Friday, November 04, 2005

Victory Strategy not Exit Strategy

Exactly one year after the American electorate confirmed a modicum of faith in President Bush, polling data shows that faith has disappeared. Every week brings a lower approval rating, setting records as they plummet into the 30s. A mere 37%, of Americans now approve of the president’s leadership. Buffeted by the gusts of crises, like the f ailed Miers nomination, and the Scooter Libby indictment, the administration is foundering in the constant gale that is Iraq. It need not be so.

Pragmatic critics from the center and the right, who wish to see Bush’s second term succeed, not fail, have called for a White House shake up. Such re-staffing has become a second term tradition in presidencies of the last few decades. And they are often undertaken in the face of bad news at the polls. So far the Bush administration has reflexively closed ranks, reflecting the president’s faith and loyalty in those who have served him well in the past. Even more than Reagan or Nixon this president is loyal to his own.

That is now his biggest obstacle. Bush is actually very close to achieving the Holy Grail of Republican/conservative politics, a Supreme Court, that if not ideologically right wing, will at least make decisions in keeping with a conservative interpretation of the law. When Sam Alito is confirmed conservatives will be able to breath easy for a decade or so, that the high court will not pursue an activist approach to social change. It may not be everything that the movement hoped for, but it will be essentially enough.
The president however, is in danger of having his swan song two or three years early. If Bush cannot convince the American people that his vision for America’s security is the right one, and do so in just twelve months, than he stands to lose the congress to Democrats and become a lame duck.

The problem lies in the White House, and the way this administration communicates its political message. Like many other bodies, this president’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. The consistent framing of Bush team’s message s has been a paradox. When speaking to “the base” and when running for office, Bush has been effective. But when explaining complex policy objectives, the traditional Bush style has failed.

There is no denying that the inner team of Cheney, Rove, Libby, et al. has in some ways been brilliant. But the light of day shone on their tactical style by the Fitzgerald probe, has further revealed the inherent weakness of the approach. The continuing debate over the war in Iraq makes this clear. Fully three years after the national decision that war in Iraq would be acceptable, mainstream Democrats are still hammering the administration over the arguments that led us there.

While there were myriad reasons to go to war in Iraq, the administration fixated on WMD as its focal point for sales. The evidence seemed strong enough to convince much of the nation, and many of the world’s intelligence services. The evidence was, in retrospect, equivocal at best. Hindsight being 20/20 the other concrete reasons for war may have been better off seeing he light of day earlier. But the Bush team’s most consistent communication mistake has been to underestimate the American public.

The basis for the strategy of regime change in Iraq can be found in the 2002 document “The National Security Strategy of the United States”(NSS). This white paper lays out the overlying strategy for US foreign policy. It combines classic realist thinking with neo-conservative policies and a recognition of globalization’s importance, and it shows the handiwork of then National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice. The key phrase, of the document is the goal of developing a “balance of power favorable to democracy.”

Yet the public face of the document was the phrase “preemptive war.” This is because the administration, after publishing a thorough, well crafted document, allowed the media to explain it to the public unaided. Shortly thereafter the PR team became focused on selling the war.

Many of the reasons for going to war are supported by the NSS. Iraq is perhaps the most important nation in the Arab world. Strong in terms of population, and resources. Diverse ethnically and religiously. Geographically positioned to balance Iranian power in the gulf, Iraq is strategically key.

Under Saddam Iraq had occupied our attention for over a decade. After one war, and a dozen years of air operations he remained a defiant dictator, who refused to play by the world’s rules. He played a coy game about WMD, pretending to have more than he denied he did. His continuing stance against the west, the UN, and international law, required resolution.

Bush and Cheney have come under fire from the left for conflating Iraq and al Qaeda. The left is fond of proclaiming that Iraq had little to do with al Qaeda and nothing to do with 9-11. Bush has done little to explain the real nexus. The very real dictates of US policy in the Persian Gulf required, at least, a policy of containment against Saddam. But containment required US troops based in Saudi Arabia and other gulf states.

These deployments were sore point in Arab politics, exploited to no end by Osama and al Qaeda who saw US presence in “The Kingdom” as blasphemy. While removing US bases, may not have appeased bin Laden it would have negated one of his major recruiting points. While US troops in Iraq draw insurgent recruits, “The Kingdom” is holy ground in ways Iraq is not. When US troops eventually depart a secure democratic Iraq, their will be a balance of power that doesn’t require a high profile US presence in the region.

Continuing UN sanctions, resulted in humanitarian distress in Iraq. This resulted in the Oil for Food program. Along with weakening the UN by continuing defiance of the sanctions, Saddam enriched himself and his Baathist cronies by corrupting the UN bureaucracy. Rebuilding the credibility of the UN also required an endgame in Iraq.

Creating a stable, democratic Iraq, with a free market economy will go a long way to establishing that power balance that favors democracy in the mid-east. By overturning the repressive, closed regime, that stood outside the laws of nations, but inside the center circle of the middle east, we have taken a step into securing the future.

Today the administration still cannot seem to frame the debate in favorable terms. They seem content to allow the media, the Democrats, and the far left to frame the debate. Aside from curt sound bites about “staying the course” the administration has been incredibly inarticulate about the war. Meanwhile the anti-war movement seizes ever opportunity to nay say our efforts. The recent “milestone” of the 2000th service death is a case in point.

If President Bush has any hope of turning around his current misfortunes, he needs a political staff that focuses on the facts about this war. Starting with the fact that the insurgents are not freedom fighters, liberators, or a populist resistance. The insurgents are mainly remnant Baathists and foreign fighters who’ve flocked to the al-Qaeda banner. They are fighting to destroy the democratic gains Iraq has made.

The president needs to stop letting the left define the debate. America doesn’t need an exit strategy. We need a victory strategy. And that has to be better defined then “staying the course.” Not only would the American people be better served, but our forces in Iraq would be too, if the President defines a unified administration strategy in Iraq. How are American troops going to improve Iraq forces, how is State going to influence the security situation. An effective information campaign, based upon a coherent unified strategy is currently AWOL. The most effective messages on the war have come from outside the administration. Christopher Hitchens, Michael Rubin, Ralph Peters and others have demonstrated the message is rational and palatable. But American’s need to hear it from the president.

The president needs to stand on our successes: Saddam’s removal, elections, a constitution, the growth of loyal Iraqi forces, and to lay out a detailed path forward. It is time for some original language and some original thinking. This is going to require some new blood. At the very least the war message should be farmed out to a new PR team. Not only the president, but the country, and the truth would be served.

Mudville Gazette
Obligatory Anecdotes


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