by Sidney Blumenthal & r & Never before has a president suddenly discarded his self-proclaimed "mission." But after declaring himself the commander in chief in the "global war on terror," President Bush has tossed the catchphrase aside in an elusive search for a new one. The "global war on terror" was his slogan to link the war in Afghanistan to the invasion of Iraq, the battle supposedly being one and the same. The quest for a new slogan is more than a public relations gesture. It reflects not only the failure but also the vacuum of his strategy.
Since Bush's speech at Fort Bragg, N.C., on June 28, for which the White House asked for and received national television coverage, and in which Bush reaffirmed "fighting the global war on terrorism," mentioned "terror" or "terrorism" 23 more times, and compared this "global war on terrorism" with the Civil War and World War II, his administration has simply dropped the words that more than any others Bush has identified as the reason for his presidency.
Throughout July, administration officials have substituted new words for the old. Instead of trumpeting the "global war on terrorism," Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have sounded the call to "a global struggle against violent extremism."
Myers' change in language involves considerable historical and policy revisionism. He had gone along with Rumsfeld in policies opposed by senior military figures such as former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, who was publicly derided by then Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz for worrying about invading Iraq with a light force. But now Myers presents himself as a secret dissident. In a speech before the National Press Club, he claimed he "objected to the use of the term 'war on terrorism' before, because if you call it a war, then you think of people in uniform as being the solution."
Myers also reveals himself now to be an ardent internationalist who believes that though the military is carrying the burden, future conflicts demand "all instruments of our national power, all instruments of the international communities' national power." In effect, Myers is repudiating the Bush doctrine of "preemptory self-defense."
Dropping the signature phrase of the Bush presidency is part of an effort to cobble together some sort of expedient political solution that will allow U.S. troops to be drawn down before disaster strikes the Republicans in the midterms of 2006. By stuffing the old slogan down the memory hole, Bush has withdrawn credibility from its neoconservative policy. Unfortunately, ideology has consequences.
The new U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, has arrived on the bloody scene to warn of impending civil war. But U.S. intelligence does not have an accurate sense of either the number of insurgents or their composition. "That would not be a worthwhile metric," Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita said recently. Thus Rumsfeld's assistant secretary for public affairs acknowledges that he doesn't know precisely who the enemy is.
Some are Sunni Arabs opposed to Shiite and Kurdish domination of a country they ruled from the Ottoman Empire until the U.S. invasion. Some are former members of Saddam's Baath Party's secret police. Others are jihadis who operate like mobile mafias.
"My answer is, bring them on," Bush declared about Iraqi attackers on July 2, 2003. Since then there have been more than 500 suicide attacks in Iraq. Saudi intelligence interrogated about 300 Saudis captured on their way to fight or detonate themselves in Iraq; a Saudi study revealed that few if any of them had previous contact with al-Qaida and that most were motivated by the U.S. occupation.
The insurgents have no concrete program; their game plan, after all, is a bloodbath. If they cannot strike at Americans, garrisoned in their forts, they will kill soft targets such as Iraqi policemen, local officials and even children. Their strategy is to perpetuate anarchy, perhaps triggering a civil war: the worse, the better; their models are Lebanon and Somalia.
"Bush is in a tough spot, one of his own making," retired three-star Marine Gen. Bernard Trainor told me. "Bush has to try to make the best of a bad hand. This administration did not really pose the what-if and what-then questions in planning. Now I hope they are. I haven't seen evidence of it yet."
In the closing days of the 2004 election campaign, President Bush returned time and again to the theme that aroused the most fervent support for him: "The outcome of this election will set the direction of the war against terror, and in this war there is no place for confusion and no substitute for victory." He ridiculed his Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry. "His top foreign policy advisor has questioned whether it's even a war at all, saying that's just a metaphor, like the war on poverty," Bush said. "I've got news: Anyone who thinks we are fighting a metaphor does not understand the enemy we face and has no idea how to win the war and keep America secure."
But that "war," like the campaign, is over, and it has been rebranded. Just as Bush has leapt from reason to reason for the Iraq war, from weapons of mass destruction to the "march of freedom," so he now jumps from slogan to slogan. His changeability, in the short run, according to Trainor, may be a hazard: "If he shows any signs of changing course perceptually, that could be a problem for him not only domestically but also on the battlefront. Any backing off from the hard position has a strong chance of giving encouragement to those who wish us ill. What happens when you are seen as less than all-powerful? That's the position they are in right now."
Sidney Blumenthal, was an assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton and the author of The Clinton Wars.