Exit strategy

Posted: Nov 30, 2005 12:05 AM

There is a repulsive conversation going on in Washington at the moment. Journalists, un-named Pentagon officials and many politicians are discussing, as if true, the precise method by which President Bush intends to exit from Iraq in time for the midterm elections next year.
Perhaps future events will reveal me to be naive (not a charge usually posted against me). But for the record, I do not believe that President Bush is cynically looking for an exit strategy. However, most of the Washington political class clearly believes he is planning to pull troops out of Iraq in the next three to eight months for political, rather than military reasons.

 Of course politics is not for Sunday school teachers. And a country cannot properly be led by people who don't have a practical understanding of human nature in all its often tawdry cynicism and self-interest. A worldly appreciation of these human attributes is always a necessary part of leadership.

 But there is a vital difference between understanding that cynicism exists in the world and succumbing to it. And it is the signature attribute of second-rate leaders, courtiers and second-year college students (sophomores) that in their effort to appear worldly, they embrace cynicism. No aspiring wise guy wants to appear naive. Washington journalists are particularly driven not to appear naive.

 But the opposite of being naive is not to be cynical -- it is to be wise. And the essence of wise political leadership is to remember and cling to the true ideals of one's country. A great leader understands that his or her leadership is not about him, it is about the country. All our greatest leaders (from Jefferson to Lincoln, to FDR to Reagan) were deeply practical and political men who nonetheless never forgot that the larger reason the nation had raised them on high was not to advance their career -- but to deliver the nation to a higher place.

 It is well to remember that cynicism started as a Greek philosophy named after the word kynikoi -- dog-like (apologies to all the wonderful, uncynical, loyal dogs of the world).

 It was a negative form of aggressive individualism that arose with the collapse of the political structures of the Greek world, and questioned the collective values, standards of decency and institutional rules of that crumbling world.

 If you listen to today's Washington cynics, you would think we were living in a crumbling society without purpose or hope. How despicable it is to contemplate the underlying assumption of this cynical portrayal of President Bush looking for an exit strategy before the 2006 elections. One would have to think that he -- and Congress and the media -- are more concerned about the results of an off-year election than they are about the death and wounding in battle of our fine young soldiers: that they care more about their political skins than the national interest of the country.

 Understand, honorable people can argue that getting out of Iraq is in the national interest (obviously, I strongly disagree with that argument). But to assume that the timing of the exit is for electoral expediency is something very different -- and very evil. If President Bush were to actually make such a calculation (which I refuse to believe he would), then it would undercut every reason for his starting the war in the first place. If he thought that the war could still be concluded successfully but he is willing to accept failure by leaving prematurely if it will save a few House seats, there would be a deep place in Hell for such a man.

 Yes, I understand that the anti-Bush lefties always thought that. I don't care what those lost souls think. But if decent people who have supported President Bush begin to buy into this deeply cynical mischaracterization of his calculation, they do him and the country a terrible disservice.

 This discussion of a pre-election exit strategy, which is talked about so matter-of-factly, will give our fellow citizens and the people of the world the impression that President Bush (and we Americans in general) really are such low beings as to think and act in such a despicable way. It would make us contemptuous in the eyes of any decent person. It would put blood on our hands and suggest a dark void where our souls should be.

 Of course, let's robustly debate whether we are doing more ill than good by staying in Iraq. I argue we are doing much more good. But President Bush should demand an apology from any politician or journalist who suggests that his calculations are electoral rather than substantive. If any of his aides are suggesting such things on background, they are profoundly misguided. Whatever the president's failings and shortcomings (and we all have them), he is no cynic. It is the deepest possible slander against his character. Glibly repeating this electoral calculation only adds further cynicism to a world that is almost drowning in such false thinking.