Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Unwinnable war on terror...

Yesterday, on NBC’s “Today” show, President Bush was asked whether we can win the war on terror. His response:

I don't think you can win it. But I think you can create conditions so that the - those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world.
Naturally, the Democrats pounced on this, claiming Bush flip-flopped and demonstrated weakness. Their attacks are disingenuous, of course--Bush has been strong and clear on the war, in both action and word. But the Dems are probably right to attack. Bush set himself up by saying the right thing in the wrong way, and he must now pay the price for his mental hiccup.

We saw John Kerry do the same thing when he uttered the now famous: “I actually did vote for the 87 billion before I voted against it.” It’s a defensible statement—if you ever get the chance to defend it. And so it’s also an exceedingly stupid thing to say.

The Democrats won’t get as much mileage out of Bush’s gaffe as the Republicans did out of Kerry’s, but don’t be surprised to see it featured in a 30-second ad before the convention winds down.

Now, onto what the president meant. I don’t think the Republicans are handling this quite right. White House spokesman Scott McClellan:

[Bush] was talking about winning it in the conventional sense ... about how this is a different kind of war and we face an unconventional enemy.
Mort Kondrake and Fred Barnes offered similar analysis last night on Fox News, as does David Limbaugh on his blog:
…because we are at war against a radical strain of Islam, which is not tied to or bound by nation states, and which therefore cannot be defeated by just defeating nation states, we are going to be fighting this war for a long time.

Maybe I’m quibbling, but I think this falls a bit short of explaining Bush's comment. Bush is known for saying what he means, and I suspect he meant it when he said we can’t win the war. In the same way we can’t eliminate murder from our society, we’ll never really win the war on terror. All it takes is one terrorist, somewhere, sometime, to keep it going.

Bush is a realist. He knows this is a war we can never stop fighting. But it is a war we can “win” in the sense that terrorists become an endangered species, deprived of aid and comfort. That, I think, is Bush’s vision, and what he was trying to convey.

Update: Neil Boortz doesn't think the president meant what he said either.

Update 2: Speaking at the American Legion national convention today, Bush said:
We meet today in a time of war for our country, a war we did not start yet one that we will win…In this different kind of war, we may never sit down at a peace table. But make no mistake about it, we are winning and we will win. We will win by staying on the offensive, we will win by spreading liberty.
This closely parallels the expert commentary and belies my theory, but I’m still not convinced. It’s simply too detrimental politically to be on record as saying the war can never be won--in the same way we let the rhetoric of “no child left behind” mask the reality that, under the best of circumstances, some will be.

Update 3: Still more from TMLutas, who states my position more clearly than I did.

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