Administration cuts and runs from ‘stay the course’
Posted on Wednesday, October 25, 2006
Even with a congressional election less than two weeks off, the Bush White House appears incapable of getting real about Iraq. Over the weekend, the president delivered a Saturday radio address insisting, “Our goal in Iraq is clear and unchanging. Our goal is victory.” On Sunday, George W. Bush appeared on ABC’s “This Week.” There he somewhat altered his rote invocation of steely resolve. Bush remains patient, “but not patient forever.” Host George Stephanopoulos sought clarification. “That’s exactly what I wanted to ask you about,” he said, “because [former Secretary of State] James Baker says he’s looking for something between ‘cut and run’ and ‘stay the course.’” “ Listen,” Bush insisted, “we’ve never been ‘stay the course,’ George. We... will complete the mission. We will do our job and help achieve the goal, but we’re constantly adjusting the tactics.” For a politician, he’s an amazingly bad liar. Whenever Bush says, “listen,” it’s a dead giveaway, a verbal tic similar to what poker players call a “tell.” Never described his Iraq policy as “stay the course?” Bush himself has used the phrase countless times since the March 2003 invasion. So have White House spokesmen.
“We will stay the course, we will help this young Iraqi democracy succeed, and victory in Iraq will be a major ideological triumph in the struggle of the 21st century,” Bush pronounced in an Aug. 30, 2006, speech.
With evidence mounting that voters doubt Bush’s capacity to learn from reality in Iraq, he began making noises about changing tactics. Even so, in an Oct. 11 press conference Bush insisted, “stay the course also means don’t leave before the job is done.” That was two weeks ago, for readers keeping score at home.
Is Bush so brazen he thinks nobody remembers? So delusional he actually doesn’t recall?
Why would White House senior advisor Dan Bartlett deny something everybody knows to be true? CBS’s Hannah Storm asked Bartlett whether “staying the course is no longer the operative strategy?”
“Well, Hannah,” he said, “it’s never been a ‘stay the course’ strategy.”
Faced with mounting derision, press spokesman Tony Snow tried to perfume the skunk. “Is the President responsible for the fact people think it’s ‘stay the course,’” a reporter asked, “since he’s, in fact, described it that way himself?”
Winston Smith, call your office. Smith, of course, was a Ministry of Truth rewrite man in George Orwell’s “1984.” Slogging away in his airless cubicle, Smith’s job was continuously to alter the historical record, so that whatever Big Brother found it convenient to say today magically became exactly what he’d said forever. “‘Reality control,’ they called it; in Newspeak, doublethink.’”
Bush’s reasons for disowning the phrase may be psychological as much as political. A sailing metaphor, “stay the course” became almost synonymous with George H. W. Bush, the Connecticut preppie father whose topsiders Junior still can’t fill. It even became the focus of a memorable “Saturday Night Live” mock campaign debate with Dana Carvey impersonating then-Vice President Bush, and Jon Lovitz his hapless 1988 Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis.
“MODERATOR: ‘You still have 50 seconds left, Mr. Vice President.’
CARVEY: ‘Well, let me just sum up. On track, stay the course, a thousand points of light. Stay the course.’
MODERATOR: ‘Governor Dukakis, rebuttal?’
LOVITZ: ‘I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy.’”
How anybody ever mistook George W. Bush for a tough guy escapes me. But that’s beside the point. What’s important here is something I’ve been predicting to outraged Bush cultists for months: the U.S. retreat from this strategically incoherent, incompetently conducted war has begun. Next comes finding a scapegoat. Needless to say, the Limbaugh-Coulter-Hannity axis will blame the press, left-wing college professors, and Barbra Streisand. Saner individuals will focus on the triumvirate of Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld—along with their political enablers in both parties.
Deeper thinkers are already waxing philosophical. Niall Ferguson, the Harvard historian sometimes called “neoconservative” by detractors, sums up his reasons for predicting the American empire would fall short of his native Great Britain’s. “My argument,” Ferguson writes in The Los Angeles Times, “was that the United States was unlikely to be as successful or as enduring an imperial power as its British predecessor for three reasons: its financial deficit, its attention deficit and, perhaps most surprisingly, its manpower deficit. Rather cruelly, I compared the American empire to a ‘strategic couch potato,’ consuming on credit, reluctant to go to the front line [and] inclined to lose interest in protracted undertakings.” Actually, professor, there’s a more basic reason imperialists find themselves repeatedly frustrated by American unwillingness to “stay the course.” The first of Britain’s colonials to win a “war of national liberation,” Americans will fight like rabid wolverines to defend themselves, but they have never really wanted an overseas empire. The sooner Washington power brokers accept that, the sooner we’ll return to a rational foreign policy.