Military events reveal Bush's weak status

November 23, 2005|By STEVE CHAPMAN

CHICAGO -- When President Bush wanted to make a speech on the war in Iraq in May, he went to the Naval Academy. When he wanted to make a speech on the war in Iraq in August, he went before members of the Idaho National Guard and their families. When he wanted to make a speech on the war in Iraq in November, he went to Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage.

Vice President Dick Cheney also likes a gathering that knows how to salute. When he emerges from his bunker to castigate critics of the war, it's usually at a safe remove from those critics. Last month, it was at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia. In June, it was at the Air Force Academy.

When President Richard M. Nixon was feeling beleaguered by Vietnam and Watergate, he had a standard response: Take a trip to a foreign country and bask in his reputation as a global statesman. That's a less plausible option for Mr. Bush, who in many countries is about as welcome as avian flu. But he's found that when he needs a relatively receptive audience, the people below him in the chain of command will suffice.

Mr. Bush cherishes the image of himself as a tough, resolute commander in chief - the same pose he struck on the USS Lincoln in his ill-fated "mission accomplished" speech in May 2003. That comes in handy when you're being criticized on the war by a Democratic hawk and Vietnam veteran like Pennsylvania Rep. John P. Murtha.

But the president's strong preference for military events is really a sign of weakness, not strength. It indicates an administration that is steadily sinking among the public at large and is desperate enough to grab onto uniformed personnel to stay afloat.

It's not hard to see why the president and vice president choose such venues. Going before civilians is an increasingly worrisome venture, now that public opinion has turned against the war and the administration. Most Americans rate Mr. Bush as less trustworthy than Bill Clinton.

When the president addressed a Chamber of Commerce meeting in Norfolk, Va. - not exactly an outpost of liberalism - he was reminded of the virtues of military discipline. He had to contend with protesters outside holding "Impeach Bush" signs, as well as a heckler who shouted "War is terror!" in the middle of his speech. Things like that don't happen at Fort Hood.

The military stresses obedience to authority, which means that lieutenants and corporals are not likely to dis their commander in chief, unless they want to commit career suicide. They can be relied on to comport themselves in a respectful manner, regardless of their personal opinions.

Not only that, but their personal opinions are more likely to be favorable than unfavorable. In recent years, officers and enlisted personnel alike have gotten to be largely conservative and Republican. Support for the war apparently remains high among the troops.

You can't entirely blame a politician for preferring to soak up the admiration of his fans rather than brave the scrutiny of skeptics. But there are other less defensible motives at work as well. One is the eagerness of Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney - both of whom found ways to avoid active-duty service when their generation was at war - to cloak themselves in military valor.

Worse, though, is the attempt to imply that anyone who questions the war is hostile to the troops who are fighting it.

The administration, however, would like us to believe that supporting the troops means supporting the war. In this view, Americans have a choice: supporting his Iraq policy and our soldiers or siding with filmmaker Michael Moore and the terrorists.

The fraudulent manipulation of images worked before, when the president managed to implicate Saddam Hussein for 9/11 without ever explicitly making that false connection. And it may work again. It's the first and last resort for an administration whose greatest enemy is honest debate.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is schapman@tribune.com.

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