What's wrong with George W. Bush? Doesn't he know America has already been defeated in Iraq? Doesn't he realize that as a lame-duck president he's just conducting a holding operation? Doesn't the man keep up with the opinion polls? Hasn't he noticed the growing tide the tidal wave, really of anti-war sentiment? Shouldn't it have dawned on him even in his snug presidential cocoon that, at this low point in his presidency, there's no hope he'll regain the country's confidence? Doesn't he read The New York Times? Doesn't he listen to NPR?
As the gory pictures and sobering casualty counts continue to arrive from Iraq and Afghanistan, too this president has sunk almost as low in the polls as Harry Truman did during the last, grinding months of the Korean War.
Then, too, nobody who was anybody in the American establishment, or who hoped to be, could muster much hope for the American cause. How can George W. Bush ignore what is equally obvious today? Doesn't he know the war is lost and has been lost for some time?
Apparently not. Because instead of throwing in the towel, the president showed up Wednesday in Kansas City to defend his views before the Veterans of Foreign Wars. You wouldn't call it a fighting speech like the ones an always-scrappy Harry Truman could be counted on to deliver no matter what the crisis at hand. It was more like one of those Fireside Chats favored by FDR when the news was not the best, and the country hungered for hope.
This president, too, sounded resolute but thoughtful. He was taking the long view, maybe because the short one is so dismal. Which means he had recourse to history. That meant historical analogies, which, even when they are debatable, lend a certain perspective to an otherwise overwhelming present.
Our cause is hopeless, we're told, for the peoples of the Middle East are congenitally incapable of what we in the West think of as freedom. Liberty, it's explained, is a culturally determined quality, and it's futile to think it can ever take solid roots in those inhospitable climes. Does the argument sound familiar? It will to any student of modern American history. As critics of American foreign policy once warned us, democracy would never work in a country like Japan or in South Korea, either.
To quote Mr. Bush: "Many times in the decades that followed World War II, American policy in Asia was dismissed as hopeless and naive. And when we listen to criticism of the difficult work our generation is undertaking in the Middle East today, we can hear the echoes of the same arguments made about the Far East years ago. In the aftermath of Japan's surrender, many thought it naive to help the Japanese transform themselves into a democracy. Then as now, the critics argued that some people were simply not fit for freedom."
Those critics included the usual phalanx of learned experts the kind that still populate the diplomatic corps and academic halls, the Brent Scrowcrofts of their day. To quote Joseph C. Grew, the former American ambassador to Japan who was Harry Truman's under-secretary of state, "democracy in Japan would never work."
Well, we now know how expert the experts proved: Japan is not only a thriving democracy today, but one of our strongest allies. The jeremiads of the "realists" proved unrealistic.
Analogies are dangerous; they can be stretched too far. Japan is not in the Middle East. (You'll find my geography impeccable.) Nor is it Middle Eastern in culture or history or in much of any other way.
But this much the advance of freedom in the Land of the Rising Sun has in common with much of recent American history: The experts said it couldn't be done, whether it was winning the Cold War, ending the nuclear arms race, or freeing the captive nations in thrall to an Evil Empire.
Sure enough, the day after Mr. Bush's address to the veterans in Kansas City, The New York Times rolled out the usual bevy of experts to prove the president's historical analogies hopelessly flawed.
Anyway, what about Vietnam, that graveyard of American hopes? Wasn't our defeat there inevitable? Here, too, Mr. Bush challenged conventional assumptions. For history is made by men and the choices men make.
Those who believe we can simply pack up and leave Iraq, perhaps declaring peace with honor as Richard Nixon did in Vietnam, may reap much the same result that president did: defeat with dishonor. This president warned that the carnage and suffering that followed America's defeat in Vietnam might be duplicated on an even larger and more disastrous scale if the United States gave up in Iraq.
Even if this country could withdraw its forces from Iraq at once (a logistical impossibility) the threat from al-Qaida and its various allies would not cease. Indeed, it would be intensified, for Osama bin Laden and far-flung company could again use a failed state as a base of operations, as they once did Afghanistan. The result: Terrorism would be even more of a clear and present danger to our security.
Al-Qaida, and its associates and sympathizers throughout the Islamic world and beyond, understand very well what is at stake in Iraq and Afghanistan and what a glorious opportunity an American defeat there would give them. Do we?
As the president noted Wednesday in Kansas City, we aren't engaged today in what one expert called a clash of civilizations; it's a struggle for civilization.