Staged troop interview hurts rather than helps

It is no secret that President Bush is desperate to improve the image of his war in Iraq.

But is he desperate enough to actually stage a teleconference with soldiers?

With Americans dying in Iraq on a regular basis and a vote on an Iraqi constitution looming, Bush asked soldiers serving in Iraq questions that were choreographed to match his own views and goals, the Associated Press reported on Thursday.

“This is a very important time,” Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Allison Barber told the soldiers before the teleconference began.

This is a very important time for Bush. His approval rating, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey released on Thursday, has plummeted to 39 percent, the lowest since he has been in office and the lowest of any president in 10 years.

As for public opinion concerning the Iraq war, an October AP-Ipsos poll showed that less than 40 percent approved of the way Bush is handling the war, while more than half believe invading Iraq was a mistake.

Meanwhile, gas prices remain high, and the economy continues to suffer.

Bush, perhaps trying to avoid another setback in the form of an angry soldier saying something off-color, staged questions and answers that would paint an enthusiastic, optimistic picture.

Before the actual teleconference began, Barber, according to the AP, led a rehearsal with the soldiers, ensuring that each one of them knew which question to answer.

Bush then interviewed the soldiers, asking questions and receiving what felt like practiced – not to mention overly glorified – answers.

For example, when Bush asked about the progress of Iraqi armies, a soldier responded, “I can tell you over the past 10 months we’ve seen a tremendous increase in the capabilities and the confidences of our Iraqi security force partners – Over the next month, we anticipate seeing at least one-third of those Iraqi forces conducting independent operations.”

This answer is peculiar because the number of American soldiers in Iraq has increased, not decreased, with a record 156,000 in the country. Also, according to Gen. George Casey, Bush’s top man in Iraq, there is only one Iraqi battalion capable of conducting independent operations.

The words and actions of the teleconference do not fully entail that it was completely choreographed, but it does raise troubling warning signs. The whole thing seemed forced and propagandistic. Bush wants desperately for the Iraqi constitution to pass this weekend. He wants Americans to believe Iraq is stable and that Iraqis can fend for themselves. He wants Americans to believe that, unlike this teleconference, the reasons for war were not staged.

Not only was the display embarrassing and sad, Bush’s credibility – which is crumbling already – stands to take another blow.

Bush’s trustworthiness concerning Iraq is nearly crushed. A few more hits like this will eradicate it permanently.