This seems partly the result of dreading to appear not to "support the troops," and partly of the Democrats' reluctance to take actions that might lead to their sharing responsibility for the debacle.

The president is famously the commander in chief, able to take autonomous action in war. But ironically, by following the Baker-Hamilton report with a stage-managed act of war-renewal, he has just sacrificed that autonomy, opening up an unprecedented opportunity for a congressional intervention. The administration's own orchestration requires a political response from Capitol Hill.

Unlike the larger war, the Bush "plan" to escalate numbers of US soldiers, which is necessarily implemented gradually, can be opposed without complication. That is being reflected in several resolutions, put before members last week, that cap troop levels. With growing popular revulsion, the disenchantment of Republicans, and the frankly expressed skepticism of many military commanders, there is political cover for stopping the increase now by the appropriations process. No funds for a surge.

If the Congress derailed Bush's planned escalation of the war, the war itself would then be squarely on the table of the political process. An utter reversal of what is meant by "supporting the troops" would lead the public to welcome shifts in military funding that began to bring them home. The already expressed will of the American people would begin to be followed. No funds for more war. All of this can start tomorrow night.

Or will the political leadership of the United States wait until it is too late? Like the last Moor of Iberia, will Congress decline to express itself when the crucial difference could be made? Who then will sympathize with their regret, or care about their weeping? Much less vote for them when they run for president?

James Carroll

James Carroll

James Carroll, a TomDispatch regular and former Boston Globe columnist, is the author of 20 books, including the new novel The Cloister (Doubleday). Among other works are: House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power and Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age. His memoir, An American Requiem, won the National Book Award. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He lives in Boston with his wife, the writer Alexandra Marshall.


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