Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Where Leadership Naps

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Where valor sleeps. I will say this for President Bush – despite his infamous reputation for sometimes mangling the English language, he has speech writers who sure can craft a poetic turn of phrase. The President made his yearly trip yesterday to Arlington National Cemetery, where he laid a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He referred to that hallowed ground as the place "where valor sleeps."

Bush then called upon "our responsibility as Americans to preserve the memory of the fallen." In words recalling those of Lincoln at Gettysburg, he promised that we, the living, "will honor them by completing the mission for which they gave their lives – by defeating the terrorists, by advancing the cause of liberty, and by laying the foundation of peace for a generation of young Americans."

When Bush began his first term, some mocked his appearances at Arlington as hypocritical, There’s More... Expand Postsaying he had used service in the Texas Air National Guard to avoid serving in combat. Frankly, I find myself nostalgic for those old charges of mere hypocrisy. Six years into his Administration, Bush is very much the "war President" of his own styling. He is/has been the Commander in Chief over a series of conflicts that have left thousands of U.S. servicemen and servicewomen dead and the same true for tens of thousands of other countries.

His words, as always, are stirring when he speaks of the ultimate triumph of liberty over tyranny. His actions, however, weave a different story – one of ineffectual dithering.

In Iraq, the military there has (as quietly as possible) announced that it is deploying the main reserve fighting force for Iraq, a full thirty-five hundred member armored brigade, as well as about fifteen hundred troops from a reserve force in Kuwait, into the volatile Anbar province. Their goal is to help maintain order, since a surge of terrorist violence has severely damaged efforts to turn Sunni tribal leaders against the insurgency. "[Al-Quaida's] Zarqawi is the one who is in control [here]," a Sunni sheik told the Washington Post. "We have stopped meetings with the Americans, because, frankly speaking, we have lost confidence in the U.S. side, as they can't protect us."

Uncontained violence is, of course, a problem everywhere in Iraq. Yesterday, insurgent bombings and other attacks killed more than forty people in Baghdad and around the country.

Meanwhile, the Marine Corps are conducting two separate investigations – one into the initial incident and another into whether it was the subject of a cover-up – of the possible death of fifteen unarmed civilians at the hands of U.S. soldiers in the western Iraqi city of Haditha.

Of course, Iraq is an ongoing conflict. How about Afghanistan, where we supposedly won? A recent traffic incident in Kabul involving a U.S. convoy kicked off riots in which crowds chanted "Death to America" and over a hundred people died. Much of the violence was organized by members of the Taliban, a group rapidly re-gaining popularity within Afghanistan. The democratic values embodied by President Karzai have been slow to catch on. Poverty and religious intolerance remain everyday facts of life for its citizens. "Democracy is just talk here," said an anonymous Afghan Christian, ". . . Islamic extremists control the government."

This is meant as no post-Memorial Day screed against our troops. I join the President in honoring those who have fought and are fighting in Iraq and elsewhere as having "acted with principle and steadfast faith." This is an all-volunteer military, after all. The vast majority of its members are not merely obeying orders but serving gladly and in support of what they believe to be a just cause.

Let us grant them that premise. Whatever our disagreements over the origins and justifications for the war in Iraq, the discontent in this country over that war can find common ground in the senseless way the noble sacrifices of our fighting men and women are being underused by the current Administration.

Never mind Bush the cowboy or Bush the warmonger. What about Bush the Commander in Chief? Here the divisiveness of partisan politics can fall away to be replaced by evaluation based on the facts. Even as the President called upon us yesterday to remember the honored dead, he had earlier signed the Respect for America's Fallen Heroes Act, a law just passed by Congress largely in response to the anti-gay demonstrations of a single Kansas church group at military funerals. Yet it symbolically represents the divide between this President's words and actions regarding war.

The other day at a join press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush admitted to some "mistakes" regarding Iraq. But perhaps his biggest insight came when he talked about why public sentiment was running against the war – "I mean, when you turn on your TV screen and see innocent people die day in and day out, it affects the mentality of our country," he said. I do not doubt the President believes in the worth of this war. His chief hypocrisy comes in how he presents it to the rest of us.

Bush wants us to acknowledge, honor, and accept without question his leadership in the conduct of the war as well as the sacrifices of the soldiers fighting it for him. Yet it is a sacrifice that he prefers kept in the abstract to the greatest degree possible. He proclaims that "America has always gone to war reluctantly, because we know the costs of war." But as Jon Meacham points out in Newsweek, he misses the point there is "no such thing as a 'small' war."

Almost more than any other events in our history, what we chose to fight for and whom we chose to stand against have had a way of defining our national character. The Revolution was for self-determination. The Civil War was a stand on both the supremacy of our country as a whole over the sum of its parts and the value of each individual within it. The Mexican War and Spanish-American War were for conquest, expansion, and empire. World War II was a stance against fascism. Korea and Vietnam had their places in (attempting to) check communism within the Cold War.

The difference between success and failure in any of those ventures had less to do with the purity or soundness of their individual aims – all had merits in their own ways – and owed more to the understanding by wise leadership when the fight was too much or not enough.

President Bush is a man in a crucible. He is caught between current public sentiment to stand down in Iraq and the fervent belief of his core supporters that victory there is vital to not only this country's safety but also the history of the free world. Attempting to bring openness to the Middle East is not a bad goal. If military might is how the President believes it can best happen, he should prosecute that to the fullest extent, even at the sacrifice of his own popularity or that of his Party. If he has come to believe he is mistaken, he must act to bring the troops home.

Either way he must lead. Bush is doing neither. Instead, he continues to talk up holding the status quo in the hopes that a miracle occurs or at least that the opposition can be held off through the mid-term elections this November. In the meanwhile, our troops continue dying at a slow but steady pace. We know that they are honorable and faithful. Many of us believe in the aims for which they serve and for which some give the ultimate sacrifice.

"Liberty is always the achievement of courage," said the President in his speech yesterday to great applause. True enough but it also not enough in and of itself. It also takes leadership. We need to stop labeling criticism about the latter as attacks on the former. To die in defense of a good cause is nobility itself. To do so needlessly however, no matter how good the cause, is simply a tragedy. Arlington may indeed be the place where valor sleeps. Yet that valor rests uneasily when, across the Potomac River, the Oval Office has become the place where leadership naps.