Last week, President Bush delivered a blatantly political and laughably facile public relations presentation at the U.S. Naval Academy that dumped an expensive, glossy "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" on a public tired of waiting, tired of death, and tired of the very word victory. George Bush looked every bit like the CEO President his handlers promised us in 2000, all Powerpoint and annual reports in front of a friendly audience (actually young men and women who are under obligation to listen attentively to their commander-in-chief) and of course, the obligatory "step and repeat" backdrop.
The step and repeat has become a basic instrument in the event-planners toolbox: banners and signage that repeat a logo, a theme, a slogan. It's all about branding and keeping it simple; controlling the backdrop for still cameras and B-roll footage - controlling the keywords, the event tag, the quick takeaway for short attention spans. For the bullet point President, it's about cutting that deck down to a single, short bullet. This week, it was "Plan for Victory" over and over and over again, printed on plastic sheets on a backdrop made to look like the steel rivets of a last-century battleship: some designer's book-cover idea of projecting naval history and strength onto Bush's latest speech saying virtually nothing.
That's the problem with the Bush Administration's prosecution of this war: it's all step and repeat.
It's all a single bullet point slide in a never-ending Powerpoint presentation of sameness and blood, with Cheney and Rumsfeld taking turns on the clicker, calling "next, next, next" as the same slogan appears over and over again - just like the same headlines and wire service reports of roadside bombs, insurgent snipers, and bombed-out weddings and funerals. The grade C public relations effort might well be laughable if nearly 2,200 Americans didn't lay dead in answer for this adventurous, never-ending folly.
Stay the course. Step and repeat. Plan for victory. Step and repeat. Mission accomplished. Step and repeat. Don't cut and run. Step and repeat. Whatever it takes. Step and repeat. Bring 'em on. Step and repeat.
In front of the faux gun-metal backdrop at Annapolis, to an audience of 18-22-year-olds ordered to be there, Bush uttered the latest in a series of Stateside tough boy lines, all the macho PR that can be mustered by a 60-year-old oilman who retires every night to ease and luxury:
"To all who wear the uniform, I make you this pledge: America will not run in the face of car bombers and assassins as long as I am your commander in chief."
He makes them that pledge - he makes it, not us, not the great middle America where two-thirds of the citizenry believes Iraq is a lost cause, according to every major poll. He makes the promise. And he backs it up with slick-looking banners and backdrops. Step and repeat.
He is, of course, assisted by a feckless Congress, which is only now beginning to every so gently stir to the realization of its own responsibility - nay, complicity - in this mess. Republicans backed their President and the neo-con wing; Democrats were worse: most made a quick political calculation and voted "aye" to toss away thousands of loves and billions of dollars with all the conviction of mid-level Vichy bureaucrats. As has long been pointed out by Republicans who despise this Administration (but do not say so publicly): what alternative do the Democrats have?
We've heard plenty of recrimination and finger-pointing - the "blame game" as the Rovians cleverly put it - but what plans? More troops? Better management? More Arab diplomacy? The best plan so far is Jack Murtha's draw-down of troops "over the horizon" and out of the killing zones of the back alleys and open highways. But that will never create anything resembling stability. It is time to admit there is no military solution: the best we can hope for is Murtha's stand-off, a return to the no-fly zone days. So if that's the case, what's the outcome - where can America lead Iraq now that we own it?
This week on the Imus show, Chuck Schumer (an eminently practical politician, to put it kindly) breathed in deeply and sent up a small trial balloon that didn't attract much attention - his idea (and something we've talked about from time to time on this blog) is partition.
No, it's not elegant. At first, it would mean Kurdistan and an angry Turkey that would require all the American diplomatic soothing we could muster; it would mean a religious Shi'ite Muslim Republic in the south; and it might mean Palestinian status for the Sunni rivals. There would still be contested cities, organized crime, and restless provinces. It would require a serious pan-Muslim peacekeeping force and massive international aid. It is not a glorious end; our troops don't march four-square down the main thoroughfare in Baghdad while grateful Iraqis play the Star-Spangled Banner. It requires a permanent legacy for the Bush presidency that puts it on a par with Harding and Buchanan in the pantheon, far below Carter and Bush 41 in moral leadership. But it is an end; it brings us out of an occupation we never should have attempted. It saves American lives.
And it puts and end to our pathetic, embarrassing, phony step-and-repeat policy on the U.S. failure that is Iraq.