Good politics and a good thing to do

Matthew Yglesias takes exception to Bush’s visit to Baghdad here and here. His objections can be boiled down to three points: How much “this little poll-driven PR stunt cost the taxpayers”; Democrats weren’t invited; “what the troops need is not a visit from the commander-in-chief, but a commander-in-chief who knows what he’s doing. Similarly, the ...

By , a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast.

Matthew Yglesias takes exception to Bush’s visit to Baghdad here and here. His objections can be boiled down to three points: How much “this little poll-driven PR stunt cost the taxpayers”; Democrats weren’t invited; “what the troops need is not a visit from the commander-in-chief, but a commander-in-chief who knows what he's doing. Similarly, the president doesn't need to spend a couple of hours with the soldiers, he needs to figure out what the hell is going on in Iraq and what he's going to do about it.” To address each of his points in turn: 1) My guess is that this did not cost a hell of a lot, in part because of the mission’s secrecy. Bush did not travel with his normal-sized retinue – according to this report, much of his Secret Service detail thought he was in Crawford, which meant they didn't travel with him to Baghdad. He did not travel with a normal-sized press contingent. The secrecy also meant that very few people were in on the loop, which prevented any large-scale activities. This trip was probably less expensive that a garden-variety stop in Chicago. 2) As hard as this may be for some on the left to accept, the president is the Commander-in-Chief. There are some events for which Bush will be viewed as the head of government rather than the leader of the Republican Party. Does Matt seriously believe that the troops in the mess hall were going to say, “Huh, there’s the President. Wait a minute, there’s Tom Daschle!! And Nancy Pelosi!! Awesome!!” Does this mean that this wasn’t a good political move for the President? Of course not. However, despite some problematic policies as of late, it is possible for a presidential action to simultaneously be the right thing to do and the politically savvy thing to do. This was one of those occasions. Those who criticize the president for the latter are ignoring the former at their own peril. 3) I agree with Yglesias that the really important challenge for Bush and the administration is figuring out a long-range strategy for Iraq – and Matt should bear in mind that unless the long-term policy sorts itself out, this trip will backfire, much like that carrier landing. However, that was true whether or not Bush went to Baghdad. It’s not clear to me whether the time invested into this trip was so distracting that the opportunity costs of lost long-term planning (which seems to have made new headway) are particularly high. Furthermore, Yglesias may be underestimating the effect the visit had on troop morale in Iraq. The media reports indicate that Bush’s visit was warmly received by the men and women stationed in Iraq. Given the importance of morale in ensuring a constructive military occupation of Iraq and a transfer of power to Iraqis, I would think Yglesias would approve of such trips. UPDATE: Matthew Yglesias responds. Robert Tagorda has some thoughts worth perusing as well.

Matthew Yglesias takes exception to Bush’s visit to Baghdad here and here. His objections can be boiled down to three points:

  • How much “this little poll-driven PR stunt cost the taxpayers”;
  • Democrats weren’t invited;
  • “what the troops need is not a visit from the commander-in-chief, but a commander-in-chief who knows what he’s doing. Similarly, the president doesn’t need to spend a couple of hours with the soldiers, he needs to figure out what the hell is going on in Iraq and what he’s going to do about it.”
  • To address each of his points in turn: 1) My guess is that this did not cost a hell of a lot, in part because of the mission’s secrecy. Bush did not travel with his normal-sized retinue – according to this report, much of his Secret Service detail thought he was in Crawford, which meant they didn’t travel with him to Baghdad. He did not travel with a normal-sized press contingent. The secrecy also meant that very few people were in on the loop, which prevented any large-scale activities. This trip was probably less expensive that a garden-variety stop in Chicago. 2) As hard as this may be for some on the left to accept, the president is the Commander-in-Chief. There are some events for which Bush will be viewed as the head of government rather than the leader of the Republican Party. Does Matt seriously believe that the troops in the mess hall were going to say, “Huh, there’s the President. Wait a minute, there’s Tom Daschle!! And Nancy Pelosi!! Awesome!!” Does this mean that this wasn’t a good political move for the President? Of course not. However, despite some problematic policies as of late, it is possible for a presidential action to simultaneously be the right thing to do and the politically savvy thing to do. This was one of those occasions. Those who criticize the president for the latter are ignoring the former at their own peril. 3) I agree with Yglesias that the really important challenge for Bush and the administration is figuring out a long-range strategy for Iraq – and Matt should bear in mind that unless the long-term policy sorts itself out, this trip will backfire, much like that carrier landing. However, that was true whether or not Bush went to Baghdad. It’s not clear to me whether the time invested into this trip was so distracting that the opportunity costs of lost long-term planning (which seems to have made new headway) are particularly high. Furthermore, Yglesias may be underestimating the effect the visit had on troop morale in Iraq. The media reports indicate that Bush’s visit was warmly received by the men and women stationed in Iraq. Given the importance of morale in ensuring a constructive military occupation of Iraq and a transfer of power to Iraqis, I would think Yglesias would approve of such trips. UPDATE: Matthew Yglesias responds. Robert Tagorda has some thoughts worth perusing as well.

    Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner

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