Bush's Truman Show

War turns into performance art, as Bush strikes the pose of Harry Truman.


George Bush's Oval Office speech suggested it. And his 60 Minutes performance cinched it: The increased deployment of American troops to Iraq is principally about showing the world that George Bush is still in charge. Congress may have changed hands, but Bush has not changed his mind.

On the surface this effort may look like clumsy agitprop. After all, inviting the old-guard yet still potent network news mag along for an exclusive walk in the woods with the president to hear the president insist he doesn't care what anyone thinks is a little transparent. But the dodgy staging has had the desired effect on the rest of the world.

For example, a BCC headline reads, "Bush stands firm over Iraq policy," while an L.A. Times dispatch read, "Congress can't stop buildup, Bush says." The latter is an important consideration for foreign audiences more familiar with parliamentary government. They might have expected the November election to have had some impact on the American executive branch. Message: Not a chance.

Another major theme is reflected in a headline out of Australia, "Bush warns Iran to keep clear of Iraq." A huge part of Bush's target audience is the ruling class in Tehran. In keeping with the consistent Bush administration theme that the Middle East must always be dealt with via grand gestures of strength, Bush is making it clear that on his word alone America can and will send 20,000 troops to war on Iran's doorstep. Another aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf wouldn't be much trouble, either.

And if critics see Bush bunkering down LBJ style circa 1968 or Richard Nixon taking a war next door via executive order, it is clear the Bush team draws inspiration not from the messy narrative of the Vietnam war, but from the righteously linear conflict in Korea. The bad guys attacked, the U.S. and its allies responded, had some initial success, then some setbacks, even some command troubles, but stayed the course and rallied for, if not victory, at least a respectable draw.

Harry Truman, like Bush, was very unpopular among domestic audiences while he has trying to prosecute a limited, preventative war in a far-off, strange land. Like Truman, Bush is absolutely convinced that America is fighting an ideological struggle against an implacable foe. But Truman had the bad luck to fight his war while trying to run a presidential campaign. His political career crashed and burned in a New Hampshire primary. Bush has no such notoriously picky and feckless audience left to win over.

And if you squint very hard toward Somalia you can also see the outlines of a Bush administration flanking maneuver. Nowhere near as direct and bold as Douglas MacArthur's landings at Inchon, but alike in that both seek to use tremendous American resources in air and naval power to reach beyond stagnated front lines and surprise an outclassed foe.

Unfortunately for Bush, a more nimble, global response also recalls the road not taken. The March 2003 invasion of Iraq did not have to have regime change as its primary objective. Any perceived terror or WMD threat to the U.S. could have been neutralized without reference to American responsibility for running the entire country.

Instead, Bush took on the role of a 19th century balance-of-power imperialist. America would raise up, tacitly at first, an Arab Shiite counterbalance to Iran's Persian Shiite power. Now subtlety is out the window when it comes to Iraq. The U.S stands squarely the middle with a Shiite government, trying to shield it from a Sunni insurgency while keeping even more radical Shiite elements at arm's length.

Oddly enough, if you follow the Bush script, this is where the rally begins. Like his generals in Baghdad, Bush is ringed with enemies in Washington. Bush doesn't find this daunting. He finds it liberating -- comforting even. He finally has the conflict out in the open, with all the threads coming together for a final act.

No wonder Bush can tell his audience with such conviction, "I'm blessed to be the president."