WASHINGTON - Being president can be really, really hard.
"Sometimes you're the commander in chief," W. explained to Scott Pelley on "60 Minutes." "Sometimes you're the educator in chief, and a lot of times you're both when it comes to war."
President Bush has been dutifully making the rounds of TV news shows, trying to make the case that victory in Iraq is "doable." He thinks the public will support the surge if he can simply illuminate a few things that we might have been too thick to understand. For instance, he says he needs to "explain to people that what happens in the Middle East will affect the future of this country."
He also told Jim Lehrer on Tuesday night that in 20 years, radical Shiites could be warring with radical Sunnis and Middle Eastern oil could fall into the hands of radicals, who might also get control of weapons of mass destruction.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
So after scaring Americans into backing the Sack of Iraq by warning that radicals could get WMD, now he's trying to scare Americans into supporting the surge in Iraq by warning that radicals could get WMD. So many deaths, so little progress.
It's unnerving to be tutored by an educator in chief who is himself being tutored. The president elucidating the Iraqi insurgency for us is learning about the Algerian insurgency from the man who failed to quell the Vietcong insurgency.
During his "60 Minutes" interview, Bush mentioned that he was reading Alistair Horne's classic history, "A Savage War of Peace," about why the French suffered a colonial disaster in a guerrilla war against Muslims in Algiers from 1954 to 1962. The book was recommended to W. by Henry Kissinger, who is working on an official biography of himself with Horne.
Horne recalled that Kissinger told him: "The president's one of my best students. He reads all the books I send him."
It seems far too late for Bush to begin studying about counterinsurgency now that Iraq has cratered into civil war. Can't someone get the president a copy of "Gone With the Wind"?
Maybe it was inevitable, once W. started reading Camus' "L'Etranger," set in Algeria, that he would move on to Horne. As The Washington Post military correspondent Tom Ricks wrote in November, the Horne book has been an underground best-seller among U.S. military officers for three years, and "Algeria" has become almost a code word among U.S. counterinsurgency specialists - "a shorthand for the depth and complexity of the mess we face in Iraq."
I asked Horne, who was at his home in a small village outside Oxford, England, what the president could learn from his book.
"The depressing problem of getting entangled in the Muslim world," he replied. "Algeria was a thoroughly bloodthirsty war that ended horribly and cost the lives of about 20,000 Frenchmen and a million Algerians. There was a terrible civil war afterwards, leading up to almost the present day, in which 100,000 Algerians died. De Gaulle ended up giving literally everything away and left without his pants."
De Gaulle had all of the same misconceptions as W.: that his prestige could persuade the Muslims to accept his terms; that the guerrillas would recognize military defeat and accept sensible compromise; and that, as Horne writes, "time would wait while he found the correct formula and then imposed peace with it."
The best thing now, he said, is to try to "get around the mullahs" and "get non-Christian forces in there as quickly as possible, mercenaries. As Henry said the other day, if only we had two brigades of Gurkhas to send to Baghdad."
Meanwhile, maybe W. should move on to reading Sartre. "No Exit," perhaps.
Maureen Dowd, a columnist for the New York Times, can be reached at New York Times, editorial department, 229 W. 43rd St., New York, NY 10036.