Turkey Day Triumph or Wagging the Bird?
Bush's Bump in the Polls from Baghdad Trip Can't Veil Rising
US Casualties, Shot-Up Iraqi Civilians, and a Muddled Occupation
by Bill Berkowitz

December 13, 2003

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Ever on the alert for photo-ops and re-election footage, Team Bush put the president on Air Force One and snuck him into Iraq to visit the troops at their base at the Baghdad International Airport on Thanksgiving Day. Displaying good humor, the president, like some modern-day Wizard of Oz, emerged from behind camouflage netting dressed in an Army workout jacket. He served up a few meals, ladled out some war-against-terrorism-rhetoric as thick as gravy, and took off for home.

Bush's whirlwind political stunt played very well with the hungry holiday media and gave him a much-needed bump in the polls. The "dramatic corkscrew landing by a blacked-out Air Force One as protection against any antiaircraft missiles fired by guerrillas -- produced a bonanza of holiday images setting him amidst the conflict's most positive element: the nation's workaday soldiers," wrote the Washington Post's Mike Allen, who was on board Bush's plane.

Alternet's David Livingstone claimed, "It was a propaganda coup of the first order, replete with adoring camera angles and wildly cheering multitudes, all conducted under a shroud of Stalinist press secrecy. Indeed, the administration and its media admirers seem to regard its very deceit of the public and the press a point of pride."

Bush's Turkey Day trip also momentarily silenced the corps of critical Democratic presidential hopefuls. "They know how to punch the right buttons and paint the right picture at the right moment," said Donna Brazile, Al Gore's campaign manager in 2000. "This reinforces the images of Bush as a strong, decisive leader, and Democrats are right to give him a pass, temporarily. But now that he has made a visual connection with the [Iraqi] landscape, it's like Lyndon Johnson's visit to Vietnam. Now when there's a story about another casualty, people in the back of their mind will say 'Bush' instead of 'America.'"

Not many Iraqis appeared impressed by the president's visit. Reports soliciting the reaction of ordinary Iraqis found many of them wondering why the president didn't visit some of his highly-trumpeted "good news" sites while he was in town. Time magazine reported that to the man on the street -- even those who supported the removal of Saddam Hussein -- "Bush's Thanksgiving visit meant little." They are more concerned with "the killing of innocents, the 'disappearance' of countrymen detained by U.S. forces, and the destruction of buildings, including family homes."

And, as one person put it at an American Online Message Board, "What a shame the world's most powerful nation's president has to sneak in and out of a country that is occupied with U.S. troops."

According to the Associated Press, "The world did not learn that Bush had spent 2 1/2 hours [in Iraq]... until his jumbo jet was again in the air, flying back to the United States, where he arrived early Friday, making it back to his ranch in Texas shortly before daybreak."

Bush's trip to Baghdad brought back memories of his now infamous May 1st "Top Gun" landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln. The aftermath of that event has been brutal for the Bushistas as the rising number of US dead and wounded turned "Mission Accomplished" into "Mission Deficient."

Within hours after the president had departed Baghdad for Texas, the AP reported that two more US soldiers had died in Iraq. On Saturday, the press reported that seven Spanish intelligence agents and two Japanese diplomats died in separate attacks near Baghdad. By the final day of the holiday weekend, two more US soldiers were killed in an ambush in western Iraq.

According to Pentagon figures -- cited by the Orlando Sentinel's Roger Roy -- "Nearly 10,000 U.S. troops have been killed, wounded, injured or become ill enough to require evacuation from Iraq since the war began, the equivalent of almost one Army division."

Now that the president is back home, he has to deal with the grim reality of Iraq: Fallout from November being the deadliest month for US troops since the invasion began on March 20; the possibility of needing additional US troops; the more than 150 guerrilla attacks on Iraqi civilian and police targets that killed dozens during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan; Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's displeasure over the new transition plan Paul Bremer brought from Washington a few weeks ago, and the Ayatollah's preference for direct elections; recent reports claiming that US-trained Iraqi police forces may be assisting the resistance; and the civilian casualties rung up during the did-it-really-happen-the-way-US-officials-described-it "Battle of Samarra."

In the aftermath of Samarra, Tom Engelhardt pondered Iraqification, Vietnamization, and the forces now opposing each other in Iraq:

"What makes the guerrilla war in Iraq so staggering is that it's so modest in size. Imagine a set of scales. On one side a nation/imperium with a $401.3 billion military budget (and that figure probably leaves out at least another $100-200 billion in military expenditures of various sorts), a military armed with the most technologically advanced and powerful weaponry on the planet, intelligence services which have the capacity to intercept almost any message and hear almost any phone call almost anywhere on Earth, the most powerful economy on the planet, and probably a few more things I can't quite bring to mind at this second.

"On the other side of the scale, a modest insurgency with perhaps a few thousand to ten thousand guerrillas actively under arms, with at best modest funding, with no nearby states to back it, no obvious "sanctuaries" just beyond the country's borders to retreat to for regrouping or resupply, no unified central command, and no obvious propaganda outlets, all this in a land whose infrastructure has already been wrecked, whose main industry -- oil -- is in catastrophic shape, and whose people have been sapped of wealth, health and strength by several wars and a decade of sanctions, and well more than half of whom are unemployed, a land whose former leader is a discredited tyrant."

(You can read more Tom Engelhardt, the author of The End of Victory Culture, and a teaching fellow at the journalism school of the University of California, Berkeley, at the always informative TomDispatch.com.)

Columnist Gene Lyons summed up his reactions to Bush's Thanksgiving engagement in Iraq:

"What were my feelings? Immediately, exactly the kind of sentimental patriotic warmth the stunt was designed to evoke. As Molly Ivins and all my Austin friends say, George W. Bush is hard to dislike on a purely personal level.

"Next, mild irritation at the fawning of the TV talking-heads. OK, it was a nice gesture. But Lincoln, FDR, Churchill? Give me a break. Bush's late night airport visit took a lot of effort, but no particular courage -- no more, at any rate, than did Hillary Clinton's daylight visit the next morning. After that, I felt chagrin that a retinue of hand-picked journalists would agree to secret participation in a transparently political stunt. Finally, realization that should events in Iraq continue to spiral sickeningly out of control, all the warm fuzzies in the world won't save Bush from the consequences of his ill-conceived policies."

A week after the visit and with polls showing the president received the bump he needed, a bit of the bloom is falling off the rose:

According to Reuters, the Bush administration has backtracked from a story that a British Airways pilot had spotted Air Force One during the trip to Iraq and that he agreed to keep the secret. The story, told to reporters by White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett, was obviously aimed at enhancing the "drama" of the trip. Now that British Airways has claimed it has no record of a conversation between its pilot and the pilot of Air Force One, White House spokesman Scott McClellan admitted that the airline's pilot never did contact Air Force One. "The conversation was between the British Airways plane and the London control tower," McClellan said.

And the Washington Post's Mike Allen, who went along on the Thanksgiving trip, recently reported that the turkey that President Bush carried from out behind the curtain was "for looking, not for eating." According to Bush Administration officials, the "trophy turkey" was cooked but was meant only to dress up the serving table, while the troops were "served from cafeteria-style steam trays," Allen reports.

Having spent too much time attending fundraising events and too little time attending to the needs of the families of soldiers killed and wounded in Iraq, the president was no doubt hopeful that his Thanksgiving travels would have the public snookered by some sort of faux display of courage. And the public has bought it, just like it bought "Mission Accomplished" in May. My bet, however, is that as more body bags are shipped home and more families get fed up with an occupation spiraling out of control, the president's trip will wind up looking like a turkey.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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