Wednesday, October 12, 2005

White House of Pain

The escalating cost of war in lives and dollars comes home on the eve of the next stab at democracy in Iraq. With the Oct. 15 constitutional referendum dead ahead, the Pentagon announced Oct. 7 that the number of U.S. troops in Iraq has mushroomed to 152,000. A Pentagon official told the AP that troop strength probably will hold near that level at least through the election.

At almost the same time we get the money hit: A paper by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service determined that the average monthly costs of waging war in Iraq has gone from below $5 billion to $6 billion. The confllict in Afghanistan costs another $1 billion a month. The research service concluded that war costs could total $570 billion by the end of 2010, assuming those 152,000 troops are gradually, eventually brought home.

This begins to explain the haggard, beaten look lately on the face of George Bush. The cocksure certainties of the Ivy League jokester who changed into a governor who morphed into a president in a flight suit have given way to the insecurities of a man under siege. The political capital he announced with a smirk after the election is gone, like the billions already poured into Iraq, like the global capital of goodwill expended at a white-hot burn rate over the last three years.

The last three years. You want proof of how the presidency, this presidency has aged George Bush? Compare pictures from Bush's Cocksure Period -- the State of the Union 2002; even from the summer of 2003, before the grim slide began -- to shots taken today. His hair was dramatically darker then, his face less drawn, more animated, the gait of his walk sturdier, more aggressive, like the stride of a good ol' boy spoiling for a parking-lot fight. In that first year in office, and even after the horrors of Sept. 11, George Bush nearly bounded off of Air Force One and Marine One, walking with a jauntiness that underscored a joy of those marvelous perks of the presidency, pointed to an embrace of the levers of the most formidable power on earth.

Fast forward to the Blue Period: Nowadays when Bush alights from Marine One, he looks like a man painfully going through the motions, returning the salute from the Marine at the foot of the chopper's staircase like he'd rather be doing anything else. There's an aspect of sourness to some of his more recent public appearances, what looks like a foundational disappointment ... or maybe it's the look of a man who realizes that, as bad as it's been so far, he's staring down the barrel of another three years of the same.

It's tempting to write this off as the obligatory second-year jinx common to second-term presidents: Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton. Presidential historian Michael Beschloss, talking to Don Imus on MSNBC this morning, called it "almost an eternal part of the modern presidency." But there are factors in play that are specific, things particular to this administration that give the president's current straits a singular status in the annals of second-term debacle.

A new poll brought that home today. A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that Bush’s approval rating has fallen to below 40 percent, a new low, while the percentage of Americans thinking the country is moving in the right direction has dropped below 30 percent. A plurality of poll respondents would prefer a Democratic-controlled Congress, and fewer than one in three -- just 29 percent -- think White House counsel Harriet Miers is qualified to serve on the Supreme Court.

What makes it especially damning for the Bushies is the fact that the poll was taken after a period of small triumphs. Bush delivered a prime-time speech from New Orleans, promising to rebuild the Gulf Coast after the damage caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. He made no fewer than eight visits to the region, pressing the flesh, wielding the odd hammer, doing his best to build goodwill among the locals. And earlier he witnessed the Senate confirm walking Caucasian archetype John Roberts to the Supreme Court with relatively little fanfare or controversy.

It'd be easier to commiserate with a president going through a bad patch if so much of this agony weren't self-inflicted. The president and his crew have stubbornly resisted a rising tide of popular opposition to the war in Iraq. They've resisted learning the lessons of our peculiar American history and the grim Santayanaesque course of events that is playing itself out in Iraq: that ultimately, democracy cannot be imposed, even by proxy, and still be called democracy. They've turned deaf ears to the thousands of American families who have suffered losses in the Iraq engagement, and called on the United States to leave a place we should never have entered in the first place.

They have even disregarded the admissions of the generals charged with prosecuting that war, generals and officials who have said the primary objectives of the war are unattainable [see post "Great(ly lowered) expectations"]. And they will no doubt be ready to disregard or ignore the gravity of the report from the Congressional Research Service, continuing to exhaust our childrens' childrens' treasure in the name of a chimera.

John Lee Hooker got it right: "Serve you right to suffer ... "

With all due respect to whatever football stadium that first acquired the nickname -- Lambeau Field? Applied Materials/Amgen/Unilever Park? -- there's a new house of pain in America, and its address is 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Its current occupants will be there until the lease runs out in January 2009, unless the current occupants decide to sublet the place in the meantime -- most likely to a vice president with a bad ticker, an implanted pacemaker and orders to stay away from microwaves.

We don't really want to go there.

Three more years! Three more years!

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