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Bush's New Look on Iraq: Weary

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By David Ignatius
Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Watching President Bush in recent weeks has become a grim kind of reality TV show. In almost every news conference, speech and photo opportunity, the topic is the same: what to do about the grinding war in Iraq. Bush has let the facade crack open -- admitting that his strategy for victory isn't working -- but then he struggles to rebuild it with new words of confidence.

The stress of the job -- so well hidden for much of the past six years -- has begun to show on Bush's face. He often looks burdened, distracted, haunted by a question that has no good answer. When a photographer captures him at ease, as in a sweet Texas-romance picture of Bush and his wife, Laura, that appeared in People magazine last week, it's as if he has escaped the Iraq sweatbox.

I grew up in a Washington that was struggling with the nightmare of a failing war in Vietnam. The government officials of that time were people who behaved as if they'd never known failure in their lives. They had the rosy confidence of the chosen -- "the best and the brightest," as David Halberstam put it. But then the war began to grind them down. I see that same meat grinder at work now. Bush and his officials are strong characters; they work hard not to let you see them sweat. But the anguish and exhaustion are there.

Bush is not a man for introspection. That's part of his flinty personality -- the tight, clipped answers and the forced jocularity of the nicknames he gives to reporters and White House aides. That's why this version of reality TV is so poignant: This very private man has begun to talk out loud about the emotional turmoil inside. He is letting it bleed.

Bush opened the emotional curtain at a news conference last week. A reporter noted that Lyndon Johnson hadn't been able to sleep well during the Vietnam War and asked Bush if this was a "painful time" for him. He gave an unexpectedly personal answer: "Most painful aspect of my presidency has been knowing that good men and women have died in combat. I read about it every night. And my heart breaks for a mother or father or husband or wife or son and daughter. It just does. And so when you ask about pain, that's pain."

Bush's "state of denial," as Bob Woodward rightly called it, has officially ended. He actually spoke the words "We're not winning" last week in an interview with The Post, coupling it with the reverse: "We're not losing." But in truth, he cannot abide the possibility that Iraq will not end in victory. So a day after his "not winning" comment, he half took it back, saying: "I believe that we're going to win," and then adding oddly, as if to reassure himself: "I believe that -- and by the way, if I didn't think that, I wouldn't have our troops there. That's what you've got to know. We're going to succeed."

Policy debates in this White House are often described as battles between competing advisers -- Dick Cheney wants this; the Joint Chiefs favor that; Condi Rice favors a third outcome. This kind of analysis implies that Bush isn't really master of his own house, but I think it's a big mistake. The truth is that with this president, the only opinion that finally matters is his own. And he's a stubborn man. Military leaders can tell him it's a mistake to surge troops into Baghdad, but that doesn't mean he will listen.

Bush says he doesn't care what happens now to his poll numbers, and I believe him. He broke through the political barriers a while ago. I sense that, as he anguishes about Iraq, he has in mind the judgment of future historians. He said it plainly in an interview in October with conservative talk show host Bill O'Reilly: "Look, history is interesting. I read three books on George Washington last year. And my opinion is that if they're still analyzing the first president, the 43rd president ought to be doing what he thinks is right. And eventually, historians will come and realize whether . . . the decisions I made made sense."

What makes reality TV gripping is that it's all happening live -- the contestants make their choices under pressure, win or lose. So too with Bush. He is making a vast wager -- of American lives, treasure and the nation's security -- that his judgments about Iraq were right. The Baker-Hamilton report gave him a chance to take some chips off the table, but Bush doesn't seem interested. He is still playing to win. The audience is shouting out advice, but the man under the spotlight knows he will have to make this decision alone.

The writer co-hosts, with Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues athttp://blog.washingtonpost.com/postglobal. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.


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