Communication Breakdown

President Bush during his news conference Monday.
President Bush during his news conference Monday. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By David Ignatius
Friday, March 24, 2006

Now it gets painful for George W. Bush. Iraq is wrapped around his presidency as tightly as Vietnam was around Lyndon Johnson's. Bush keeps telling the country he has a plan for victory, but the polls suggest the public doesn't believe it. Those big "Plan for Victory" signs at his rally in Wheeling, W.Va., this week read more like an exhortation than a statement of fact.

Bush has lacked the tragic sensibility found in many of our great presidents. He works so hard at his show of easy informality that you rarely sense the inner man and the anguish that must be there. Watching him, you know he's wound tight even as he tries to act loose. The locker-room nicknames and the exaggerated Texas mannerisms are part of the enforced informality. The longer he stays in Washington, the more pronounced his Texas manner of droppin' his g's. It's a kind of camouflage, but it's wearing thin. This is not a president at ease.

When Bush speaks about the struggle of his presidency, it sometimes sounds as if he's talking to the mirror. Take this week's long, thinking-out-loud news conference: "I believe that my job is to go out and explain to people what's on my mind. That's why I'm having this press conference, see? I'm telling you what's on my mind. And what's on my mind is winning the war on terror." He's ready to lead, he insists; he has made a vow to the American people. To whom are these comments directed, if not himself?

The polls suggest that Bush is losing the ability to communicate effectively about the issue that matters most to him. He has a better story on Iraq than many people seem to appreciate: Iraqi politicians are in fact coming together toward a government of national unity; Iraqi troops are improving their performance; substantial reductions in the number of U.S. troops are likely this year. But to many Americans, judging by the polls, Bush's assertions sound like a broken record. His optimism comes across as happy talk.

Bush works hard to disguise it, but one senses the same inner conflict that afflicted Johnson as Vietnam began to go bad. In "The Best and the Brightest," David Halberstam described LBJ's torment: "He was a good enough politician to know what had gone wrong and what he was in for and what it meant to his dreams, but he could not turn back, he could not admit that he had made a mistake. He could not lose and thus he had to plunge forward." But, recalls Halberstam, "instead of leading, he was immobilized, surrounded, seeing critics everywhere."

It's a dangerous situation. If Bush loses his ability to convince the country that his war aims make sense, America may be forced into a hasty withdrawal that will have devastating repercussions. To avoid this outcome and maintain its strategy of a measured handoff to Iraqi forces, the administration must bridge what in Johnson's day was known as the "credibility gap." Bush could shake up his team and add new voices that can speak more convincingly to the public. Or he could reach out to moderate Democrats who support a bipartisan foreign policy, if there are any who haven't been chased off by Karl Rove. Or he could give a larger communications role to the uniformed military. The generals won't like being political frontmen, but they may prefer it to a collapse of support for the war.

On my most recent trip to Iraq, I took along a short book titled "Every War Must End," written in the 1970s by Fred Ikle, who later became a defense official in the Reagan administration. It's a haunting book, whose basic message is that starting wars is far easier than stopping them. "Cutting one's losses, although a common notion in everyday life, appears to be a particularly difficult decision for a government to reach in seeking to end a prolonged and unsuccessful war," Ikle wrote.

Ask senior military commanders what they think about Bush and they will tell you they love his toughness -- but wish the White House could communicate its Iraq strategy better. Bush has tried. All the speeches and rallies and white papers of the past few months have reflected a recognition that the public will support the war so long as it feels there is a coherent strategy for victory. That's why you hear the phrase "plan for victory" repeated so often, like a mantra to convince the public that American soldiers aren't dying in a lost cause.

But it's not working, and the president owes it to the troops, above all, to figure out a better way to communicate.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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