Despite widespread media attention to Sheehan and the activities of other antiwar critics nationwide, protests against the Iraq war have not come close to those mounted in opposition to the Vietnam War three decades ago. So far there haven’t been anything like the large-scale denunciations of President Lyndon Johnson, who at the height of the Vietnam carnage was haunted by the chant, “Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” However, U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska’s assertion earlier this week that the United States finds itself “locked into a bogged-down problem [in Iraq] not unsimilar, dissimilar to where we were in Vietnam,” coupled with growing numbers of editorials charging Bush with willful blindness toward the realities of the Iraq war, and reminding readers (as The New York Times did today) that the weapons of mass destruction that Bush and former Secretary of State Colin Powell claimed Saddam Hussein possessed “did not exist,” have led The Gallup Organization to assess comparisons between the public opposition to both the Iraq war and the Vietnam War. As Gallup’s Frank Newport and Joseph Carroll write:
Americans were much quicker to consider the Vietnam War to be a major problem facing the country than has been the case for the Iraq war. But at the same time, a majority of Americans began to call Iraq a “mistake” within about a year and three months of its beginning, while it took over three years for a majority to call Vietnam a mistake. ... At the same, Americans much more quickly perceived that the Vietnam War was a major problem facing the United States, with over two-thirds naming it as the nation's most important problem within the war’s second year. By contrast, even today, some two years and five months after the Iraq war began, only a little more than a fourth of Americans say it is the nation's top problem.Between the persistent questions about the prez’s truthfulness in leading America to war and the continuing protests in Crawford, White House officials seem to be turning downright testy. On Monday, when Bush spoke at a Veteran of Foreign Wars convention in Salt Lake City, Utah (and attracted a substantial antiwar demonstration), his spokeman told reporters that “President Bush believes that those who want the U.S. to begin to change course in Iraq do not want America to win the overall ‘war on terror,’” according to Editor & Publisher. Then, during a press briefing yesterday, embattled Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld compared today’s U.S. antiwar protesters with Stalinists and Communists of the 20th century. He said, in part:
Throughout history there have always been those who predict America’s failure just around every corner. At the height of World War II, a prominent U.S. diplomat predicted that democracy was finished in Britain and probably in America too. Many Western intellectuals praised Stalin during that period. For a time, Communism was very much in vogue. It was called Euro-Communism to try to mute or mask the totalitarian core. And thankfully, the American people are better centered. They ultimately come to the right decisions on big issues. And the future of Iraq is a very big issue. So those being tossed about by the winds of concern should recall that Americans are a tough lot and will see their commitments through.This reminds me of the ill-conceived statement made by General William C. Westmoreland upon returning to the States in 1967 in order to defend Johnson’s Vietnam policies. Westmoreland, who like Rumsfeld had been confidently predicting an American win overseas, called critics of the war “unpatriotic.” As The Washington Post noted in its obituary of Westmoreland a month ago, “Antiwar congressmen loudly objected, and Westmoreland, chastened, went before a joint session of Congress, gave U.S. fighting men a stirring tribute and ended by snapping no fewer than five salutes at the lawmakers, bringing down the house.”
Further contributing to the White House’s siege mentality on the Iraq issue may be recent polls that find Americans increasingly skeptical of Bush’s actions in a number of areas. An American Research poll released earlier this week found only 36 percent of respondents endorsing the way Bush does his job, while a majority--58 percent--disapproved. Now comes a Harris Interactive Poll that shows Bush’s job approval ratings “at their lowest point of his presidency,” with only 40 percent of U.S. adults giving his Oval Office performance favorable marks, while 58 percent have a negative opinion. (In June, the prez’s ratings were 45 percent positive and 55 percent negative.) “Much of this decline,” reports the usually Bush-friendly Wall Street Journal, “can be tied to the public’s opinion on important issues. The war in Iraq has climbed to the top of a list of issues Americans say it’s most important for the U.S. to address and the economy is now viewed as the second most important issue, according to the poll.” Harris also found that Dick Cheney’s approval ratings have “slipped” from 35 percent from 38 percent in June, while Rumsfeld’s numbers have declined to 40 percent from 42 percent. “Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is the only cabinet member whose approval ratings rose,” to 57 percent from 52 percent in June, according to Harris.
Bush is dead wrong if he truly believes that antiwar protesters “do not want America to win the overall ‘war on terror’”--or whatever they’re calling it this week. That’s so obviously another attempt to establish one of those classic Bushian “us vs. them,” “you’re either with us or agin’ us” dichotomies. Such a stark division might play well with Bush’s remaining loyalists, but to borrow a line from Rumsfeld, it “isn’t helpful.” Speaking for myself, I very much want to see an end to terrorism around the globe. But, like so many others, I don’t trust Bush to deliver it. Not when he extolls the sacrifices made by soldiers, but asks for no sacrifices whatsoever from the deep-pocketed Americans to whom he’s given substantial tax cuts; not when he promises to bring down 9/11 architect Osama bin Laden “dead or alive,” but instead launches an all-out war against Saddam Hussein that has turned Iraq into one of the Middle East’s richest breeding grounds for terrorists; and not when he insists on “staying the course” in the Iraq conflict, even though that course has proved to be the wrong one.
Cindy Sheehan is right to question the “noble cause” for which her son and so many others have fought and died over the last two years. Especially when Bush has changed his rationale for going to war so many times. WMDs? An immediate threat to America? A chance to build a democratic Iraq (even though the constitution now being considered by Iraqi leaders might not sound so democratic to U.S. voters)? All of these “noble causes” have been called into serious doubt since Bush declared “mission accomplished” in Iraq two years ago. Asking for explanations and honesty from the prez on this war--the war that, after all, will be his legacy--is certainly not beyond reason. It isn’t remotely near being unpatriotic or un-American. And while his answers probably wouldn’t, as Sheehan acknowledges, “stop more meaningless deaths,” they could go a long way toward healing the canyon-like rift Bush (who promised once upon a time to be a “uniter, not a divider”) has created with the Iraq war, separating those who want to believe in the enduring rightness of America ... and those who care, first, to see the American right triumph, no matter the cost. The trust U.S. voters must have in their elected officials to lead them into future wars is at stake.
READ MORE: “Who Will Say ‘No More’?,” by Gary Hart (The Washington Post); “Bush’s Iraq Fantasy,” by David Corn (The Nation); “Poll: Military, Media Fell Short on Iraq,” by Stephen J. Hedges (Chicago Tribune); “Big Media Lie--People Like George W. Bush,” by Cenk Uygur (The Huffington Post); “Please, Mr. President, Stand Up and Lead,” by Scott Hinrichs (Reach Upward); “President of Leisure,” by John Nichols (The Nation).
ADDENDUM: In a trenchant Salon essay, journalist and former presidential advisor Sidney Blumenthal suggests a bevy of “unanswered questions of consequence” that Democrats should be asking Bush--since Republicans won’t--on subjects ranging from Iraq (“Why was it necessary for the Bush administration to impose an arbitrary deadline on the drafting of the Iraqi constitution, the single most important document for a new Iraq?”) to Iran (“When asked about military action, President Bush has stated that all options are on the table regarding Iran. Has the administration drawn up military options?”) and public diplomacy (“With U.S. prestige at an all-time low throughout the world, according to several polls conducted by independent organizations such as the Pew Trust and the German Marshall Fund's Transatlantic Institute, what policies does the administration plan to change to reverse this trend?”). Worth reading.