Two More Years
By PAUL KRUGMAN
At a reception following the midterm election, President Bush approached Senator-elect James Webb.
"How's your boy?" asked Mr. Bush.
"I'd like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President," replied Mr. Webb, whose son, a Marine lance corporal, is risking his life in Mr. Bush's war of choice.
"That's not what I asked you," the president snapped. "How's your boy?"
"That's between me and my boy, Mr. President," said Mr. Webb.
Good for him. We need people in Washington who are willing to stand up to the bully in chief. Unfortunately, and somewhat mysteriously, they're still in short supply.
You can understand, if not condone, the way the political and media establishment let itself be browbeaten by Mr. Bush in his post-9/11 political prime. What's amazing is the extent to which insiders still cringe before a lame duck with a 60 percent disapproval rating.
Look at what seems to have happened to the Iraq Study Group, whose mission statement says that it would provide an "independent assessment." If press reports are correct, the group did nothing of the sort. Instead, it watered down its conclusions and recommendations, trying to come up with something Mr. Bush wouldn't reject out of hand.
In particular, says Newsweek, the report "will set no timetables or call for any troop reductions." All it will do is "suggest that the president could, not should, begin to withdraw forces in the vaguely defined future."
And all this self-abasement is for naught. Senior Bush aides, Newsweek tells us, are "dismissive, even condescending" toward James Baker, the Bush family consigliere who is the dominant force in the study group, and the report. Of course they are. That's how bullies always treat their hangers-on.
Even now, it seems, the wise men of Washington can't bring themselves to face up to two glaringly obvious truths.
The first is that Americans are fighting and dying in Iraq for no reason.
It's true that terrible things will happen when U.S. forces withdraw. Mr. Bush was attacking a straw man when he mocked those who think we can make a "graceful exit" from Iraq. Everyone I know realizes that the civil war will get even worse after we're gone, and that there will probably be a bloody bout of ethnic cleansing that effectively partitions the country into hostile segments.
But nobody--not even Donald Rumsfeld, it turns out--thinks we're making progress in Iraq. So the same terrible things that would happen if we withdrew soon will still happen if we delay that withdrawal for two, three or more years. The only difference is that we'll sacrifice many more American lives along the way.
The second truth is that the war will go on all the same, unless something or someone forces Mr. Bush to change course.
During his recent trip to Vietnam, Mr. Bush was asked whether there were any lessons from that conflict for Iraq. His response: "We'll succeed unless we quit."
It was a bizarre answer given both the history of the Vietnam War and the facts on the ground in Iraq, but it makes perfect sense given what we know about Mr. Bush's character. He has never been willing to own up to mistakes, however trivial. If he were to accept the failure of his adventure in Iraq, he would be admitting, at least implicitly, to having made the mother of all mistakes.
So Mr. Bush will keep sending other men's children off to fight his war. And he'll always insist that Iraq would have been a great victory if only his successors had shared his steely determination.
Does this mean that we're doomed to at least two more years of bloody futility? Not necessarily. Last month the public delivered a huge vote of no confidence in Mr. Bush and his war. He's still the commander in chief, but the new majority in Congress can put a lot of pressure on him to at least begin a withdrawal.
I'm worried, however, that Democrats may have counted on the Iraq Study Group to provide them with political cover. Now that the study group has apparently wimped out, will the Democrats do the same?
Well, here's a question for those who might be tempted, yet again, to shy away from a confrontation with Mr. Bush over Iraq: How do you ask a man to be the last to die for a bully's ego?