One enters the horror house of regressive politics at one's own great peril, though most of us and most of the rest of the world have been given little choice.
Small wonder, then, that Americans have entered into a collective mental state which might best be described as disgruntled amnesia. This freakin' thing is not going away, so why waste time on anger or action? Besides, those are perfectly good hours that can be used for watching the game or deriding the latest loser on American Idol. And then there are those bills to be worried about...
Oh boy, are there. Nations have bills, too, and the drunken revelers at the big table, party of 300 million, are going to have one hell of a case of sticker shock when the waiter brings the check. They will, of course, do what horrified, besotted diners always do in such situations. As the source of their nauseous ill feelings migrates from the pain of too much in the stomach to the far worse pain of not enough in the wallet, the avoidance techniques will kick-in hard. Some will feel an urgent need to visit the restroom, only to somehow miraculously get lost on the way and egress through the back door instead, never to be seen again. Those remaining at the table will insist that their share should be less than other people's, since they only ordered two bottles of the champagne, and only ate a few platefuls of the most expensive caviar.
No matter. A reckoning is (long over-) due. As many of us are wont to mumble each month (or each week), on the return journey from our mailboxes: "Bills, bills, bills...". So it is with America.
The horror stories of the regressive right - and of its most carcinogenic manifestation, the corporation now doing business as the Bush administration - are as widely dispersed as they are deeply destructive. Virtually everything they've put their greasy mitts upon has turned disastrous, from Iraq to Afghanistan, from civil liberties to civil rights, from Terri Schiavo to Pat Tillman, and from Hurricane Katrina to the ocean of public debt being left to our children. It is, of course, without doubt far worse than we presently know, and perhaps far worse than we'll ever know, for surely some crimes will never be detected, and likely few will ever be punished.
But one of the greatest travesties in support of a tragedy is surely the right's latest political tactic (if only they were so talented at military strategy) for preserving a war they sold us, only to wind up owning themselves. Fear no longer working so well, public patience fully exhausted, Democrat-bashing grown tiresome, there remains little choice any more for selling the war, the main purpose of which anyhow was always to enhance the administration's power. It was shock and awe, alright, but you and I were the targets every bit as much as Baghdad, even if the bombs assaulting us were principally rhetorical.
What to do now? Hide behind the troops. That's about the only plausible strategy, and even at that, it came up short and was noticeably ineffective this last week. Of course, in some ways, this is hardly new at all. These wonderful war enthusiasts who never seem to find their own way to the battlefield have been invoking the welfare-of-the-troops motif for quite some time, even as their policies display relentless scorn for the cannon fodder they march off to war, like so many worthless chess pieces.
But the latest desperate approach ups the ante by a considerable quotient. Where the likes of Bush and Cheney and their cheerleaders like Kristol and Limbaugh have previously hidden themselves behind the privates and corporals and even captains who bear the greatest brunt of their arrogance and folly, now they have crawled up the pant legs of the generals, too, in order to shield their murderous policies from public scrutiny.
If you were lucky enough this week to be in possession of a brain more powerful than a ganglion cyst, you were unlucky enough to have it deeply insulted by the spectacle of the American commander-in-chief supposedly accepting the recommendations of his Iraq field commander for how to proceed with the war. In my lifetime of observing American politics, I can hardly think of a single instance of a greater and more injurious episode in the political theater of the absurd. Richard Nixon's attempt to placate the wolves by having the Watergate tapes listened to by only a single member of Congress - who just happened to be half-deaf - was probably more amusingly ridiculous, but, of course, infinitely less lethal.
And it's no longer even just the White House participating in this shameless ritual. Lately, hiding behind the troops in order to protect their own careers from the cannon ball of public disgust at a massively failed and even more massively dishonest war policy has become a more ubiquitous Republican rite than perhaps even closeted homosexuality.
Here's House Minority Leader John Boehner, for example: "As Congress prepares to take our next steps in support of our troops, we are faced with a critical choice. Will we ignore the progress we've made and play politics with the security of our nation, or will we finally listen to the generals?" God forbid anyone should ever play politics with national security, eh? You know, like scheduling a war resolution vote right before an election. Like running commercials that morph the face of a genuine war hero into Osama bin Laden's or Saddam Hussein's. Or like invoking the tragedy of 9/11 in every speech given by a president seeking to justify a war against a country which had absolutely nothing to do with that attack. No, please, let's not "play politics with national security", people. Members of the GOP should never be caught dead doing that. No, the way it's supposed to work is that other people get caught dead when they play politics with national security. You know, worthless people - like American troops and Iraqi citizens.
Then there always John "God, if you make me president I promise I'll do anything you want for the rest of my life" McCain to consider, a man seemingly incapable anymore of bringing any possible further ruin to what was once a reasonably impressive, if certainly inflated, reputation for honesty, at least as politicians go. Having downsized the old Straight Talk Express, McCain is now running around Iowa and New Hampshire these days on the No Surrender Limited (very), a slogan that we're supposed to believe applies to Iraq, but really is a better indicator of the desperate state of his besieged campaign. McCain is jumping up and down all across America, reminding voters how he was right all along, and how the 'success' of the surge in recent months vindicates his policies from the beginning. But then, of course, there's the obligatory reference to the troops, following a stark choice that the candidate says is facing America - to win or lose in Iraq (well, he at least got one part of this right, except of course, that the choice was long ago already made): "I choose to win, I choose to stay and I choose to support these young men and women and let them win."
Another fine example comes to us from Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Robert "Buzz" Patterson, speaking this week to about a thousand right-wing ga-ga-rah-rahs who came out to counter an anti-war protest this week. Buzz said he wanted to send three messages: "Congress, quit playing games with our troops. Terrorists, we will find you and kill you. And to our troops, we're here for you, and we support you." One wonders what the heck he's doing supporting the president with a set of themes like that, given that Bush's three messages seem to be: "Congress, quit playing games with me as I stomp all over our troops in pursuit of my own ambitions. Terrorists, thanks for giving me political cover to become emperor - now just go hang out in Pakistan and I won't bother you. And to our troops, we're here for you, and we support you. Unless that means not wasting your lives on meaningless and under-equipped missions based on wholesale fabrications."
As for Bush, Cheney and the other yahoos in the administration, of course, there is no end to the repetition of this inanity used to cover their own failings. Suffice it to say that whenever one of these clowns opens his mouth in public, there are three things you are guaranteed to hear. One is "9/11", the second is "the terrorists", and the third is "support the troops".
Are there really Americans in the twentieth century whose credulity is so unmitigated that a public relations farce of this magnitude appears realistic and even compelling? Evidently so, given the number of churches and Republicans still lurking about the country. Just the same though, surely this would constitute a deep blow to any of the Founders unfortunate enough to still be around observing the latest findings from their experiment in self-governance, only to have to witness this parody in which a president pretends to accept the recommendations of his on-site military commander, recommendations which miraculously enough just happen to accord with what that president wanted to hear. Can you believe the coincidence?! Would a twelve year-old not toss his Super Mario Brothers disk in the garbage if it contained plot lines this transparently improbable?
Lemme see if I have this straight, now. We have an administration so famously arrogant, imperious and unilateralist that it rips up treaties, trashes long-term allies, shreds constitutional bulwarks and buries legal traditions going back nearly a millennium - and we're supposed to believe that these people are taking direction from a mere general in the army? We're supposed to accept that The Decider has recently had a feverish bout of humility, and has come to defer to some rook on his chessboard who doesn't even come from the decidering class?
And who is this Petraeus cardboard cut-out, anyhow, a guy who seems miraculously capable of exploding two dimensions out into the appearance of four? Let's ask his commanding officer, Admiral William Fallon, who apparently recently referred to Bush's 'Pet' as a "sycophant" and "an ass-kissing little chickenshit", later adding, "I hate people like that". So do we, Admiral Bill, so do we. And we're hoping against hope that maybe someone like you will show Colin Powell what he should have done by publicly telling the truth about what you know, and doing so while it still matters.
Or perhaps you and the good general have both learned what might be best described as the 'Shinseki lesson' about this administration. Which is that, regardless of the length or the achievements of you career, if you tell the truth you'll soon be home spending your weekdays with the wife, pruning the garden and puttering around the house with a remote control in one hand and a whiskey sour in the other, rather than commanding forces in the world's most powerful military as you quite recently did in your former career.
Indeed - and what a shocking concept this will be to readers everywhere - not only do these greatest of sell-outs understand well how to play the game, they are only on the board at all because of that understanding. Given the well-established patterns of the nineteenth century atavistic throwbacks in this administration - the same people who hired and fired United States Attorneys on the basis of being "loyal Bushies" - would it be such a leap to imagine that Petraeus' singular qualification for his current assignment was the post-spinectomy gaping hole in his back which allows just enough room for Dick Cheney's hand to slip inside and grab the levers therein? Does anyone think that Bush and Cheney went on the hunt for the most effective military leader they could find - like Lincoln did when he kept firing his commanders until he found Grant - without regard to the guy's controllability factor? If you've learned anything at all about Bush and Cheney these last miserable years, you know that precisely the opposite is true. That the finest commanders in the world would be passed over, their careers shattered if necessary, in order to find the yessiest yes-man in the military, even if that meant grabbing some hapless supply sergeant cleaning his teeth while sitting behind a rusty desk on a forgotten base somewhere outside of Seoul. And that nobody even asked whether a guy like Petraeus knew the first damn thing about how to solve the monumental monstrosity that is Iraq.
But it turns out that Petraeus does know a thing or two about this stuff. He actually wrote the Army's field manual on how to conduct counterinsurgency warfare. In a foolish burst of honest analysis (in printed form, no less - bad move, Dave), Petraeus wrote that such an operation need to be properly staffed-out to the tune of about 20 soldiers per 1,000 people in the local population. Uh-oh. That works out to 500,000 American troops in Iraq, almost the exact same number that were deployed to, er, uh, Vietnam. Can you say "draft", boys and girls? No? Well, neither can our president, and it's not because of the all-too-well-deserved reputation for syntax aversion he's earned over the years. So, instead of plunging down that dangerous political path and reminding the assembled senators and representatives of his earlier analysis, the nice man in the green outfit with lots of metal and ribbon on his chest came before Congress and instead did his very best Emily Litella impression. "Never mind!" Geez, this guy could make Westmoreland look heroic.
Meanwhile, the aforementioned Civil War analogy is more than apt here, and not only because George W. Bush is said to admire the politically besieged Abraham Lincoln most among his predecessors (if predecessor isn't too strong a word for men who actually were president, and who actually were elected, and who - many of them - actually earned the position after successful careers as politicians, military leaders and the like). Bush's continual appeal to history, and to Lincoln's steadfastness in particular, could hardly be more misplaced or more ironic.
Lincoln tossed away ineffective but politically correct generals like so much used Kleenex until he finally found one who, regardless of his rough mannerisms, could and indeed did win battles in what both understood was a total war against the Confederacy. Bush, on the other hand, is unwilling to ask of Americans even an end to the tax revenue giveaway he previously engineered, let alone a tax increase or a military draft, in order to pursue a war he continually equates to the greatest human struggles in history, including the war against fascism and the Cold War. And, directly contrary to Lincoln, he searches for a commanding general who is such a sycophant he's willing to walk away from his own written conclusions about the requirements for winning a war in order to instead advance his career, including, apparently, even his presidential aspirations. One look at Petreaus might induce laughter at such hubris, except for the reminder slamming back into memory immediately thereafter of the clown now occupying the White House. If W can do it, anyone can do it.
Meanwhile, you can bet Petraeus really plays well among the troops, eh? Just what they needed, another leadership figure to further their mass slaughter in pursuit of some joker's political ambitions. A real soldier's general is ol' Dave.
Then there's the matter, when Bush pretends to be responding to his military advisors, of which advisors he's supposedly listening to. The word is that there is a huge cohort of both current and retired brass who strongly recommend exiting the sinking ship of Iraq. Funny, they don't seem to have the president's ear. Something tells me that Bush hasn't been trying to track down Eric Shinseki for his opinions, despite the fact that the former Army Chief of Staff was the one who got it right originally. If this whole absurd scenario has all the makings a ridiculous farce, that's because it is - right before the tragedy part. Bush never asked the soldiers whether to go into Iraq, and he's only pretending to ask whether to come out by finding a sycophant's sycophant who will say what he wants said, and putting that dude in charge, meanwhile tossing overboard gutsy profiles in courage like Eric Shinseki.
Such a courageous Decider, isn't he? When things appeared to be going well, it was all about him, the commander-in-chief. He announced the war to us like this, and notice how he emphasized the decisive role of you-know-who: "On my orders, coalition forces have begun striking selected targets of military importance to undermine Saddam Hussein's ability to wage war." Now, though, he's just accepting the recommendations of the military staff. As if they would say "It's time to pull out of Iraq, Mr. President". As if, had Petraeus told the truth to Congress and the president, Bush would have said, "Shoot, I wanted to stay, but I guess I have to defer to your wisdom, General, and bring the boys and girls home."
Bush is no less hiding behind the men in uniform now as he is when he continually delivers policy addresses to assembled military personnel who are unable to express their disapproval of his lies. What is happening here is a typical Rovian sleight-of-hand. It's become conventional wisdom nowadays that politicians - even the commander-in-chief - shouldn't micro-manage the military in fighting America's (seemingly endless) wars. There's some valid justification for that concept, but part of this mantra is also driven by the conservative framing of how we lost Vietnam. In any case, the Rove/Bush propaganda machine has conveniently morphed that plausible concept into the present scenario, so that Bush can be seen as simply respecting the autonomy of his command staff.
That, of course, is an absurd notion, and not only because he's picked those commanders on the very basis of their willingness to have their strings pulled. In the prosecution of wars, there is a hierarchy, from bottom to top, running from tactics to strategy to policy. Sure, lieutenants should optimally be free to make tactical choices (with some guidance from above), and generals should make the strategic decisions best suited for winning the conflict (again, not without input from on high). They're there, on the ground, and they're trained professionals - this is their area of expertise. But in a democracy - and especially one which loves to champion the notion of civilian rule over the military - the policy choices have to be made by the politicians. Generals don't decide whether to go to war - presidents and Congresses do. And they're also the ones who decide when enough is enough and it's time to come home. Unless, of course, you're a politician hiding your unpopular policies behind a camouflage skirt in order to fool the public (again).
Given that a whopping five percent (no, that's not a typo) of the American public continue to trust the president on Iraq policy questions, and given the administration's obsessive/compulsive disorder when it comes to lying at every possible opportunity, it's hardly a surprise that they would trot out Petreaus to desperately sell what they themselves cannot. But even that hasn't worked. Poll data show the public completely unmoved after last week's embarrassing kabuki dance. Americans have had enough - of the lies, of the violence, of the fiscal costs, of the diminished American security, of the failure - and, for that matter, of the president, too.
This show is over - it's only a matter of time, and of lives lost. Not even a shiny-starred general with ribbons on his chest and a fancy sheaf of West Wing-produced talking points can reel it in anymore.
This is especially true as the Republicans in Congress look ahead to 2008 and see that their careers are about to meet the same fate as the million or so Iraqis whom Mr. Bush's war for freedom has liberated, not only from Saddam, but also from the burden of having to wake up every morning.
Catch you later, Coleman. See you, Smith. Close the door on the way out, Collins. Sayonara, Sununu. Feel free to kick Bush's butt for taking you down when you begin your brief term in political purgatory, starting January of 2009. It should be quite crowded there by then, full of Republican rejects.
Meanwhile, rest assured that none of you will be the least bit missed. David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (mailto:email@example.com), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.