Friday, January 19, 2007

Capitol offense

Many questions have been asked about Bush's plan to increase the number of soldiers in Iraq, and I don't want to discuss the plan's merits or lack thereof. I do want to ask one question which (to my knowledge) has not been asked elsewhere. Why did Bush come up with the plan now? The situation in Iraq is not much different now than it was six months, or two years, ago. So why is there suddenly the need for a new plan? A year ago, didn't Iraq need extra troops just as much as today?

Less than two months ago, there was an election in which Republicans were rather unexpectedly trounced due to dissatisfaction over Iraq. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the new plan is a response to the election results.

But what does Bush hope to accomplish with the new plan? One would expect that, now that the Democrats have done so well and the country is apparently so anti-war, Bush would make some concession: decreasing the number of soldiers, for example, or giving more responsibility to the Iraqi government. In fact the new plan is very close to the opposite of this. One could imagine him resisting pressure for change, but it's amazing that he felt impelled to change policy, but in the direction opposite what he was pressured to do. What could Bush hope to accomplish with this kind of reaction to the election?

I think the answer is psychological. Until two months ago Bush had many reasons to think that everything he was doing was correct. He had been elected to a second term by a larger margin that for his first term (hehe); his party controlled Congress; the economy was doing well; the violence in Iraq was perhaps being brought under control, but at least not apparently getting worse, and so on. If some annoying congressmen dared to criticize the war, well they were just conniving Democrats willing to tell any lie that would help their political careers. And so Bush became arrogant, dismissing all criticism, and skirting legal and constitutional issues with disdain because it was all for the right cause, and all his policies seemed to be working.

The recent elections were a violent dose of reality. No, not every policy of Bush's was in fact a success. No, Americans do not unconditionally support military adventures no matter how badly they go. If presidential elections had been held this year, they might have ended the Bush administration altogether. Bush was chastened and forced to develop a sense of humility. For the first time in years he took a honest look at the situation in Iraq, realized the depth of the problem, and came up with a plan for a solution. Bush's new plan is in fact not so new; for years now, some politicians and generals have called for an increase in troop levels. Until now Bush had ignored them because, in his mind, he knew better than anyone else. But now he took a serious look at their argument for the first time, and came away convinced.

Whether the new plan is in fact well-advised will probably not be conclusively known for a while (or ever, if it doesn't get carried out). In the meantime, other politicians need to avoid the trap that Bush repeatedly fell into. There seems to be a tendency among Democrats to criticize Bush's new plan without articulating a coherent alternative policy to address Iraq's problems. This in itself is understandable since they themselves do not have to make foreign policy. But it raises the possibility that they are making the same fundamental mistake Bush made - thinking that's enough to appear "anti-war", since that's what the public wants, without seriously considering the effects of their proposed policies. It is a difficult challenge to feel popular for who you are, and nevertheless to try to judge ideas based on what they have to offer. Bush failed at this challenge for several years. Let's hope that his newly empowered opposition does not fail at it now.

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