Hiding Behind the Troops


When the CIA tried to hit Ayman Zawahiri, Al Qaida's No. 2, with a missile fired from a Predator drone and ended up killing more than a dozen civilians as well as four or so people later identified as "foreign terrorists" in a Pakistani village near the border of Afghanistan, that was dumb.

When George W. Bush did not quickly apologize, offer compensation to the victims and announce there would be an immediate investigation, that was also dumb. For with this strike, the Bush administration essentially aided the enemy, who now can point to this episode as proof that Bush does not give a damn about innocent Muslim lives (which is what many people in the Arab world already suspect).

And this botched operation has severely undermined the Pakistani government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, revealing how Bush treats his friends and allies in the war of terrorism. Moreover, actions like this can lead one to wonder if Bush really means it when he says -- as he has frequently -- "We believe in the dignity of every human life."

If that were indeed the case, then wouldn't he be all broken up over the Pakistani civilians blown to pieces by the CIA missile? Hunting mass-murdering terrorists who live among civilians is indeed hard and nasty work, which most people find morally justifiable. ("We have to do what we think is necessary," John McCain declared on Sunday.) Then let's be frank.

Those who are willing to target a neighborhood in a far-away village -- hoping to kill a terrorist but knowing that innocent human beings may also be smashed to bits -- do not really believe in the dignity of every human life. They are willing to trade certain lives (of nameless people who happen to be villagers in a remote spot) for the results they seek.

The cost-benefit analysis may be defensible; in all wars, noncombatants are killed. But please, let's not kid ourselves. Bush and his commanders in the war on terrorism are willing to waste nonterrorists to kill terrorists. Right or wrong, that is not caring about the dignity of every life.

Now by writing this, I hope I am not violating Bush's standards for acceptable debate. After years of ignoring or deflecting criticism of his actions in Iraq and of his conduct of the so-called war on terrorism, Bush in recent months has taken a different tack. He has admitted mistakes were made -- by others, not him -- regarding the WMD intelligence. (This can be categorized as a Doh!-like concession.) And he has said that criticism of him is not out of bounds, as long as it's the right sort of criticism and doesn't, for instance, raise questions about his motives.

Last week, speaking at a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, Bush made this point once again -- and the next day added an electoral twist. Before the supportive crowd, he said:

"We must remember there is a difference between responsible and irresponsible debate -- and it's even more important to conduct this debate responsibly when American troops are risking their lives overseas. The American people know the difference between responsible and irresponsible debate when they see it."

They know the difference between honest critics who question the way the war is being prosecuted and partisan critics who claim that we acted in Iraq because of oil, or because of Israel, or because we misled the American people. And they know the difference between a loyal opposition that points out what is wrong and defeatists who refuse to see that anything is right."

I recall there were plenty of Bush supporters who never missed the chance to question Bill Clinton's motives whenever he fired a shot overseas. Remember the real-life claims of Wag the Dog? GOP opportunism notwithstanding, what's wrong with questioning Bush's motives or arguing the case that he misled the public to win support for the invasion of Iraq?

It's understandable that Bush himself may not enjoy such criticism. But he's not king -- at least not yet -- despite all the legal memos written by his Justice Department and counsel's office claiming that he can do anything he wants to and avoid (that is, break) any law while he is pursuing his commander-in-chief duties in the war on terrorism. (See the memo, "The Unitary Executive and Finding Big Brother (Implied) in the U.S. Constitution.") And recent polls have indicated that more than half of Americans believe that Bush deliberately overstated the threat from Iraq prior to the war. His motives are already under suspicion. Perhaps the American people, as Bush suggests, do know the difference between responsible and irresponsible rhetoric.

But apparently he doesn't want them to talk about it. Before the VFWers, he went on:

"When our soldiers hear politicians in Washington question the mission they are risking their lives to accomplish, it hurts their morale. In a time of war, we have a responsibility to show that whatever our political differences at home, our nation is united and determined to prevail. And we have a responsibility to our men and women in uniform -- who deserve to know that once our politicians vote to send them into harm's way, our support will be with them in good days and in bad days -- and we will settle for nothing less than complete victory."

Note the sleight of hand. Accusing Bush of misleading the nation on the reasons for war is, he says, equal to questioning the mission. In a sense, he might be right about that. It certainly is saying that the cause for which Bush has sent American men and women to the death is not what Bush claimed it to be. But here he is trying to hide behind the troops. Attack me, and you're undermining them. It's cowardly. But it sure is in sync with his l'etat-est-moi view. In this case, it's l'armee-est-moi. This is not the only spin option available to Commander Bush. He could have as easily said:

"I know there are folks out there saying mean things about me and my decision to invade Iraq. Well, fire away. I'm fair game. I can take it. But whatever anyone thinks of me and the war, I know we all agree that we should do whatever we can for the troops -- and that even my critics are with me on that."

That might be how a uniter-not-a-divider would put it. But not Bush. Speaking the next day in Louisville, Ky., he was asked by a 7-year-old, "How can people help on the war on terror?" Bush replied:

"One way people can help, as we're coming down the pike in the 2006 elections, is remember the effect that rhetoric can have on our troops in harm's way and the effect that rhetoric can have in emboldening or weakening an enemy."

So if the war in Iraq becomes an issue in this year's congressional elections, the White House is all set to point an accusatory finger and scold, "Partisan lips sink ships." It's their counterattack, and Bush has started test-driving it in a pre-emptive fashion. Four years ago, as I wrote about recently, Bush campaigned for GOP candidates and claimed that Democrats were "not interested in the security of the American people."

Nowadays, the president is suggesting that he would view similarly harsh rhetoric directed toward him (as opposed to the Democrats) as an attack on "the mission" and a threat to the troops. I might consider suggesting that rank hypocrisy is at work, and that only not-to-be-trusted scoundrels shield their political backsides with the troops. But I don't want to embolden the enemy.

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