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December 20, 2005 [LINK]

Bush: sober realism on the war

President Bush's ongoing public relations offensive aimed at pointing to the progress that is underway in Iraq has begun acknowledging the difficulties and some of the past mistakes in his administration's policies. It is not the first time he has done so, but it is wisely timed to coincide with the apparently big success of Iraq's first parliamentary elections. Nevertheless, as Bush said, there are likely to be terrorist holdouts for years to come. This tacit redefinition of victory was clearly aimed at lowering expectations for a clear-cut, decisive military triumph, which I have long believed is necessary -- to avoid disappointing the faithful, pro-war segment of the population. In his televised speech on Sunday evening, Bush also made an unusual appeal to war opponents, saying that he understood their arguments. It was an appropriate gesture of respect for dissenters, many of whom, sadly, have not earned much respect. For Bush the Swaggerer, adopting a humble attitude does not come easily. Well, practice makes perfect. The best part of his lengthy, wide-open press conference on Monday was when he took on the argument of Rep. John Murtha that the presence of U.S. troops inflames terrorists. See for a full transcript.

From the standpoint of domestic politics, Bush's P.R. offensive is likely to convince skeptical folks in the middle that we are on the right general course in Iraq. On last Sunday's "Meet the Press," Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) repeated his argument that current U.S. war policy is headed in the wrong direction, but he also made several comments suggesting that he and other Democrats are no longer wedded to defeat. His hopes that the new Iraqi government might be able to take care of its own security in the near future could be interpreted as a first delicate step toward a semblance of a bipartisan consensus over Iraq war policy. Miracles do happen!

Outrage over "domestic spying"

Bush's momentum was slowed on Friday by the New York Times report that Bush had authorized domestic wiretapping without court approval soon after 9/11. It is hard to imagine that the publication of the story might have been unrelated to the vote to renew the PATRIOT Act. It is very worrisome, at least potentially, but legal shortcuts are a common feature of warfare in any age. In the present situation, rigid adherence to the letter of the law by intelligence operatives could handcuff their ability to track the movement of terrorists in this country. Bush's outrage about the leak by the Times is somewhat ironic given that his own administration stands accused of leaking the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame to the press. For more on Bush's response, see Washington Post.

Part of the dispute over such extraordinary security measures involves the question of whether or not we are at war. In time of war, the president does have broader discretion to safeguard the country, and Lincoln and FDR are among past chief executives who have wielded wartime power in bold, controversial ways. In strictly legal terms, however, there is some question as to whether the United States is at war, because Congress did not formally declare war, as is its constitutional prerogative. Today Rush Limbaugh tried to argue that the resolutions authorizing Bush to take action against states that were fomenting terrorism amounted to a declaration of war, but I heartily disagree. The resolution on Iraq in October 2002 was an explicit abdication of constitutional duty, passing the buck to President Bush. Both Congress and the White House share responsibility for this lapse, which hardly anyone besides me commented on at the time. Hopefully, the next time this country faces the decision to go to war, it will be decided upon in the halls of Congress, with a formal declaration of war if necessary. That way, there will be no "escape route" for wobbly-kneed politicians.

Posted (or last updated or commented upon): 21 Dec 2005, 12: 07 AM

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