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Richard Cohen

More Prudence, Less 'Projection'

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, September 28, 2004; Page A27

In the faraway past, I was a psych major in college, and it was then that I discovered the useful word "projection." It was, as I recall, the tendency to assign to others the attributes or faults you had within yourself. I have in the intervening years moved on to journalism, but I still know projection when I see it. George Bush projects all over the place.

He does so most prominently when he accuses John Kerry of endangering Americans at home and, most important, troops overseas by engaging, as a presidential candidate should, in criticism of the current administration. Recently Bush set the tone for his administration and the more opportunistic members of the GOP by saying that Kerry's criticisms of the war in Iraq "can embolden the enemy." It goes without saying that emboldening the enemy is dangerous to our troops. It is very close to treason.

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Something similar has been said for some time by Vice President Cheney, who warned three weeks ago that a Kerry victory would make the United States more susceptible to a terrorist attack and then, in the manner of a shyster lawyer who knows he will be overruled, took it back. He misspoke -- and he has since done so repeatedly. Also misspeaking is Sen. Orrin Hatch, who told Fox News that "Democrats are consistently saying things that I think undermine our young men and women who are serving over there." This, too, would be tantamount to treason on the part of the Democrats -- or maybe it's just stupidity on Hatch's part. Please ponder the matter.

All this solicitude for the welfare of the troops is both touching and a bit late in coming. It would have been the better part of prudence not to have gone to war in the first place. Barring that, it would have been prudent to wait until our traditional allies were as convinced as we were that Iraq was bristling with weapons of mass destruction. Even if no weapons of mass destruction were ever found, the United States still might have convinced some other important nations (besides Britain) that Saddam Hussein's repeated violations of U.N. resolutions had to be addressed. Sooner or later the world really does have to put up or shut up.

Still more solicitude for the troops might have been shown if the Bush administration had worried over its war plan a bit more. The compulsion to fight the war on the cheap meant too few troops and, once Baghdad was taken, too much chaos. The unforgivably arrogant conviction that Iraqis would embrace U.S. troops as liberators and would somehow break out in song also cost the United States lives. I doubt if any after-action report listed a single cause of death as being attributable to "criticism from home." Karl Rove may want to do something about that.

Even now there are not enough troops to do the job, an assertion made not by me but by some smart people at the Pentagon. Too few troops means that the situation in Iraq is more dangerous than it needs to be. That needs to be pointed out, not muffled. After all, lives are truly at stake.

The invocation of "the troops" to smother criticism is beyond contempt. It dehumanizes them, turning them into a political device to advance the campaign and to secure, if possible, another little slice of the electorate. It does not show, as Bush must think, a special solicitude for them but just the opposite. They are grist for his reelection.

Could it be that Bush's low blows -- and the cheap shots of others -- are uttered in total sincerity? It's possible. Bush has acknowledged almost no mistakes in the way he took the nation to war, pronounced an early victory -- and made a total mess of it. The president is not known for introspection or, for that matter, for much thought, and it could be that he actually thinks that by debating the war, Kerry is trifling with perfection. If that is the case, then he is agog in an Oz of his own.

It's more likely -- at least more rational -- that Bush senses that something has gone terribly wrong in Iraq but that if Kerry is silenced, no one will much notice. The president must, in some nagging way like a mild itch, recognize that it is his mistakes -- not Kerry's language -- that have cost American lives. In Bush's case, projection is both understandable and Shakespearean. In the words of Hamlet's guilt-ridden mother, he "doth protest too much."


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