Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Don't read more into war opposition than what's there

Published: March 20, 2007 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

"Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser . . . the very thought of losing is hateful to an American."

So goes the famous quote from Gen. George S. Patton's 1944 D-Day address to his troops. That quote was later popularized in a 1970 masterpiece of a movie called "Patton." And Patton's words have relevance today when pondering President Bush's low approval ratings.

It is not the president's decision to go to war in Iraq that sunk his popularity. For many, it's the perceived lack of results stemming from the war, which began four years ago today. That means it isn't the inherent "morality" of the war that troubles many Bush critics; it's the practical yield from it, or lack thereof.

In pure theory, why wouldn't a plan to establish a democratic beachhead in a portion of the world fraught with violence and instability and depose an evil despot like Saddam Hussein, who had slaughtered his own country's citizens, strike millions of reasonable people as a worthy undertaking? Answer: It did.

The late President Nixon, who was arguably one of our most able presidents on foreign policy, put it saliently in his later books. Basically, Nixon asked questions like, "If America does not lead in the world, who will?"

After World War II, the United States successfully "exported democracy" to post-Imperial Japan. And by any measure, the U.S., Japan and the rest of the civilized world are better off for having done so.

But the notion of success in the Middle East is murkier. There is no tangible cliff to scale like there was at Omaha Beach. After the U.S. liberated Nazi-occupied Europe, implementation of the Marshall Plan wasn't paralyzed by legions of suicide bombers trying to derail new regimes or by sectarian fanatics trying to kill one another in the same country.

The frustration is understandable. With more than 3,200 American lives lost (including 70 Wisconsinites) and billions of dollars of our nation's treasure spent, it's difficult not to grieve or grow angry because we can't see an end to the whole depressing morass.

Even the president's staunchest supporters have grown increasingly restive. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll revealed that a full 73% of Americans are following the 2008 presidential race closely. That is either an astonishing level of interest for an election so far away or a clear reflection of popular restlessness.

Yet today's collective opposition to the war in Iraq does not come in one size or shape. Americans who have grown impatient with this war do not all want to join arms, sing John Lennon songs and pretend to act as one for a whole number of unrelated "causes."

Many calling for a troop withdrawal today would look contemptuously at fellow critics who are calling for the exact same thing. Contrary to an old Arab bromide, in the U.S., the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend. U.S. Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) would never share a stage with anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, nor should he.

In a perfect life, we could airlift all peaceable, decent citizens of the Middle East, clothe them, feed them, give them better shelter than they could have possibly imagined and then proceed to bulldoze everyone and everything else in that part of the world. But since life is so imperfect, a 50-year, Korea-type occupation is possible and probably necessary.

We may all uniformly lament that prospect, but don't confuse common sentiment for a single voice concerning America's role in foreign affairs. Had we rid the Middle East of bomb-toting fanatics, Bush's popularity would have soared. Americans love a winner.