The Empty Room
April 9, 2004

Condi Rice was in Washington trying to pass her oral exam before the 9/11 commission yesterday, and the president was on vacation in Texas. As usual, they were in close agreement, this time on the fact that neither they nor anyone else in this remarkably aloof and arrogant administration is responsible for the tragic mess unfolding in Iraq, and its implications for the worldwide war on terror.

The president called Ms. Rice from his pickup truck on the ranch to tell her she had done a great job before the panel.

Mr. President, there's a war on. You might consider hopping a plane to Washington.

It's hard to imagine that the news out of Iraq could be more dreadful. After the loss of at least 634 American troops and the expenditure of countless billions of dollars, we've succeeded in getting the various Iraqi factions to hate us more than they hate each other. And terrorists are leaping on the situation in Iraq like rats feasting on a mound of exposed cheese.

The administration has no real plan on how to proceed. It doesn't know how many troops are needed. It doesn't know, in the long term, where they will come from. It doesn't know whether it can meet the June 30 deadline for turning over sovereignty to the Iraqis. (It doesn't know what sovereignty in this context even means. June 30 was an arbitrary date selected with this year's presidential campaign in mind.) It doesn't have a cadre of Iraqi leaders to accept the handoff of sovereignty. And so on.

When you open the door to get a look at the Bush policy on Iraq, you find yourself staring into an empty room.

Meanwhile, people are dying.

When the president challenged Iraqi militants last summer with the now-famous taunt "bring 'em on," he betrayed a fundamental lack of understanding of the horror of war in general, and the incredible complexity of the situation in Iraq.

Instead of behaving as though he is responsible, as commander in chief, for the life of every man and woman who is sent into combat, Mr. Bush has behaved on more than one occasion as though he's at the controls of a video game. He does not appear to be taking this great tragedy nearly as seriously as he should.

Perhaps if he went to a few fewer fund-raisers and a few more funerals . . .

One of the things soldiers on the ground in Vietnam learned is that while there were many South Vietnamese who were genuinely fearful of the Communist North and were anxious to embrace the values that the U.S. stood for, it was difficult to get them to fight for their freedom with the ferocity that the Americans expected. Among other things, we underestimated the strength of the ethnic and cultural bonds that the Vietnamese felt with one another, whatever their political inclinations.

When the Americans - foreigners - with their superior technology and firepower went to work tearing up the landscape and mowing down the enemy (not to mention the so-called collateral damage of innocent South Vietnamese civilians), any chance of winning the hearts and minds of the country at large was lost.

Now we are trying to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis with an unprovoked war that began with a televised bombing campaign advertised to the world as "shock and awe," and that continues with the devastating firepower of Super Cobra helicopters and laser-guided missiles.

Thousands of innocent Iraqis have died, including small children, but we don't seem to give that much thought. And we've insisted, despite profound cultural and religious differences, that we are going to install an American-style democracy, whether the various elements of the Iraqi people want it or not. And we're going to do it fast.

Mr. Bush and his advisers need to regroup and rethink this fiasco. If we were dealt this hand in a poker game, we'd fold. But with 135,000 troops on the ground and no real Iraqi government in sight, that's not an option.

It's heartbreaking to think that brave American troops have once again been put into such an untenable situation. The president, who led us into this wholly unnecessary war, has an obligation to step up and level with the American people, to take full responsibility for the current disaster and to summon help from a genuine international coalition, which is the only feasible route to a resolution in Iraq.