Wartime president

April 08, 2005|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - One of President Bush's first declarations after 9/11 was that the United States was in a war on terrorism, making him a wartime president.

He was right to declare himself as such in going after Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.

Without completing that job, he also earned the right to identify himself as a wartime president by starting the war in Iraq, though inaccurately tying Iraq to the events of 9/11 and thus to that legitimate war on terrorism.

Finally, in invading Iraq with the stated purpose of ridding the world of weapons of mass destruction that had nothing to do with 9/11, he made Iraq a breeding ground for terrorists. In horse racing, you would call it a trifecta.

As a wartime president, Mr. Bush has been much better at getting us into a war than conducting one. He compares poorly to previous wartime presidents who mobilized the country and called for major sacrifices at home to win the war.

In reading Winston Churchill's volumes on World War II, one is struck by the joint leadership of Mr. Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt in putting their countries on a wartime footing and personally engaging themselves in nearly every aspect of the effort to defeat fascism.

Among the things they did that Mr. Bush has not done was to harness their nations' industrial might to turn out an immense arsenal that converted their countries from peacetime societies to military machines focused on a single goal.

They made all of their countrymen, and women, soldiers in the war, either in uniform through conscription or voluntarism at the fronts or in factories at home in a united national campaign for victory. They rationed gas, food and other essentials on the home front and encouraged "victory gardens" in every small backyard patch.

Among the things they didn't do was tell the homefolks to go about business as usual while continuing tax breaks for the rich and omitting from their budgets the costs of the war they were waging, leaving it for future generations to worry about.

In the Korean War, the U.S. intervention without a congressional declaration of war was euphemized as a "police action," as if that made it any less a war. It could be said today, because of the continuing insurgency in Iraq, that Mr. Bush is waging a police action while dealing with it as if it is a war. But who wants to be known as a police action president?

To contain the insurgency, our wartime president now has 142,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, with American deaths of more than 1,500 and 11,000-plus other casualties. He has asked Congress for $419.3 billion in military spending for the next fiscal year, and that doesn't include the money for Iraq and Afghanistan.

A challenger to this approach to the war on terrorism is Charles V. Pena, director of defense policy at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. "Although President Bush claims Iraq is the central front in the war on terrorism," Mr. Pena wrote in a policy analysis, "the truth is that ridding the world of Saddam Hussein's brutal regime did not eliminate an al-Qaida sanctuary or a primary source of support for the terrorist group."

In the future, he writes, "the military's role in the war on terrorism will mainly involve special operations forces in discrete missions against specific targets, not conventional warfare aimed at overthrowing entire regimes. The rest of the war aimed at dismantling and degrading the al-Qaida terrorist network will require unprecedented intelligence and law enforcement cooperation, not expensive new planes, helicopters and warships."

Such an approach might not keep the war on terrorism, and our wartime president, in the daily headlines. But it might bring success without deeply indenturing future generations.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.

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