[ OUR OPINION ]
Bush takes risky but
PRESIDENT Bush's dramatic visit to Baghdad Thanksgiving Day simultaneously struck against growing doubts and criticism of his policies and fortified his political image to convince Americans that he deserves another term in the White House.
The president makes a surprise, covert visit to American troops in Iraq.
It was a dazzling strategic move that took full advantage of the muscle of the presidency, stunning potential Democratic challengers, maneuvering cleverly through a press corps insatiably eager for an inside view few others would have, while portraying for the public a man seemingly willing to put himself in danger to share an American holiday with soldiers on the front lines.
The stealthy and meticulously calculated trip, however, is a gamble for it binds the president even more firmly to the consequences of the Iraq war. He has little choice. Bush has placed most of his chips on his hallmark mission that has encountered grave challenges since his declaration of an end to the conflict on May 1.
Extraordinary secrecy shrouded Bush's visit, first through his aides' deceptively issuing information about his whereabouts and activities for the holiday weekend, then by spiriting him away undercover from his Texas ranch with a small group of hand-picked members of the news media whose cellphones and other electronic equipment were confiscated and who were restricted from telling their employers or their families that they were headed for Iraq aboard Air Force One. Even some of his Secret Service detail and Bush's parents, who expecting to share a dinner of free-range turkey and pecan pie with their son, were left out of the loop.
The deception was said to be necessary to ensure Bush's safety, but the president's plane is equipped with unsurpassed technologies that leave little risk for the kinds of deadly anti-aircraft attacks U.S. military planes have encountered in Baghdad.
Although the president said that if had word leaked out before his plane landed in Iraq, "I was fully prepared to turn this baby around," the idea of retreat in the face of potential danger was surely a political risk he could not tolerate, not when his policies have placed tens of thousands of men and women -- who day after day wear the uniform Bush donned for a few hours -- on treacherous foreign soil.
The surprise visit on a generally slow news day deftly reaped big headlines and hours of glowing coverage on millions of television screens across the country, which drew criticism from some political observers.
"This is a president who has been unwilling to provide his presence to the families who have suffered but thinks nothing of flying to Baghdad to use the troops there as a prop," Joe Lockhart, former spokesman for President Clinton, told the Washington Post.
Others praised Bush for putting his life on the line, but pointed out that the danger was minimal in a heavily fortified military installation. Michael O'Hanlon, a Brookings Institution analyst and critic of the president's Iraq policy, said the elaborate holiday stop was "a little bit contrived," but added, "It's politics."
Indeed, potential Democratic challengers were hard-pressed to find clear ground for criticism through the land mines of Bush's subdued acknowledgment of soldiers' sacrifice that bore little resemblance to his "Top Gun" swagger aboard an aircraft carrier earlier this year. The candidates were surely reminded of the power of the White House and brawny force of an incumbency.