WASHINGTON, D.C. -- When I returned from Iraq last spring, President George W. Bush was being pilloried in the so-called mainstream media for landing on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln and congratulating the crew for their 10 month deployment in the Persian Gulf. As I stowed my backpack at home after being embedded for months with our troops, Sen. Robert Byrd was on television castigating the commander in chief for being a "deskbound president who assumes the garb of a warrior" and accusing President Bush of "flamboyant showmanship" and "self congratulatory gestures."
Last week, I returned from another trip to Iraq for FOX News, and as I made my way home, the barons of bombast in our Fourth Estate were blasting President Bush -- this time for his secret Thanksgiving trip to Baghdad where he served dinner to the troops he leads. Once again, the rhetorical assault ran the gamut from merely mean-spirited to downright vicious. His visit to those serving in harm's way was variously described as "an unnecessary risk for a campaign photo-op," to "lying to the press regarding his whereabouts," all the way to the ludicrous claim that he went all the way to Baghdad to "upstage Sen. Hillary Clinton."
Thus far, the White House has largely refused to dignify these political and media jibes with a wholesale counterattack. "President Bush," one senior aide assured me, "has the hide of an armadillo." The president's father even went so far as to present Ted Kennedy with a "humanitarian award" after the Massachusetts liberal described Operation Iraqi Freedom as "a fraud cooked up in Texas."
But this isn't just a matter of hurt feelings in the Oval Office. These political and media attacks are part and parcel of a pattern that goes well beyond any legitimate critique of policy to an assault on the personal motivations of the man responsible for protecting the nation -- and the safety of more than 130,000 young Americans fighting a war far from home.
During World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam, there were frequent heated debates over the wisdom of certain strategies, resource allocations, troop levels, the national debt and even postwar reconstruction. But none of it was aimed at the motives of Presidents Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy or Johnson in prosecuting the wars that occurred during their tenure. Even the volatile clash that led to President Nixon's resignation wasn't focused on his handling of the Vietnam War -- but on his re-election activities. That's not the case today.
After two trips to Iraq this year and listening carefully to those who go to work wearing camouflage, flak jackets and ballistic protective helmets, it's clear that the media's unabated animus and hyperventilated political hostility aimed at President Bush is now adversely affecting the outcome of the war on terror. It hasn't diminished our troops' morale or their affection for their commander in chief -- but it has encouraged our enemies.
The Baathists, who pay to build Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), provide RPGs to fire at convoys, orchestrate mortar and rocket attacks, and finance Jihadist-suicide bombings, know American politics better than they know military tactics. They watch American television on their pirate satellite dishes and read American newspapers online. They know that when they kill an American soldier, blow up a Humvee or even shoot down a U.S. helicopter, the action is militarily insignificant. But they also believe, based on what they see, hear and read in our media, that the U.S. public has a very low threshold for pain and that their nemesis -- George W. Bush -- is vulnerable.
The Baathists don't want the people of Iraq to go to the polls and vote -- but they know we are going to have an election next year. Captured "former regime loyalists" smugly tell interrogators that their goal is to simply "hang on" until the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November 2004. Then, they are convinced, "anybody but Bush" will move into the White House, and the United States will pull out of Iraq.
Remarkably, the deluge of negative commentary from opposition politicians and the press has done little to dampen the esprit of our troops. From the commanding general of the 4th Infantry Division, to the PFCs of the 3rd Battalion 66th Armor, with whom I lived and interviewed, they all know they are doing a tough job well. Re-enlistment rates, the surest barometer of military morale, remain at record high levels in all the units I visited in Iraq.
And for those in the press and politics who denigrate the commander in chief for his Thanksgiving Day trip to Baghdad, I offer this assessment, excerpted from an email I received from one of the warriors I came to know in Iraq:
"When the President stepped from behind the camouflage netting, the mess hall actually erupted. Troops bounded to their feet and began cheering with all their hearts. The building actually shook. I was absolutely stunned. There he stood, less than 30 feet away from me! Soldiers were hollering, cheering, and there was not a dry eye at my table. I could clearly see tears running down his cheeks. Here was this man, our president. He came all the way around the world, spending 17 hours on an airplane and landing at the most dangerous airport in the world, where a plane was shot out of the sky not six days before, just to spend two hours with his troops. Only to get on a plane and spend another 17 hours flying back. ... He looked me in the eye and said, 'How you doin', Captain?' I smiled and said, 'God bless you, sir,' to which he responded, 'I'm proud of what you do, Captain.'"
Enough said. How could the media have missed this?