CBSN

A President Alone

President Lyndon B. Johnson listens to tape sent by Captain Charles Robb from Vietnam
Jack Kightlinger / LBJ Library
This commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.
When President Bush delivered his speech from the White House Library on Wednesday night, he was alone.

There was no audience — just a television crew, some staffers and the cameras. That was appropriate. Rarely in our history has a president made a speech like this — an announcement that a large number of American soldiers will be sent to a foreign war — with less public, political and international support. The president really is alone.

In war and politics, an essential measure of power is allies. Bush has few, and they are not powerful.

American public opinion is against the president. Poll majorities are opposed to sending more troops to Iraq, whether that's called a surge or an escalation. Americans overwhelmingly think the war has gone badly, has not been competently executed and hasn't been worth the toll.

World opinion is against the president. More important, the "new direction" announced by the president has no substantial multilateral or diplomatic component. No allies from outside the Middle East will be asked to send in troops or treasure — and none is volunteering. No alliances or commitments were announced. In the region, there don't appear to be any alliances or strategies. Is there any role for countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan? Is there any strategy for Iran or Syria? It is extraordinary that the U.S. is trying to create order in one of history's great geopolitical messes essentially alone.

The generals who have run the Iraq War so far are against the president. In 2003, the Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, was sacked for saying there weren't enough troops on the ground in Iraq. In his speech, the president said, "Our past efforts to secure Baghdad failed for two principal reasons: There were not enough Iraqi and American troops to secure neighborhoods that had been cleared of terrorists and insurgents. And there were too many restrictions on the troops we did have."

But in 2006, as violence in Iraq increased, the president said, "stay the course" — and his top generals resisted sending in more soldiers. Now the president has new generals, a new Secretary of Defense, a new intelligence chief and new ambassadors to Iraq and the United Nations. The "surge" plan is credited to outsiders — a retired general and a military historian from a Washington think tank. But the president does have a new team, and presumably they aren't against him.

The bipartisan assembly of wise men tasked with reassessing the war known as the Iraq Study Group is against the president. The report of the Baker-Hamilton commission, which briefly seemed to be relevant to policymaking and the course of the war, rejected the arguments for sending more forces to Iraq.

The party that controls Congress is against the president, but they can't stop him. The Democrats may not be united in strategy, but they are in simple opposition. Sen. Ted Kennedy will try and fail to cut funding before more troops are actually in Iraq. Both chambers expect to have symbolic votes expressing opposition to surge/escalation. A good chunk of the caucus wants all troops out of Iraq immediately. Sen. Joe Lieberman wants to send even more troops in. Many, perhaps most, Democrats are politically scared to be accused of being weak, dovish or unsupportive of troops in battle.

The president's own party is also divided. Sen. John McCain has called for more troops from the very beginning, and Republicans who agree are perhaps the best allies the president has. Most Republicans, like most Americans, are wary and worried. Since Republicans no longer control Congress, their support is somewhat less important than it was for the first six years of his term, leaving him more isolated in that regard as well.

The president said, "Victory will not look like the ones our fathers and grandfathers achieved. There will be no surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship." His speechwriters must have missed the irony there. Four years ago, the president ceremoniously put on war dress, landed on a warship and declared "Mission Accomplished."

On Wednesday, the president told the nation more bluntly than ever that the mission was not accomplished. The reason was primarily his own administration's actions and strategy — the lack of troops — and he accepted the blame. Now, with less political support and fewer allies, the president, alone, announced he will send more than 20,000 more American soldiers into war in Iraq.

I don't know if this weighs on him. If it does, he doesn't show it. Some will remember the famous picture of Lyndon Johnson in the summer of 1968, bent over himself in his chair in the Cabinet room, leaning his head on his clenched fist, a reel-to-reel recorder in foreground playing tapes sent from Vietnam by his son-in-law. It is a classic image of pain and isolation in power.

There is no such picture of President Bush. Maybe that's part of this president's strength or style. Frankly, I don't think many outsiders know much about President Bush's inner life. But in the outside world, by all the measures of politics and power, he is alone.



Dick Meyer is the editorial director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.

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