Some say the best way to win a debate is to invent a straw man on the other side, and then refute the crazy things they never said. I say those people are wrong.
The problem isn't using the occasional fictitious opponent in an argument; the problem is that's all President Bush ever does. They're his one great rhetorical "go to." Right after lies.
You could waste a lot of time, after a typical Bush speech, trying to find the imaginary people who believe the things he strongly doesn't. The liberals who loved Saddam Hussein, the racists who don't like "No Child Left Behind," the Democrats who said the answer to 9/11 was therapy, the women who wish there were more late term abortions.
Where does the President meet these people?
He says "some say" a lot, for a guy who brags that he never listens to anyone.
That's why I was reluctant to get on the bandwagon of dumping on this week's presidential address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. I thought it was a breakthrough. He finally named names. We finally found out who the "some" is in "some say." Who hates America, doesn't support the troops, won't give the surge time to work, emboldens our enemies, makes our allies question our resolve, and stands in the way of freedom abroad and strong families at home:
It's English novelist Graham Greene (1904-1991).
(Oh, and we also found out, once and for all, why we're in Iraq: To fight the Khmer Rouge.)
You're probably sick of it, but here's what Bush said:
"The argument that America's presence in Indochina was dangerous had a long pedigree. In 1955, long before the United States had entered the war, Graham Greene wrote a novel called The Quiet American. It was set in Saigon, and the main character was a young government agent named Alden Pyle. He was a symbol of American purpose and patriotism -- and dangerous naïveté. Another character describes Alden this way: 'I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.'
After America entered the Vietnam War, the Graham Greene argument gathered some steam. As a matter of fact, many argued that if we pulled out there would be no consequences for the Vietnamese people."
Oops, and then we've lost track of Greene, and gone back to "many" again. The anonymous people who simply didn't love the Vietnamese enough to keep killing them indefinitely.
But Greene started it.
Since the speech, lots of smart people on this very website have pointed out that Vietnam and Iraq are different countries. (Harry Shearer probably wrote something about neither of them being New Orleans. I don't know. I've been pretty busy.)
And lots of smart people, on this very website, have taken issue with the argument that the problem with the Vietnam War was that it should have been longer, and the problem with Cambodia was that we should have bombed it more.
(Saying Cambodia went bad after we stopped bombing is like saying, "That guy's health problems started when we quit stabbing him." It's an argument all right, but it's flawed.)
The exciting thing is that Bush never makes a speech just once. (Did you know that the people we're fighting in Iraq attacked us on 9/11? It's true.) So I'm kind of looking forward to Bush spending the next two years connecting the dots between al Qaeda in Iraq and Our Man in Havana. I want to see the next Bush photo op in front a backdrop that reads, "Plan for Victory over Graham Greene." Maybe we can invade Oxford. Or it can be like Oprah's Book Club in reverse. Every week or so, Bush will tell us another writer to ignore.
You can run but you can't hide, Nevil Shute.
Of course, the problem is that George Bush doesn't know Graham Greene from graham crackers. The Quiet American isn't about cutting and running on anything. It's a warning about a specific nation going through a tricky post-colonial stage, and how if America got involved it could turn the whole thing into a bucket of blood. Which, wait, let me look this up, is exactly what happened.
It doesn't move like This Gun for Hire or The Ministry of Fear, and it's not perfect like The Heart of the Matter or The End of the Affair. It's not even a beautiful mess like The Comedians. But it was right about America and Vietnam. It predicted the war like Greene had a time machine.
(Wait, what if he did have a time machine? There's another good reason to invade Oxford. No, that doesn't make any sense. If Graham Greene had a time machine he'd just use it to meet married women from the future, commit adultery with them, and drag them to mass.)
If Greene did have a time machine, he could cc Bush on a note he sent the Sunday Telegraph in 1975. (Its Washington correspondent had been citing The Quiet American.)
"He should not refer in this way to a book which he has obviously never read, but I hope at least he will read this letter. Other journalists please note."