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Poetry as a Tool of Foreign Policy

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The President's PR push on Iraq hit the Woodrow Wilson Center, stop four on his Grudging (Kinda, Sorta) Admissions on Iraq speaking tour. The latest half-hearted attempt was his statement that "much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong." Nothing, mind you, about him and Cheney and Condi and Rummy using every trick in the book to gin up and sell that "wrong intelligence" to the American people. No, just a generic statement of something that's been obvious since "slam dunk" turned into "What WMD?"

The question is, was anybody listening? Apparently not in the Senate. Check out this hilarious NPR story filed by David Welna, in which Republicans Jon Kyl, Lisa Murkowski, Chuck Hagel, Johnny Isakson, Olympia Snowe, and Jeff Sessions all admit they hadn't caught the speech. Too busy cramming in their last minute Christmas shopping, I suppose.

I did watch the speech (I shopped early) -- and was particularly struck by the part where the president told the story of Lt. Ryan McGlothlin, a Marine killed last month during a firefight near the Syrian border.

It is indeed an amazing story of duty and selflessness and patriotism. And sacrifice. McGlothlin was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of William & Mary who had received a full scholarship to pursue his doctorate in chemistry at Stanford -- then gave it up to follow his lifelong dream of joining the Marines, where he was the top graduate in his class at Office Candidate School.

According to his parents, Ryan had been enraged by 9/11 and felt he had a duty to serve and protect America -- even if it meant risking getting killed.

Making the story even more dramatic is the fact that McGlothlin had not voted for Bush in either 2000 or 2004. "Ryan didn't support me in the last election," said Bush in his speech, "but he supported our mission in Iraq." Or, as his father told the L.A. Times: "My son told us... 'I won't vote for Mr. Bush, but I'll take a bullet for him.'"

Bush wrapped up his telling of McGlothlin's story by explaining that in the fallen soldier's pocket was a poem that, as the president put it, "represented the spirit of this fine Marine. The poem was called 'Don't Quit.'"

Then the topper: "In our fight to keep America free, we'll never quit."

And just like that, the sacrifice of this courageous young American had been co-opted in the service of a disastrous war. Reduced to a zippy one-liner, a heart-rending punchline, a camera-ready sound bite used to equate for the nation a wise change of course with cowardly quitting.

As if that two-word title justified all the tragic mistakes made in Iraq and all the lives tragically cut short.

Now, I'm glad that the poem -- which was written by Edgar Guest, and has absolutely nothing to do with this or any other war -- gave Lt. McGlothin comfort. But what in the world does it have to do with what the right course of action is in Iraq?

Do we really want our strategy in Iraq to be guided by sentiments such as these from "Don't Quit"?:

Life is queer with its twists and turns,

As every one of us sometimes learns,

And many a failure turns about

When he might have won had he stuck it out

Sticking it out is one of the most valuable traits a person can have. But isn't it an essential quality of leadership to know when it's folly -- not strength, not wisdom -- to stick to a disastrous course?

If only Ryan had been carrying a poem called "Face the Facts."