Smear tactics hinder Team Bush

November 22, 2005|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- You know the Bush administration is desperate when it starts playing the Michael Moore card.

The Double-M words came up in response to a call by Rep. John Murtha, a decorated Vietnam war veteran and senior House Democrat, for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

"The war in Iraq is not going as advertised," Mr. Murtha said. "It's a flawed policy wrapped in illusion. The American public is way ahead of the members of Congress."

White House spokesman Scott McClellan fired back. He acknowledged that Mr. Murtha is "a respected veteran," but called it "baffling" that Mr. Murtha is "endorsing the policy positions of Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic Party."

I know liberal filmmaker Michael Moore. Believe me, Mr. Press Secretary, Mr. Murtha is no Michael Moore.

I like Mr. Moore as a person more than I agree with his political theories. He is extreme enough to posit in his film that the Afghan invasion was "really" about helping Halliburton, the construction giant of which Vice President Dick Cheney used to be chief executive officer, benefit from a natural gas pipeline construction project.

Not even close.

In fact, if any military action was justified in the eyes of the world, it was our toppling of the Taliban and our pursuit of Osama bin Laden after 9/11.

It was much later, sometime after Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled and President Bush quite properly stood under a "Mission Accomplished" banner, that things went terribly wrong.

Now, says Mr. Murtha, "It is time for a change in direction. Our military is suffering; the future of our country is at risk. We cannot continue on the present course."

Mr. Murtha is the un-Michael. He voted for the war. He has advised presidents of both parties. He is a longtime friend of military commanders, enlisted personnel and their families. He's a Marine veteran with two Purple Hearts, the Bronze Star with Combat "V" and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. Calling him a "Michael Moore" is like calling Rambo a girlie man.

Judging by the polls, it is not the Michael Moores out there, but Mr. Bush's own base that has been losing faith in his administration's war policy. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll released Wednesday, for example, reported 54 percent of Americans want U.S. troops pulled out of Iraq over the next year.

Another 60 percent said the war in Iraq was not worth fighting, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll.

And a stunning 57 percent of Americans agreed in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll that Mr. Bush "deliberately misled people to make the case for war with Iraq." That's an impeachable offense.

Evidence of rising heat for an Iraq exit strategy showed itself on Capitol Hill last week. The Senate blocked a Democratic-led bill that called for a flexible timetable for withdrawal, but only with an alternative bill that passed, 79-19.

It called for "a period of significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty" by the end of 2006, a wobbly worded way to call for something like the timetable that the public wants but Team Bush deplores - without actually calling for it.

Democrats don't have an exit strategy, either, Republicans argue. But Mr. Murtha does: "My plan," he said, "calls for immediate redeployment of U.S. troops consistent with the safety of U.S. forces, to create a quick reaction force in the region, to create an over-the-horizon presence of Marines, and to diplomatically pursue security and stability in Iraq."

Now, there's a plan worth talking about. But, instead of serious talk, Mr. Murtha's heartfelt speech was greeted with attacks, including from a White House that tried to link him to Michael Moore.

Wouldn't it be nice, for a change, if Team Bush showed a concerned public enough respect to skip the smear bombs and hold a serious debate?

Maybe this time the administration will answer the criticism of its war policy by reasonably explaining its endgame to a war-weary public, in the way great leaders have in past wars.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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