Sunday, November 25, 2007

At a time when the candidates (and the media) are scrambling to accommodate the news that violence has been ratcheted down in Iraq, the White House is scrambling to scale back any appearance that it might expect what The New York Times calls "some concrete signs of political progress." Steven Lee Meyers writes that "The White House has been elated by the drop in violence since the increase in American forces, now 162,000 troops. Public comments by President Bush and his aides, though, have been muted, reflecting frustration at the lack of political progress, a continuation of a pattern in which intense American efforts to promote broader reconciliation have proved largely fruitless." What's more, "There have been signs that American influence over Iraqi politics is dwindling after the recent improvements in security... While Bush officials once said they aimed to secure 'reconciliation' among Iraq’s deeply divided religious, ethnic and sectarian groups, some officials now refer to their goal as 'accommodation.'"

The building of a stable government and a functioning society in the ruins of Baghdad is the stuff that the Bushies expected to magically blossom all by itself as soon as George Jr. dropped a house on Saddam Hussein and marched in to receive the key to the city from the representatives of the lollipop guild. Now they're been reduced bleating out the most reassuring, meaningless boilerplate. The American ambassador to Baghdad, Ryan C. Crocker, can offer nothing better than to insist that “We are seeing encouraging signs of movement,” as if he were Bill Frist reporting in from Teri Sciavo's bedside. Of course, what's funny about the Bushies trying to appear to demand less of the Iraqi government is that in the recent past, whenever they've caved in to pressure to establish benchmarks of any kind, they've set the bar comically low and then been forced to acknowledge that demands haven't been met even by the most piddling standards. When you can't meet even the Bush administration halfway in their quest to sugar-coat the job you've been doing, you might as well have Peter Sellers as your shop steward.

Writing in Slate last week, Anne Applebaum says what needs saying, and what no sane presidential candidate is about to be caught saying out loud: it's been years since we passed the point where "success" in Iraq is going to do America much good. If Martian diplomats land tomorrow and sort the mess out over lunch, we'll still be stuck with the fact that "the collateral damage inflicted by the war on America's relationships with the rest of the world is a lot deeper and broader than most Americans have yet realized. It isn't just that the Iraq war invigorated the anti-Americanism that has always been latent pretty much everywhere. Far worse is the fact that—however it all comes out in the end, however successful Iraqi democracy becomes a decade from now—our conduct of the war in Iraq has disillusioned our natural friends and supporters and thrown a lasting shadow over our military and political competence. However it all comes out, the price we've paid is too high." Ronald Reagan used to say that he didn't care if our "enemies" (and, by extension, the rest of the world" liked us, so long as they feared us. By living down to the most cartoonish image of Americans as xenophobic bullies while mating that to a new standard of perceived stupidity and utter incompetence, the Bush administration has made sure that most of the world neither likes nor fears us, and, in light of our perceived inability to do anything to enforce our will on the world with our military bogged down in the eternal cakewalk of Iraq, now feels about us much the way the president feels about those who disagree with him: "Who cares what you think?"

In the documentary Inside Deep Throat, Norman Mailer says that the secret to that porn movie's great commercial success is simply that "it was a giggle" and then adds, "The worst thing that can be said about us a nation is that we will sell our souls for a giggle." The Bush presidency started out as a giggle. Everything that worked to push this unelected chimp into the White House--the notion that there wasn't a world of difference between Bush and Al Gore, the coverage of the Florida recount, the decision of just enough members of the Supreme Court to throw away whatever reputations they could lay claim to for intellectual seriousness, and the whole underlying attitude that the presidency didn't really matter enough that you shouldn't just give it to the funny little guy who wasn't very smart but seemed to want it a lot and who anyway kind of saw it as the family business--comes down to a giggle. And when the smoke of 9/11 and "everything's changed" is cleared away, it's hard to say why we went into Iraq except as a giggle, unless you seriously think that demeans the "serious principles" underlying the decision to whack one bad guy because it would make people feel better about what had been done to us by another entirely unconnected bunch of bad guys. Bush was handed an historic opportunity--in the wake of 9/11, the whole planet was on our side and ready to work with us to make the world a better and safer place--and he spit on it and threw it in the toilet because working with furriners didn't make him feel like John Wayne; he preferred telling folks just how it's gonna be, and the media and his electoral base got off on that, and it probably wouldn't have been the same for any of them without the shocked, appalled stares from the people on the receiving end of all this manly telling. He set out to remake the world and establish America as the dominant, unquestioned international power; unless he's very, very, very lucky in who his successor turns out to be, and that person turns out to be very, very, very lucky in addition to having superhuman levels of intelligence, skill, and judgement, his moment will be remembered as the official starting point of American decline, the way the British remember Suez. (And we'll all have to just swallow deep and also hope that whoever succeeds Bush, regardless of which party he or she belongs in, will have the sense of sacrifice to cast off the costumed-crimefighter powers that Bush and his goon squad have claimed for the executive branch.) So he'll at least have achieved one thing he wanted to do: George Bush, Jr. will be the president who finally, for all time, made it seem to Americans that Vietnam wasn't that big a deal after all.

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