When it comes to the war in Iraq, the president and the leading GOP contender to replace him seem to be stuck in a time warp -- tossing out applause lines from years gone by and using rhetoric drawn from the Dark Ages of the Iraq debate.
There was the president, cobbling his final State of the Union address from the yellowing pages of old speeches (perhaps his speechwriters, in sympathy with the WGA, have gone on strike). In lieu of new ideas, we got blasts from the past such as "jubilant Iraqis holding up ink-stained fingers," "we are engaged in the defining ideological struggle of the 21st century," the obligatory mentions of 9/11, and the promise that "we will deliver justice to the enemies of America" (and somewhere in the mountains of Pakistan, Osama bin Laden does a spit take).
Bush also pulled out a pitch for the war that could have been uttered, unchanged, five years ago (and just might have been): "A failed Iraq would embolden extremists, strengthen Iran, and give terrorists a base from which to launch new attacks on our friends, our allies, and our homeland." The only things missing were 16 words on yellowcake from Niger and Colin Powell holding up a vile of baking soda standing in for anthrax. The problem is, our policy in Iraq has already failed, has already emboldened terrorists, has already strengthened Iran, and has already created a new terrorist breeding ground.
The president also offered up his administration's latest messaging masterstroke: "the surge is working." As I've said before, "the surge is working" is working -- not the actual surge but the phrase "the surge is working," which has become accepted conventional wisdom. In truth, "the surge is working" is poised to become 2007-08's "Mission Accomplished": an effort that has failed in its stated goal of providing "breathing space" for political reconciliation to occur. Not even close. Indeed, the Iraqi government has only met three of the 18 benchmarks laid out last year [via Think Progress]. And the dying continues (with five more American soldiers killed on Monday, bringing the monthly death toll to 36 -- a more than 50% increase over December.
Then there was the president's reelection chart topper, "Al Qaida is on the run in Iraq" -- a moldy oldie that nonetheless had the crowd roaring its approval and holding up metaphorical disposable lighters. Indeed, the line led to one of the most telling moments of the night, with Hillary Clinton springing to her feet in applause while Barack Obama chose to stay seated. Perhaps she was having an '04 flashback.
Then there is John McCain, the resurgent GOP front-runner, who has spent the last few days attacking Mitt Romney using the same shopworn cudgels that Republicans have often wielded to cow Democratic opposition to the war. McCain accused Romney of once saying (in 2007) that he "wanted to set a date for withdrawal similar to what the Democrats are seeking." Heaven forbid. McCain acted like Chris Hansen, popping out to nab yet another pedophile. "I was there," said McCain at a town hall meeting held in a Florida retirement community, "he said he wanted a timetable for withdrawal." Heat up the tar! Pluck the feathers!!
Let's put aside the ongoing argument about whether Romney did or didn't actually say this; it tells you everything you need to know about the insanity of the modern Republican Party that merely suggesting that we think about getting our troops out of Iraq can be portrayed as somehow unpatriotic, un-American, and tantamount to coming out in favor of unconditional surrender. Even mentioning "timetables" gets you branded as a cut-and-run peacenik.
"If we surrender," McCain told reporters at another campaign stop, "and wave a white flag like Senator Clinton wants to do and withdraw as Governor Romney wanted to do, then there will be chaos." He also compared Romney to Harry Reid and demanded that his opponent apologize "to the young men and women who are serving in uniform."
A Romney spokesperson called McCain "unhinged" -- a claim McCain helped bolster with a bizarre campaign rant this weekend in which he promised a crowd of supporters, "There's going to be other wars... We will never surrender but there will be other wars."
And, shockingly, the idea did not seem to fill him with unbearable sadness. In fact, he seemed like a grizzled football coach at the tail end of long career, finally about to get a shot at coaching in the Super Bowl.
McCain's people try to sell him as the GOP field's reigning grown up. And when it comes to issues like pork barrel spending, immigration, and stem cell research, he is. But on the most important matter a president can face -- questions of war and peace -- he carries himself like a cocksure teenage bully, itching for the next fight.
After insisting that future wars are just around the corner, McCain launched into a creepy riff in which the suffering of our soldiers seemed to leave him almost breathless with anticipation: "We're going to have a lot of PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder] to treat, my friends. We're gonna have a lot of combat wounds that have to do with these terrible explosive IEDs that inflict such severe wounds. And, my friends, it's gonna be tough, we're gonna have a lot to do."
It's a speech that could easily have been delivered by Gen. Buck Turgidson, George C. Scott's war-loving character in Dr. Strangelove. "I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed, but I do say no more than 10 to 20 million killed - tops!"
McCain, like Turgidson, has a disturbing displaced ardor for war. Although he'd be the oldest person ever elected president, he doesn't need Viagra -- he's got Iraq. Call your doctor if your erection lasts longer than four hours -- or your war lasts longer than 100 years.
Bush and McCain's tried-and-failed approach to matters of war and peace offers an important reminder that whatever difference the Democrats may have -- and how still more heated and divisive their race may become -- when it comes to Iraq, the two parties are heading in wildly different directions. Clinton, Obama, and the Democrats are all looking to the future while Bush, McCain and the GOP remain mired in a Neanderthal past.