Bush and Iraq: Déjà vu, or a game of chicken?

Reading through President Bush's speech on escalating the war in Iraq, I was struck by how little had changed from his previous pronouncements.

This "surge" of 21,500 troops is not much different than previous surges in troop numbers. The "clear and hold" strategy is the same as they tried before. The benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet are the same benchmarks they have failed to meet in the past.

A video clip from the British comedy "Blackadder" has been passed around the Internet in recent days that illustrates what Bush's New Way Forward resembles. Here is the dialogue:

GENERAL: Now, Field Marshal Hague has formulated a brilliant new tactical plan to ensure final victory in the field.

CAPTAIN BLACKADDER: Ah, would this brilliant plan involve us climbing out of our trenches and walking very slowly towards the enemy, sir?

CAPTAIN DARLING: How could you possibly know that Blackadder, it's classified information?

CAPTAIN BLACKADDER: It's the same plan that we used last time, and the seventeen times before that.

Bush's old-that-is-new-again plan seems so insane it makes one wonder if he really is a character in a British comedy, like the knight in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" who has his arms cut off, and claims it's only a flesh wound.

It would be one thing if the president was suggesting we double our ground forces in Iraq, or was changing the current strategy instead of making small, tactical changes. He presents this as something entirely new, yet it's not. It's diametrically opposed to what most people would suggest.

The public is overwhelmingly against it, Congress is against it, a good number of the generals oppose it, as well as a majority of active-duty military personnel, and even some of Bush's Republican supporters are backing down. It is also 180 degrees different from the Iraq Study Group conclusions, which were supposed to give Bush the bipartisan cover to be able to change directions on Iraq.

So why is he doing it? Is he really that stubborn? Does he really think this small surge can actually turn the tide, when the other surges failed miserably?

When a person's actions don't make sense on the surface, don't just assume he's nuts.

What makes more sense is this is a game of chicken, where Bush is daring the newly elected Democrats in Congress to stop him.

If Bush can get the Democrats to stop this madness, he can unite the Republicans around the theme that it was the surrender-monkey Dems who lost the war. This would be just like Karl Rove to play on the Dems' sympathies and desire to stop this humanitarian disaster.

And if Democrats don't stop him, the fighting can continue for the next two years until Bush can hand off the war, and hopefully the blame, to the next president.

I know that sounds cynical, but after six years of wedge-issue politics, it's hard to not look at such life-and-death situations as just another political game played by Rove, the master gamesman.

If the Democrats were politically smart, they would stop at proclaiming their opposition to this escalation, and let the Commander-in-Chief have his way, for now. This surge is so clearly the last gasp of a failed policy that it can't last very long.

Of course, the words "politically smart" and "Democrats" haven't been used in the same sentence much until just recently. They will, predictably, rush to the rescue, turning the war into a bigger political football than it already is.

The Democrats need to understand that Bush isn't trying to rescue his policy, just his legacy. If he can shift the blame for losing the war, and unite the Republicans again, then he will be a hero to the GOP, which is all that counts for him. That is all he has left to fight for.

Defeat is hard for any man to admit. So many times, we would rather go down swinging than give up. That works for bar fights, where the only teeth you lose are your own. But when it comes to war, the leader can keep swinging while his people are the ones taking punches.

Bush will keep swinging until he wins, or finds someone to blame for losing the fight.

• Kirk Caraway is editor of http://nevadapolitics.com, and writes a blog on national politics at http://kirkcaraway.com.


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