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Dali's "Premonition of Civil War" (1936; Philadelphia Museum of Art)

“They Don’t Know Where the Hell They’re Going”
Generals Deserting Bush

Those priceless if blood-soaked words—“They don't know where the hell they're going”—are those of retired Marine Gen. John J. Sheehan. He used them to describe the Bush administration’s amateur years in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sheehan was one of three top generals the administration asked to become its “war czar,” overseeing Iraq and Afghanistan. All three refused. The Post reports that “The White House wants to appoint a high-powered czar to oversee the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with authority to issue directions to the Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies.” Besides the fact that generals are being wise enough to decline, Bush’s latest PR ploy raises a question. Why a czar? Isn’t Bush the commander in chief? Hasn’t he reminded us of the fact with incessant arrogance and rash-like Decideredness?

The story of the scorning generals will focus on the in-house desertion of the military from Bush’s side, as it should: it’s an astounding, and now public, desertion that masks what must be mutinous resentment throughout the Pentagon. The military establishment can’t abide an idiotic commander who’s just wasting troops and corroding the institutions supporting them. It’s a lucky wonder generals aren’t calling for Bush’s head (lucky, because even if some generals want his head, theirs should roll before they call for his: this isn’t Turkey or Pakistan or Indonesia, where the military rules by fiat. Even generals—especially generals—must keep their place.)

But this isn’t just about the deserting generals. It’s about Bush looking to create another buffer to shield himself from criticism, to distance himself from responsibility. He’s not cutting and running. He’s surrounding himself with military brass, hoping it’ll shine enough to deflect criticism and absorb it for him. He’s like the clueless commander in the field who hunkers down between underlings to keep his troops from witnessing his paralysis, all the while barking orders that make no sense except to the maggots polishing their dinnerware six feet under. It’s Bush cowardice, pure and simple. He has already turned Gen. Petraeus into his savior of the moment. Petraeus was reckless enough to accept the commission (although there is such a thing as duty, even to a folly-flier like Bush). But Petraeus’s surge days aren’t just numbered. They were over before it began. Iraq is more violent today than when the surge began, and even then it was in full-fledged civil war. American soldiers are dying at a rate approaching five a day, higher than at any point since this war began with the exception of the particularly deadly month of April 2004. Bush knows the surge is a failure. What he needs, like an addict chasing after his next fix, is his next ploy.

Appointing a “war czar” is it. It has the double-effect of seeming like another decisive move that appeals to Americans’ infantile desire for strongmen (is Gen. Custer’s skeleton available?) while inflating between Bush and the wars yet another bubble of deniability. It might have seemed a slick move four years ago, when the nation wasn’t yet used to what Molly Ivins was used to going back to Bush’s Texas days (once a self-deceiving drunk, always a self-deceiving drunk). It’s not a slick move anymore. It’s a sick move that probably has every soldier with an iota of wit more revolted than he already ought to be.

From the Post again: “The White House has not publicly disclosed its interest in creating the position, hoping to find someone President Bush can anoint and announce for the post all at once. Officials said they are still considering options for how to reorganize the White House's management of the two conflicts. If they cannot find a person suited for the sort of specially empowered office they envision, they said, they may have to retain the current structure.” Incredible. They’re running the wars like they’re in the middle of a corporate mess that needs a bit of “restructuring”—appoint a different CEO here, a different middle manager there, send Wall Street the message that you’re serious about cutting costs (or losses), just do what you can to make it to the next quarter, or in this case the next election. The lie is that the administration wants better “coordination of civilian and military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan by different parts of the U.S. government,” when all along it’s precisely the lack of coordination, the disdain the White House projected for the State Department’s Iraq experts and their post-war plans, that did so much to lead to this point.

But here’s Frederick Kagan, an American Enterprise Institute shilling for the czar idea, but also slapping Bush across the face: “Hope they do it, and hope they do it soon. And I hope they pick the right guy. It’s a real problem that we don’t have a single individual back here who is really capable of coordinating the effort.” They’re only now waking up to the fact. But there hasn’t been such an individual since 2002. Nor could there be one now. What Bush wants is a fall guy, because there is no such thing as a fix. “An individual can’t fix a failed policy,” Carlos Pascual is quoted as saying in the Post piece. He’s a former State Department coordinator of Iraq reconstruction, and now a vice president at the Brookings Institution. “So the key thing is to figure out where the policy is wrong.” Hint: the wrong policy took office on January 20, 2001.

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