Hope for misleading muddle

It has been a week of strange, muddled and mixed messages. Suddenly the death of a famous if somewhat tragic figure, Anna Nicole Smith, drove serious news from coverage of the world. I lead with that observation because it helped drive a friend of mine from his home near Walter Reed Hospital to find some “reality” over dinner with his family in a local restaurant. He got more than he bargained for. He could not help but notice half a dozen young men missing legs and arms seated at nearby tables with friends or family — soldiers rehabilitating from their war wounds trying to enjoy an hour or so in the life of the nation they had sacrificed so much for. My friend was struck that a celebrity death could demand so much more news coverage than those soldiers and their fallen comrades. The war has been with us for so long that the grief and loss suffered by thousands of families is no longer news.

It has been a week of strange, muddled and mixed messages. Suddenly the death of a famous if somewhat tragic figure, Anna Nicole Smith, drove serious news from coverage of the world. I lead with that observation because it helped drive a friend of mine from his home near Walter Reed Hospital to find some “reality” over dinner with his family in a local restaurant. He got more than he bargained for. He could not help but notice half a dozen young men missing legs and arms seated at nearby tables with friends or family — soldiers rehabilitating from their war wounds trying to enjoy an hour or so in the life of the nation they had sacrificed so much for. My friend was struck that a celebrity death could demand so much more news coverage than those soldiers and their fallen comrades. The war has been with us for so long that the grief and loss suffered by thousands of families is no longer news.

Americans have had enough of that conflict. We no longer trust our president to manage the war and gave control of the Congress to Democrats because we expected them to end it. The U.S. Senate proved itself incapable of even expressing an opinion, let alone hastening the end of the conflict. That procedural fights and Senate “traditions” are more important than the lives lost daily was the message of that body’s sorry exercise.

The House of Representatives has managed to at least launch a debate, but with little more to show for it. Democrats lament the fact that our armed forces have become a referee in a religious civil war with roots that go back centuries. The Republicans are ticking off White House talking points. If we leave Iraq we will only embolden our enemies, they argue. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) even goes so far as to predict “If we leave they will just follow us home.” That is the 21st-century version of the domino theory. It was a fallacy when we were debating Vietnam and it is a fallacy as we debate Iraq.

The most striking example of mixed messages we’ve seen in some time broke this weekend with the announcement of “un-named military briefers” in Baghdad who stated emphatically that the government of Iran was responsible for killing American soldiers in Iraq. Showing bomb fragments with serial numbers and fine machine tooling traced to Iran, these anonymous experts fingered that country’s leaders as being specifically responsible for attacks on our soldiers. (Who were those guys, anyway? Did they hold a press conference with paper bags over their heads?)

The announcement was a chilling reminder of intelligence reports justifying our invasion of Iraq. Comments about retaliation brought back painful memories of American helicopters littering the Iranian desert 30 years ago in a failed mission that doomed Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

The White House, in the person of the irrepressible Tony Snow, endorsed those anonymous statements. The administration defended the unknown military experts and inched close to saying this was an act of war.

But this time the unified front broke down. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was not so certain the evidence was conclusive. Adm. William Fallon wasn’t sure either. And from Australia, Gen. Peter Pace rather strongly demurred. “It is clear that materials from Iran are involved, but I would not say, based on what I know, that the Iranian government clearly knows or is complicit,” he said.

So, was this all a trial balloon to test the nation’s willingness to launch yet another offensive? It is hard to believe the White House would undertake such an effort. Not only is our military stretched too thin and our country too tired of war, it would be the most counterproductive act of foreign policy imaginable. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may be a bellicose bully, but he has only a tenuous grip on power in his country. Nothing would strengthen his hand like an American strike against Iran. Nothing would better convince the whole unstable region that America was on a Christian crusade than an attack on another Muslim nation. Nothing could be more foolhardy than to expand a war Americans want ended.

Despite the conflicting messages out of our nation’s capital this week, one can only hope this announcement does not suggest the direction of President Bush’s foreign policy. The White House is suggesting the briefing may be re-staged on the record. That would send a dangerous message. Let’s hope they settle for mixed, muddled and misleading.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.
E-mail:
bgoddard@thehill.com