The Incredible Shrinking President

Summer, especially August, has not been good to the U.S. commander in chief. While on a 35-day vacation in Crawford he has been unable to find time to meet with Cindy Sheehan, the mother of Casey — a soldier killed in Iraq. His refusal to meet with Ms. Sheehan diminishes him — showing weakness and insecurity on his part. Is he unable to defend his Iraq occupation policy to her? Is he unable to hear the perspective of a mother who lost her child to his war?

Public opinion is turning dramatically against the President, casualties are rising rapidly, and President Bush is facing divisions in his own administration. Republican members of Congress are meeting behind closed doors to discuss how to get out of Iraq and anti-war Democrats, while still a minority in their party, are becoming more outspoken and more organized. In Iraq, polling shows that a majority of Iraqis want the U.S. to leave and one third of Iraq’s National Assembly has called for the U.S. to depart.

Leadership in the Department of Defense struck a discordant note with the President when General George Casey, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq hinted at "substantial reductions" in U.S. troops next year. At the same time the media reported on a "detailed plan" produced by the Pentagon to cut U.S. troops by two-thirds by the end of 2006. As a result of this discord, President Bush — who has consistently claimed the generals will determine the level of troops in Iraq — had to step in and rebuke General Casey and make it clear there were no plans for withdrawal. But the reality of stretched thin troops may make a reduction in forces a necessary step the President will have to accept.

Then, the Bush Administration showed confusion within the White House when The Washington Post reported that the Administration was "significantly lowering expectations of what can be achieved in Iraq, recognizing that the United States will have to settle for far less progress than originally envisioned during the transition due to end in four months, according to U.S. officials in Washington and Baghdad." One unnamed White House official was quoted as saying: ". . . we will have some form of Islamic Republic." Thus, the claim of bringing democracy to Iraq may dissipate just as the search for weapons of mass destruction disappeared — leaving behind 14 U.S. military bases and corporations taking control of Iraq’s economy.

In the same report officials acknowledged that Iraq is worse off after the invasion — with the oil industry faltering, electricity black-outs for days at a time, very high levels of unemployment, fears of kidnappings and religious extremists becoming more aggressive. Some in the Administration seem to be beginning to face the reality of the failure of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

Politics at home seem to be playing a role in the confusion. Republican support for the President is starting to show significant cracks. Not reported in the media, is that a cadre of Republican legislators in the House of Representatives has been meeting regularly to discuss how to get out of Iraq. No doubt through back channels the Bush Administration is hearing from these Republicans. If this group decides to go public momentum against the war could escalate significantly.

Even in the Senate, three leading Republican Senators — John McCain (AZ), John Warner (VA) and Lindsay Graham (SC) — are reportedly upsetting the White House with legislation that would expressly prohibit cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment of detainees in US custody. Vice President Cheney has tried to convince the three that the amendment undermines the President’s ability to fight terrorism. Graham released internal memoranda from DoD lawyers concluding that "extreme interrogation techniques, on their face, amount to violations of domestic criminal law" as well as military law. McCain has released statements of retired officers, including prisoners of war, that claim the techniques put U.S. soldiers at risk. On the Senate floor, when challenged Sen. Jeff Sessions claim that "they are terrorists," McCain responded this "is not about who they are. It’s about who we are."

With these types of divides among Republicans more than a year away from the 2006 elections, the Administration must be concerned about where their support will be as the election draws near. The President’s approval rating is dropping to LBJ-Vietnam level lows — Newsweek finding only 34 percent support his handling of the war. Members of Congress facing re-election will be uncomfortable standing by an unpopular, lame duck President.

The saving grace for the President in Congress is the leadership of the Democratic Party. As the support for the war drops the hawkish leaders of the Party — Senator Joseph Biden (DE) and Senator Hillary Clinton (NY) — are continuing to support the occupation. Even Party Chairman Howard Dean — the anti-war candidate turned into the pro-occupation leader of the Party — has said that "we can’t get out" and hopes "the president is incredibly successful with his policy."

The Democratic Party leadership seems out of step with not only Democrats — who overwhelmingly oppose the war but with the public. As the Nation Magazine reports: "Nearly 60 percent of Americans now oppose the war, according to recent polling. Sixty-three percent want US troops brought home within the next year. Yet a recent National Journal u2018insiders poll’ found that a similar margin of Democratic members of Congress reject setting any timetable." This hawkish view in the Democratic leadership not only includes elected leaders, Party leaders but also leading think tanks and others who are trying to have the party coalesce around the theme of "national security Democrats." But there is some resistance from the small progressive wing of the Party which is getting organized under the "Out of Iraq Caucus." In the Senate, Russell Feingold stands alone calling for an exit strategy by 2006.

Cindy Sheehan’s anger over her son’s death is being echoed by other military families who are joining her in Crawford and around the country. As Paul Schroeder whose son Edward Schroeder II died in Iraq told The Washington Post: "Our comments are not just those of grieving parents. They are based on anger, Mr. President, not grief. Anger is an honest emotion when someone’s family has been violated."

Iraq war parents have good reasons to feel their families have been "violated." It has become more and more evident that President Bush misled the nation and the Congress in order to invade Iraq and remake their economy to the liking of U.S. corporate interests. And, his leadership after this deception shows failure as commander in chief — the torture scandals, killing of civilians and corruption of Iraqi ‘reconstruction.’ Even the basic needs of soldiers are not being met; the U.S. is still struggling to get soldiers armor that will protect them from deadly attacks. This month, The New York Times reported that DoD acknowledged it would take "several more months or longer to complete" the supplying of soldiers with body armor. This is not good news for soldiers facing up to 70 attacks each day.

Reports of incompetent leadership come at the same time as deaths in Iraq are spiking — with 60 GI deaths in the first 16 days of August. The National Guard and Reserve suffered more combat deaths in the first 16 days of August then in any month — at least 38. The increase in Reserve and Guard deaths has been trending upward for much of this year, with more than 100 since May 1 — the deadliest stretch of the war for the Guard and Reserve. The previous highest monthly killed-in-action total for the Guard and Reserve was 27 in May, with four other noncombat deaths. In August 2004, there were six Guard and Reserve combat deaths and eight including accidents.

This death toll is showing itself in news reporting and increasing the voice of the anti-war movement. According to Editor and Publisher "newspapers around the country, with the U.S. death toll in Iraq again soaring, increasingly are reporting the antiwar sentiments of family members of the deceased in their coverage of funerals."

Perhaps it is time for the President to honestly consider the question Cindy Sheehan is asking: "How many more of our loved ones need to die in this senseless war?"