As visual metaphors go, it was a lavishly gilded lily of an image, a hanging curveball across the plate, a George Tenet-style slam-dunk: A weary President Bush, trying to escape a news conference in Beijing on Sunday, strides away from the microphone to a pair of locked doors, which he pulls and tugs in vain. No exit, the image screamed. No way out. Of course, George Bush will inevitably get out of the mess he has made -- he leaves office in three years and two months, not that anyone's counting. But the rest of us will be left with his handiwork: crushing national debt, rising economic inequality, a poisoned political atmosphere and, oh, yes, the war in Iraq. We're the ones trapped in the dark with no exit sign in sight.
As the debate over the war grows in passion and bitterness, the administration can't seem to settle on the right way to answer its critics. Last week the party line was that attacking the war was somehow beyond the pale. The president quickly endorsed Vice President Cheney's snarling sound bite -- that it was "dishonest and reprehensible" to suggest that anyone cooked the prewar intelligence on Iraq. And when Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) called for a withdrawal of U.S. troops, the White House response was to link the 73-year-old decorated Vietnam veteran with filmmaker Michael Moore and the "extreme liberal wing of the Democratic Party."
House Republicans dutifully followed the script and went on the attack, but before the weekend was over the White House had changed tack. Now the line is that criticism is to be expected in a democracy, even criticism of the war. The president is all but sprinkling Murtha with rose petals.
Even Cheney, the hawks' hawk, managed to turn conciliatory. Sort of. In a speech yesterday, he swallowed his castor oil: "I do not believe it is wrong to criticize the war on terror or any aspect thereof," he said, going on to describe Murtha as "a good man, a Marine, a patriot." He then repeated his "dishonest and reprehensible" line to describe those who would impugn the administration's honesty, and went on to give the same muddled rationale for U.S. Iraq policy that we've heard in the past. The fact is that the White House is losing the public debate over Iraq -- and it's not hard to understand why.
Cheney's umbrage aside, there are legitimate questions about whether the nation was snowed into a costly war. Even if you give the administration the benefit of the doubt and assume that the prewar intelligence failures stemmed from incompetence, not dishonesty, there's still no defense for the mistakes that were made in the conduct of the war. And the abuses that have been committed in the name of the United States -- arbitrary and indefinite detention, wholesale flouting of the Geneva Conventions, a string of secret prisons, interrogation by torture, Abu Ghraib -- should result in more people being sent to jail than a couple of ill-trained enlisted reservists.
The administration is losing the public debate because of its many missteps and failures, but also because of its insistence on conflating the war in Iraq with the larger "war on terror." Does anyone understand what "war on terror" means? The country was attacked by a murderous association of Islamic fundamentalists led by Osama bin Laden. Last we heard, he was still alive and well, probably in some cave in northwestern Pakistan. That's a long way from Iraq.
The president says that Iraq is a test of our nation's resolve, that anything less than victory will confirm the enemy's view that America lacks the stomach for a fight. But "stay the course" doesn't play as a strategy when the course seems to lead nowhere. What is victory in Iraq? When will we know we've won? When the simmering, low-level civil war we've ignited sparks into full flame and somebody takes over the country? When a new government in Baghdad declares its eternal brotherhood and friendship with Tehran?
The mess that George Bush and Co. have created in Iraq doesn't have an unmessy solution. Murtha's plan -- just get out -- isn't really attractive, but at least it's a plan. The saying goes that when you're in a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging. But the president, like the optimistic kid in the old joke, just keeps burrowing deeper into the pile of manure, even though by now we can be pretty sure that there's no pony down there.