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Bush’s Doublethink

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The most peculiar passage in President Bushs much-dissected surge speech was this: I have made it clear to the prime minister [Nouri al-Maliki] and Iraqs other leaders that Americas commitment is not open-ended. If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people.

What could the president have meant by that? On one level its a waste of time to even ask the question. Bush says what he needs to say in order to justify whatever it is he wants to do. The standard isnt truth and logic but appearance. How will it look to the American people and, presumably, historians far in the future?

But on another level it profits us to examine his words, for they measure how deeply this administration insults the intelligence of the American people. Judging by the polls, they arent falling for it.

Americas commitment is not open-ended. No? So may we assume that if al-Maliki and his government dont fulfill certain conditions, Bush is ready to withdraw American forces and bring them home? Thats the implication except he cant really mean that. He has spent too much time lecturing us that Iraq is the central front in his war on terror, the decisive ideological struggle of our time, and that failure would be catastrophic for America.

If thats all true, how could he pull out simply because the Iraqi government isnt making nice with the Sunnis? (How could al-Maliki do it anyway? His brutal patron Muqtada al-Sadr wouldnt stand for it.)

And dont you think al-Maliki knows Bush cant withdraw? He hears Bushs speeches, too, and hes no dummy. So in fact he has Bush over a barrel.

So which is it? Is Iraq a place the United States cant afford to leave? Or is leaving a threat credible enough to force al-Maliki to shape up? Theres a third possibility: Bush may practice Orwellian doublethink, the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at once, never letting himself see that both cant be true.

As for losing the support of the American people, Frank Rich of the New York Times had it right: Since that support vanished long ago, its hard to imagine an emptier threat or a more naked confession of American impotence, all the more pathetic in a speech rattling sabers against Syria and Iran.

Perhaps Ive misinterpreted Bush and that its not withdrawal that hes threatening al-Maliki with. Perhaps hes threatening something else: regime change. Thats actually the only Plan B consistent with Bushs apocalyptic line. Al-Maliki might want to watch his back and read a biography of Ngo Dinh Diem, the assassinated first president of the Republic of Vietnam.

Does anything the administration says add up? Surge may be the word du jour, but what Bush intends is not a surge, just a plain old phased-in increase in troops. A small one at that, considering what the neoconservative hawks think is needed for victory. It all has the feel of a face-saving operation designed to kick the can up the road until January 20, 2009.

And notice the lack of talk about democracy. It has fallen into the memory hole. When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went to Egypt the other day she didnt mention democracy or the rule of law. As the New York Times reported, It was clear that the United States facing chaos in Iraq, rising Iranian influence and the destabilizing Israeli-Palestinian conflict had decided that stability, not democracy, was its priority, Egyptian political commentators, political aides and human rights advocates said. The Egyptian strongman, Hosni Mubarak, can do stability. Maybe hes available for service in Iraq.

Then theres Iran and Bushs open threats. Did he really not know that taking out the barrier to Irans expansion would pave the way for its regional hegemony? Does anyone think a move or two ahead in that administration?

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.