A Simple Cure for Iraq Fatigue

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Last week George W. Bush and John Kerry gave major foreign policy speeches, and I agreed with just about everything each man said, which means they probably didn't say much of anything useful. President Bush laid out a five-point plan for Iraq; Senator Kerry laid out a four-point global foreign policy. Both speeches were resolute on terrorism and honest about our responsibilities to the Iraqi people. Both speeches were nattily written. Bush included some of his usual eloquent freedom riffs. Kerry's language was clear and clean, for a change. And yet, both speeches were dispiriting for their high-minded abstractions.

Then again, maybe I just wasn't in much of a mood to listen to speechifying about the international mess last week—certainly not to grand expositions of doctrine and principle tethered only vaguely to the horrors on the ground. My guess is, you're losing patience with being orated at as well. Some evidence: An abc News/Washington Post poll tracked "emotional responses" to the situation in Iraq. The "emotions" measured sounded like a Postmodern parade of Snow White's dwarfs: Angry, Hopeful, Proud, Worried and Frightened. Angry had almost doubled, from 30% to 57%, since March. Hopeful and Proud had taken a hit (although Hopeful was a still robust 62%—this is, after all, America). Worried was 67%; Frightened, 37%. If Frustrated had been included, it might have scored 110%. Embarrassed would have done well too. Indeed, Angry is a bit vague for my taste. At whom? The President? The terrorists? The media? The French? All the above? On the other hand, anger, the experts say, is a primary cause of psychological depression. And most of the people I know, especially those following the situation in Iraq closely, are not feeling very peppy these days.

The fact is, America's sense of itself has taken a stunning blow. We are still recovering from the last week of April, when the Abu Ghraib photos were revealed and the U.S. military chose not to fight the Islamic radicals in Fallujah (a retreat compounded by last week's decision not to pursue Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army). Taken together, those events represent a coherent pattern of behavior—that of a schoolyard bully, who tortures the weak and runs away from the strong. This is, sadly, the way Abu Ghraib and Fallujah are perceived by our enemies. I was traveling through the Middle East as some of these events unfolded, and so the embarrassment I felt was direct and intense. The experience has been more oblique for most Americans, if no less intense. Think of the images—not just the torture photos but also the Saddamite general riding proudly into Fallujah and, of course, the beheading of Nicholas Berg. This is, literally, the stuff of nightmares; it is difficult to assimilate emotionally. And neither the President nor John Kerry seems able to acknowledge the souring American mood.

John Kerry has been reticent about Iraq. He mentioned it only in passing last week. But those who say he needs to propose his own "solution" to the problem, or join those Democrats who are simplistically calling for a quick withdrawal, are off the mark. He has proposed a solution—greater reliance on the U.N.—and the Bush Administration is busy adopting it. What he hasn't done is make an emotional connection with the public. He seems incapable of providing comfort or reassurance, or even of speaking in a nonhortatory tone of voice. Worse, by steering clear of Iraq he seems to be making a political calculation about a profound moral issue (stay silent while Bush is hanging himself ). A basic rule for Kerry should be: Anything that makes him seem like a politician is bad, no matter how efficacious; anything that makes him seem like a statesman is good, no matter how risky.

The President has a far more difficult problem, and quite the opposite of Kerry's. He got us into this mess. He has continually explained the war in platitudes. His imprecise idealism is not only inappropriate now, but has become downright annoying. His five-point plan is built on the quicksand of Ambassador L. Paul Bremer's failed seven-point plan—and it bears little resemblance to the emerging realities on the ground. The truth is, we are in full-scale retreat, both politically and militarily. Bush believes that Iraq is the front line in the war on terrorism, but his Administration just declared a truce with the men he thinks of as terrorists and is now turning security over to local militias. Politically, we have tossed the ball to Lakhdar Brahimi and the U.N. But even Brahimi doesn't have much stroke. The real governing authority in Iraq appears to be the Grand Ayatullah Ali Husaini Sistani, who dictated the al-Sadr solution last week, and in effect vetoed the interim constitution the U.S. proposed and will, no doubt, have final say over Brahimi's new government. The President pretends that none of this is happening. Most Americans sense the President is just pretending, and they are impatiently waiting for someone to say something real.