Visiting Hours

Bush got a lift from his Thanksgiving trip, but will it last?

Wed Dec. 3, 2003 3:00 AM EST
George Bush's theatrical Thanksgiving visit to the troops in Baghdad has to count, at least in the short run, as a major p.r. win for the White House. The move was symbolic, dramatic, even daring, and went some way toward countering the impression that Bush is wavering on Iraq and aloof from the military. It's unclear how much of a jump Bush will get, long term, from the visit, or whether the images of the turkey-bearing president joking with G.I.s will ultimately crowd out memories of his "Mission Accomplished" swagger in the public mind. The likeliest answer is that this will depend on what happens in Iraq: If U.S. troops keep dying at their current rate, nobody will be talking about Thanksgiving the other side of Christmas.

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Let's grant the obvious: Contrary to Condoleeza Rice's ridiculous assertion that the trip had no other motive than to show support for the troops, this was a political stunt, and a hugely successful one at that. But that's not all it was; it was also the right thing to do. The visit probably was intended to boost troop morale, and to the extent that it succeeded, that's a good thing. Did it alter the rightness or wrongness of U.S. policy in Iraq in anyone's mind? Surely not.

Which isn't to excuse the immediate media coverage, which ranged, says Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz "from upbeat to gushing. Some commentators acted like Bush had landed on the moon." And he's talking about the mainstream media. Conservative pundits were predictably off the charts in their praise for Bush, as witness Jonah Goldberg of National Review Online:

"It was a brilliant, decent, generous, crafty, glorious gesture. President Bush was nearly in tears when he saw the gratitude and excitement on the faces of the troops. Obviously this White House saw a political angle. But that was a side-benefit. The troops deserved it. The troops appreciated it. And the American people, I bet, believed it was the right thing to do.

The Democrats will make fools of themselves if they go too far criticizing Bush. In fact, I think they'll make fools of themselves if they criticize him at all. They should just say, "It was a nice thing to do, our troops deserved it, in fact they deserve...blah blah blah." But I wouldn't be surprised if we get more flight jacket hysteria."

And sure enough, Democratic presidential contenders, sensing that there was no way to win on this one, refused to dismiss the trip as a stunt and refrained from drawing comparisons with Bush's much derided carrier landing on May 1.

Such criticism as there was in the immediate aftermath of the visit -- and much of it appeared in the non-U.S. media -- seemed a little flailing. Some critics bordered on absurd as they strained to emphasize the superficiality of the event. London's Independent went so far as to suggest that the President's Iraq stunt served to overshadow his younger brother, Neil's recent adultery and finance scandals. Alternet referred to the visit as a "Chickenhawk Thanksgiving," a "propaganda coup of the first order, replete with adoring camera angles and wildly cheering multitudes, all conducted under a shroud of Stalinist press secrecy."

This is overkill, but it's driven by a very real concern at Bush's attempts to save face and evade responsibility for what many see as a disastrous military campaign. To the extent that Bush's trip lacked sincerity, it wasn't due to its being a political stunt (what presidential appearance isn't, to some degree?), but rather because his pledge to the troops to "stay until the job is done" seemed hollow. And, if the Arab online press is any indication of the general mood in Iraq, it fell upon unconsoled ears.

The Washington Post's round-up of international media coverage of Bush's trip found that reports were neither upbeat nor gushing.

"President Bush's visit to Iraq on Thanksgiving Day was a panicky publicity stunt intended to obscure the failing U.S. occupation, according to many commentators in the international press. Bush's declaration that the United States is committed to staying in Iraq, while lauded by his few supporters, is neither welcomed nor believed in the online media of the Islamic world."

The domestic media, with the benefit of reflection, started to get a little more thoughtful and cautionary about the trip. This from Time:

"With the economy showing signs of a sustained recovery and with Bush having outfoxed Democrats in Congress to pass a massive new prescription-drug benefit for seniors, Iraq was starting to look like the President's greatest electoral vulnerability. Then came Thanksgiving, and, for the moment at least, Bush seemed to have bested his opponents once more.

But if the President has learned anything, it is that p.r. triumphs can quickly fade or even sour. Although his Thanksgiving gambit played well at home, reviews were decidedly mixed in Iraq. As word of Bush's visit filtered across Baghdad, some Iraqis applauded the news, but many either dismissed it as meaningless or chided the U.S. President for never leaving the military base or meeting with any Iraqis.

Bush's Thanksgiving Day swoop into Baghdad will inevitably tie his fate more closely to the volatile situation in Iraq. Having stood on Iraqi soil and committed the U.S. to seeing its mission through, the President will have little room to maneuver during the election campaign if he's faced with increasing calls to bring the troops home. If the American death toll slows, Saddam Hussein is found and democracy begins to take root, Bush won't need a campaign ad to make his point. But if Iraq gets worse instead of better, neither will his opponents.

Blogger and author Tom Engelhardt makes much the same point, with less hedging.

"I have no doubt - based on watching TV last night - that this political coup de theater will briefly pump up support here for the President (or at least that ephemeral category of presidential existence, his "job approval rating"), but since the stealth visit was phantasmagoric and changed nothing in Iraq -- as opposed to "Iraq" -- I'm ready to make a small wager of my own. Some months down the line these triumphant propaganda photos, meant to replace "Mission Accomplished," will look no better than the strutting-the-flight-deck ones do now, and will be no less useful to the other side in the presidential race. (Keep these photos Democrats!)."

With no clear exit strategy from an increasingly hostile occupied nation, and plans for deploying thousands of additional marines next year, p.r. helps, but its no substitute for real policy, which will ultimately determine the morale of the troops and the mood of the nation.