The Magazine

Bush Would Rather Fight Than Switch

The president stands by the surge.

Jul 23, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 42 • By FRED BARNES
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White House officials were pushing the line last week that President Bush would soon take a positive new tack in defending the war in Iraq. He'd talk about what Iraq would look like after the "surge" of American troops in Baghdad had succeeded and the soldiers were beginning to come home. Peter Baker of the Washington Post was told Bush "will launch a campaign emphasizing his intent to draw down U.S. forces next year." The president would deliver his "vision for the post-surge," an aide told Baker. Indeed, I talked to two White House officials who mentioned the plan for Bush to stress the bright future in Iraq rather than the dimmer present.

This clever scheme lacked one important ingredient, the participation of Bush himself. He was supposed to play up the post-surge in a 77-minute speech in Cleveland. He failed to, except to note in passing that, with enough troops to secure Iraq, "we can be in a different position in a while." This was the same day that Baker's story ran. A White House official said the president might have dropped emphasis on the post-surge era from his speech out of annoyance over the leak to Baker. Or, since he was speaking from scribbled notes, he might just have forgotten.

Two days later, Bush had a prepared text for his opening remarks at a press conference. Once more, the aftermath of the surge got short shrift. The closest he came was this comment: "When we start drawing down our forces in Iraq, it will be because our military commanders say the conditions on the ground are right, not because pollsters say it will be good politics."

I recount this episode because it makes a simple point: Bush's aides may be eager to soften his message on Iraq, but the president isn't. Another way to put it--exaggerating a bit--is that his aides were fearful of political repercussions and he wasn't.

White House officials were particularly nervous about the defections of a few Republican senators--Richard Lugar of Indiana, Pete Domenici of New Mexico, George Voinovich of Ohio--on Iraq. They wanted to keep the defectors from joining antiwar Democrats angling to force the president to bail out of Iraq. And they wanted to prevent more defections. They believed the president should change his talking points on Iraq to emphasize the good times that victory would produce.

Bush, of course, actually does think the surge will work, that a drawdown of troops will begin, and better times really are ahead in Iraq. But that happy-talk argument is not one he's ready to make, much less emphasize. It's not strong enough. And on the subject of Iraq and the war on Islamic jihadists, the president is the most steadfast and unflinching guy at the White House, and the least willing to sugarcoat the case for war.

It's not unusual for presidential aides to be more anxious than the boss. When President Reagan deployed Pershing missiles in Europe in 1983, the Soviets stormed out of arms talks in Geneva. Washington was in a tizzy, as were some of Reagan's advisers. Reagan wasn't, however, and he told his aides not to worry. The Soviets would soon return to the talks, he said. And of course they soon did.

Presidents can't afford the luxury of anxiety or doubt. In wartime, their task is to focus on the high stakes and perils of defeat. That, in a nutshell, is what Bush does. And does relentlessly.

Sure, the president said at a private session with journalists last week that lasted an hour and 35 minutes, he could talk about "what success will bring" in Iraq. But that's not the "most useful tool" in shoring up support for the war. Instead, Bush said, the most compelling case for persevering in Iraq is "what failure will look like."

At the press conference, he said withdrawal now "would mean surrendering the future of Iraq to al Qaeda. It would mean that we'd be risking mass killings on a horrific scale. It would mean we'd allow the terrorists to establish a safe haven in Iraq to replace the one they lost in Afghanistan. It would mean increasing the probability that American troops would have to return at some later date to confront an enemy that is even more dangerous." With that, he was just getting wound up.

Bush understands his lack of popularity--and the diminished influence that comes with being unpopular--has not crippled his presidency. Quite the contrary, he believes. "I've got a lot of tools to affect this debate," he said. He intends to use all of them: the veto, his power as commander in chief, filibusters by Republican senators, the bully pulpit.