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The Cleveland Plain Dealer

The Anti-Leadership of a Wartime President With Blinders

Elizabeth Sullivan

President Bush wants to shore up national resolve to keep troops in Iraq by invoking the past struggles that yielded alliances.

"We fight for a free way of life against a new barbarism," he told the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Tuesday. A friendly Japan and Vietnam that now sell us T-shirts show "that the heart's desire for liberty will not be denied," the president added.

In a nutshell, this is why America is in trouble in Iraq.

President Bush can't reel himself in out of the clouds - where he imagines himself leading a great ideological struggle for the generations - to confront the ugly realities of Iraq.

The ideological blinders and the mushy notion of what the "war" is about make resolute leadership impossible. After failing to admit the initial mistake of Iraq, President Bush seems incapable of strategic corrections.

His is a wartime presidency without wartime direction.

It's the president's job to lead, by choosing among the least-bad options. Instead, President Bush accepts the dangers of drift in an environment where the risks for America grow daily.

By always saying he'll act after he hears from field commanders, the president abdicates the responsibility a commander in chief must bear. He'd rather twiddle his thumbs and let ground commanders muddle through than listen to the advice of Republican security heavyweights such as Sen. John Warner.

Warner's call Thursday for the token withdrawal of 5,000 troops by year's end was less a fully wrought policy than a plea for the president to do something - anything - to display independent action and decision-making.

"This is an opportunity to show the president's going to take the initiative," the ex-chairman of the Armed Services Committee told reporters Thursday.

It was a waste of breath.

As Warner himself indirectly acknowledged, Congress holds pitifully few means to impose correction on a president who falls down on wartime leadership.

"In reality, we have one tool," Warner said, "and that is to terminate funding. And having served in the Pentagon for five years during Vietnam and witnessed what the Congress did, I do not want to see a repeat of that."

Yet this is why the American people feel so betrayed and let down on Iraq. The president is in denial, the vice president is in his bunker and Democrats and political critics all appear to be spinning their wheels. The toxic rumble of popular anger threatens to overtake any realistic assessment of options.

Seizing the floor instead are partisan extremists, with their highly inflammatory op-eds, TV and radio ads churned daily by well-oiled machinery. They're interested less in crafting the best process for withdrawal or ground action in Iraq than in seizing the White House in 2008.

The president actually ties the hands of his military commanders by always insisting on slotting the war into the narrow concept where it's all about al-Qaida. He has squeezed the options on the ground so much that the nation doesn't have to wait to hear next month's briefing on the "surge" to know that its bottom line will be more of the same.

The surge itself wasn't even a plan.

It was an afterthought, concocted by the White House to avoid dealing with the package of 79 recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group.

The surge concept the president implemented in January didn't even have a fully elaborated military operational plan until July, according to a recent report by analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The simultaneous British withdrawal from most parts of southern Iraq opened up a new hornet's nest of Iranian opportunism and Shiite murder.

The latest National Intelligence Estimate makes clear that the chief aims of the surge have failed. It was supposed to give Iraqis political space to make peace with one another and to allow people to stay in their homes in Baghdad's threatened multiethnic neighborhoods.

Instead, the NIE released last week reveals that the Iraqi government is self-destructing and sectarian expulsion and flight are more pronounced. The NIE even suggests the emptying of Baghdad's Sunni neighborhoods is one reason there's less violence - a development the White House instead credits to the surge.

So what was the White House's response to the NIE's grim conclusions?

A spokesman said it offered "encouraging signs of security gains."

Elizabeth Sullivan is a regular columnist for The Cleveland Plain Dealer.

© 2007 The Cleveland Plain Dealer

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