Bill Clinton should be green with envy. George W. Bush, Clinton’s successor and bird of a feather in his quest to stay out of the jungles of Vietnam, in one fell swoop has addressed doubts about both his personal courage and his solidarity with soldiers risking their lives in Iraq. Bush’s turkey day trot to Iraq for dinner was a masterful stroke in public relations — at least in the short-term. In the long-term, it could put the Bush presidency further in the soup (or the gravy, as the case may be).
A closer examination of Bush’s public relations stunt raises questions about its sincerity and wisdom. The headline — from a cooing press ready to gobble up any story on a particularly slow news day — was that the president risked his life to show support for the troops.
Yet Bush’s holiday jaunt was shrouded in so much secrecy, even by the standards of this hyper-secretive administration, that he faced very little personal danger — even in hazardous Baghdad. The trip was so hush-hush that the president’s parents weren’t even told that he wouldn’t be showing up for the family gathering in Crawford, Texas. And by sneaking into and out of the fortified Baghdad International airport in darkness on Air Force One — which has many technologies to foil missile attacks — Bush was very safe against the fairly crude means of striking aircraft possessed by the Iraqi insurgents. Although Senator Hillary Clinton ventured out of the airport to visit troops on the front lines during her visit the next day, the president took no such risk and remained in the fortified area for his two-and-a-half hour stay in Iraq. The tight security arrangements obviously satisfied the president’s hyper-cautious Secret Service protectors. Unlike a bird for Thanksgiving dinner, Bush had little chance of being fired upon.
And Bush’s "mission" was designed less to shore up the morale of U.S. military personnel than it was to knock the stuffing out of war critics at home. Criticism had been intensifying about a spike in the number of body bags coming back from Iraq and the president’s attempt to hide them from the American people by not attending soldiers’ funerals. Bush’s foraging in Iraq for a "warm meal somewhere" was really an attempt to scavenge for better press anywhere he could find it. Security restrictions were bent just enough to take a film crew from Fox News and other friendly reporters along to record the president’s daring do.
CNN, a network less captive to the administration line, interviewed Iraqis on the record and American military personnel off the record and got a less favorable assessment of the president’s visit. Many Iraqis wondered why Bush met only with a few members of the U.S. hand-picked Iraqi Governing Council and not with a single ordinary Iraqi citizen. Also, one soldier told CNN that although it was nice of the president to come for a visit, that soldier’s main goal remained getting out of Iraq alive.
That candid statement by somebody actually taking fire in the turkey shoot against American GIs should lead to questions about the sincerity of symbolic pats on the backs for the troops. Recently, politicians and bureaucrats — who have done their best to personally avoid combat — needlessly risking the lives of American troops in faraway foreign military adventures has become as American as pumpkin pie. If they had wanted to support the troops, they wouldn’t have sent them there in the first place.
Questions of sincerity aside, Bush’s pilgrimage to Iraq may backfire in the long-term. Bush’s last macho public relations gimmick — landing on an aircraft carrier in a military flight suit under the banner of "mission accomplished" — surely did. The subsequent costly guerrilla war has belied such spin. Similarly, the president’s spreading of holiday cheer in Baghdad may tie him even more closely to a policy that is likely to fail. Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon visited Vietnam, but that did not prevent a subsequent U.S. defeat in the war.
Bush is unlikely to get many foreign troops to help suppress the Iraqi guerrillas and is politically constrained — if he wants to have any hope of reelection — from throwing more U.S. forces into the quagmire. Thus, the insurgency — emboldened by talk of exit strategies circulating in Washington and by plans to accelerate turning the country over to "self-rule" — will not go away and will probably get worse. The guerrillas, like those in Vietnam, know that the Achilles’ heel of the American superpower is a citizenry that tires of foreign military adventures when they are of dubious value for national security. Henry Kissinger (a man who should know) once said that if guerrillas are not losing, they are winning.
During the Bush’s trip, he tried to jawbone a victory by using testosterone-laden slogans, such as "we will prevail" and "we will stay until the job is done." Facts on the ground, however, show that those statements contain more hot air than the Bullwinkle balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade.
Despite all of the intentional spin during his tour of the Baghdad airport, Bush’s Iraq policy may be best symbolized, although inadvertently, by the central photo op of the trip: the president presenting a turkey to the troops.