America Wakes to Dying Dreams, Dead Soldiers
by Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts
Cheektowaga, N.Y.; Thibodaux, La.; Pflugerville, Texas; Presque Isle, Maine; Westerville, Ohio; Marysville, Wash.; Redding, Calif.; Stokesdale, N.C.; Bapchule, Ariz.; Oxford, Ala.
These are the hometowns of 10 American troops killed recently in Iraq, 10 of almost 3,000 fatalities. And there will be many more. The good folks of Pflugerville and Westerville and Marysville no longer believe their sons and daughters are dying for a good reason, but President Bush seems in no mood to hear them.
Yes, he fired Donald Rumsfeld. And yes, he will announce next year "a new way forward." But listen carefully. It's clear the president is not really interested in a "new way" at all. He still firmly believes that his old way is right, that the war was justified, that "victory" is the only way to keep Stokesdale safe.
His own words reflect no doubt or regret: "Iraq is a central component of defeating the extremists who want to establish a safe haven in the Middle East, extremists who would use their safe haven from which to attack the United States. This is really the calling of our time, that is, to defeat the extremists and radicals."
But the president has not only lost the "battle for hearts and minds" across the Arab world, he's lost it across the United States. The people of Bapchule and Oxford no longer believe his words or trust his judgment. Virtually everything he ever said to them about the war — from "Mission Accomplished" to "absolutely, we're winning" — has been wrong.
Once, Americans might have shared his vision of a free, self-governing Iraq, but not any more. He has squandered their trust and betrayed their patriotism. The parents of Thibodaux and Cheektowaga no longer want to sacrifice their children to a lost cause.
The elections certainly showed that, and since his party's defeat, the president's standing has continued to deteriorate. In the latest CBS News poll, only 15 percent agree with him that America is winning the war. Even his closest supporters are jumping ship. Fewer than half of all Republicans, and only one-third of all conservatives, approve of the president's war strategy.
In a USA Today poll, three out of four Americans say Iraq is engaged in a "civil war." How does the president convince parents in Redding and Presque Isle that it is worth American lives to keep Muslim sects thousands of miles away from slaughtering each other? The answer: He can't.
Republicans are turning against Bush. Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon, who faces a tough campaign in 2008, broke ranks with an extraordinary speech: "I, for one, am at the end of my rope when it comes to supporting a policy that has our soldiers patrolling the same streets is the same way being blown up by the same bombs day after day. That is absurd. It may even be criminal."
Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska says Bush "misunderstood, misread, misplanned and mismanaged our honorable intentions in Iraq with an arrogant self-delusion reminiscent of Vietnam."
But how can these critics exert any leverage over a president who is not running again and seems detached from reality? GOP hardliners — like Rush Limbaugh and Dick Cheney, who don't have to stand for office, or send their own children to war — are still telling Bush to ignore the "surrender monkeys," as one headline put it.
As for the Democrats, they're in a bind. As the Baker-Hamilton panel demonstrated, the Bush administration has made such a mess that there is no such thing as a good option in Iraq. The panel's two main suggestions — negotiating with Iran and Syria and turning over security to Iraqi forces — have been widely derided as unrealistic. Neither holds much promise of working. Nothing else does, either.
That's why the Democrats are lying low and insisting that "the ball is in the president's court." That might not be a courageous position but it's certainly an understandable one. This is Bush's war. He broke Iraq and now he owns it.
The nation is facing an enormous tragedy. Bush can't or won't leave Iraq, but staying means Pflugerville will keep burying its children. Only a new president will be able to stop the dying.
Cokie Roberts is a journalist; Steven V. Roberts wrote "My Fathers' Houses: Memoir of a Family."
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