Why Bush Stays Away

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President Bush's secret visit to Baghdad dramatized his commitment to the war and the troops. But it has not put to rest criticism that he has been unwilling to pay the proper respect to those who fought and died. "It's absolutely appropriate to be honoring our soldiers overseas in battle on a day like Thanksgiving," said Chris Lehane, a top adviser to presidential candidate Wesley Clark. But that's not sufficient. "It is more important to honor them every day," including "to appropriately honor the heroes coming back in caskets."

As dead American soldiers have come back from Iraq, Bush has been heavily criticized for not attending a single funeral and not once going to Dover Air Force Base to receive the coffins. One columnist wrote acidly that Bush has time to go around the country to do fund raisers but no time to receive the dead, cynically keeping election-season distance from the terrible consequences of his Iraq policy.

When 19 Italians were killed in Nasiriyah, they returned home to a dramatic public ceremony attended by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. If Italy, why not America?

Because Italy is not America. The U.S. is carrying the fight at the epicenter of the war, the Sunni triangle. Italy is not. Loss for Italy has been (thus far) but a single event. American losses are daily, constant.

To be fair to the fallen, the President would have to be at Dover nearly every day. Why this soldier, why this patrol, why the crew of this shot-down helicopter and not another?

But it is more than a question of arbitrariness. It is a question of strategy. There is a war going on. The insurgents represent the remnants of a regime of torture and repression. They have no chance whatsoever of engendering a popular uprising. They have only one way of winning: by making U.S. casualties so painful that America decides to give up and go home.

That is the enemy's entire war objective: to inflict pain. And that is why it would be a strategic error to amplify and broadcast that pain by making great public shows of sorrow presided over by the President himself. In the midst of an ongoing war, a guerrilla war, a war that will be won and lost as a contest of wills, the Commander in Chief — despite what he feels in his heart — must not permit himself to show that he bleeds. He is required to show, yes, a certain callousness. He must appear that way to the insurgents, who will otherwise be encouraged to think their strategy is succeeding and therefore have yet more incentive to keep killing Americans until it does. And he must appear that way to ordinary Iraqis, who will not help us in this fight unless they are sure that the pain of our losses will not drive us out and leave them to the tender mercies of the Saddamites.

Of course the President cares. Presidents always care. But they can care too much. President Reagan cared desperately, obsessively about the American hostages in Beirut. He sold weapons to Iran, undermined his own war on terrorism and almost destroyed his presidency trying to get the hostages back. It was a terrible mistake. He should have instead adopted a steely callousness and refused to bargain.

Of course this President cares. Bush has met privately with families and has written a letter to every one. And during his Thanksgiving Day address to the troops in Baghdad, he paid tribute to their fallen comrades. In the middle of a war, that is how the Commander in Chief can best honor the dead — in the context not of mourning but of resolve; with acknowledgment of loss, but within a larger demonstration of defiance.

Bush's critics charge he is avoiding any public identification with the returning dead so as not to jeopardize his re-election. It is a scurrilous charge, and demonstrably false. Do the following thought experiment: imagine the election is not a year from now but was held a week ago. The President is re-elected. He is a lame duck and will never run for office again. Is there any doubt that he would continue precisely the same policy of not making public shows of grief?

No doubt whatsoever. The reasons have everything to do with winning the war. The enemy knows America's weakness — a general aversion to war, stemming largely from a profound concern for the individual. The enemy knows our aversion to casualties led us to withdraw not just from Vietnam but from Somalia and Beirut, where our losses were infinitely smaller.

In the end, the best way to honor the dead is to vindicate their sacrifice by winning the war so they will not have died in vain. And this war will be won only when Iraqis are convinced that America, while grieving, will not retreat. This requires — and the paradox is cruel — muting public presidential displays of grief until the war is done.