Talking Points seems to be getting old.
The first sign has been creeping up on me slowly for the last several months: Frank Sinatra just seems a lot cooler to me than he used to. I mean, yes, yes, yes, I still mainly listen to Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones and John Coltrane and Billie Holiday. But that voice! I mean, I'm not sure quite what he had but, man, he had a lot of it.
Admittedly the whole thing is a rather disturbing development. Maybe it's something to do with the Cianci affliction.
The second sign came on me this afternoon with a jolt. I was working my way down my normal jogging path on S street in Dupont circle when a little goofball on a skateboard -- maybe 13 years old or so -- was coming toward me and stumbled and fell in my direction. I hopped out of the way and all in one motion steadied him with one outstretched hand as he fell. And as this happened I instinctively blurted out an avuncular "Watch out, son."
Son? SON!!! Watch out, son? Where'd that come from? I'm only 33 years old. I'm not even old enough to ... or at least ...
Anyway, enough about me. What I actually came to talk to you about tonight is Iraq.
There have been a slew of quite good articles appearing recently. Not all great actually, but good informational articles. Here's one yesterday which appeared in UPI, another in the Times of London and this from today's USA Today. There's a lot of good information in each of these pieces. But, frankly, my doctrine on these pieces in the dailies is not to believe any of them. If you did you would have to believe that the US from one day to the next went from preparing to go to war with Iraq to backing out of it entirely and then back to war again, all within a couple days. These articles are all based on self-interested leaks and few if any of them take the time to probe the nature of their sources self-interest, though that is admittedly a difficult thing to do. Each of the three pieces above has solid factual information. But the central thrust of each is, to the best of my knowledge, false.
There is one fact, however, that I believe may be becoming clear.
Many people believe that an Iraq invasion would be questionable, perhaps disastrous, policy but great politics. Great politics at least in the sense that a successful campaign in Iraq sometime in 2003 or 2004 would seal George W. Bush's reelection.
The truth I think is almost precisely the opposite.
(The Bush administration has gotten a lot of things completely upside down about Iraq and this is totally one of them.)
As regular readers of this column know, a couple months ago I came to the reluctant conclusion that regime change in Iraq probably was the right thing to do. But I feel pretty strongly that it's at best a wash politically.
Let's grant for a moment that if an invasion of Iraq went badly the political consequences would be disastrous for the administration. I don't think anyone doubts that. But let's say it went well: a quick victory, no grave collateral damage either human or geo-political, and few US casualties.
Still, I'd say it's basically a wash for the administration.
For better or worse President Bush has convinced a substantial majority of the country that he's a strong war leader and a sure hand at foreign policy. Whether or not you or I believe that is irrelevant. Most of the country does. And so, unlike the case when he came into office, it wouldn't accomplish that much politically for President Bush to show he could successfully conduct a military campaign.
The other point is more fundamental. I suspect that if the US invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam's government with few negative consequences, the typical American voter's response would be something like this: "Wow. That was impressive. Great execution. I guess we're not gonna have to worry about Saddam Hussein any more. But then again I'd never really given the whole thing too much thought anyway. So what's the next issue?"
I don't doubt for a second that if such a successful engagement took place during an election, or not that long before it, that the president would get a sizeable boost. But not too long after I suspect the political benefit would be gone entirely, much as it was in 1991. This issue is just not very high on anybody's agenda. It's a big gamble. And it wouldn't end for a long time. The United States would have a big military presence on the ground for a years and years.
9/11 was totally different. Everybody in the country was scared and angry. Very scared and very angry. The president said he'd strike back. He did strike back. And at least in the first major engagement -- overthrowing the Afghan government -- he succeeded rapidly and unambiguously. It's never surprised me that his popularity has lasted as long as it has.
But Iraq? Totally different. This doesn't mean it shouldn't be done. I think it's still the right thing to do. But politically it's a total loser.