The most pained look of the night on which George Bush delivered the most difficult State of the Union address of his presidency swept across the face of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice midway through the speech.
The President had just delivered the key lines from the foreign-policy section of a speech that — despite much emphasis on domestic issues such as health care, education and immigration and — would be judged primarily on the effectiveness of his remarks regarding the Iraq War.
This was the point at which Bush needed to convince a skeptical Congress. And he gave it his all — or, at the very least, all that his speechwriters could muster.
“If American forces step back before Baghdad is secure, the Iraqi government would be overrun by extremists on all sides. We could expect an epic battle between Shia extremists backed by Iran, and Sunni extremists aided by al Qaeda and supporters of the old regime. A contagion of violence could spill out across the country — and in time the entire region could be drawn into the conflict,” said Bush, who was making the case for his surge of 21,500 additional troops to Iraq. “For America, this is a nightmare scenario. For the enemy, this is the objective. Chaos is their greatest ally in this struggle. And out of chaos in Iraq, would emerge an emboldened enemy with new safe havens… new recruits … new resources … and an even greater determination to harm America.”
Then, again seeking to forge the clumsy link between the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and his war of whim in Iraq, Bush declared: “To allow this to happen would be to ignore the lessons of September 11 and invite tragedy. And ladies and gentlemen, nothing is more important at this moment in our history than for America to succeed in the Middle East … to succeed in Iraq … and to spare the American people from this danger.”
The carefully crafted applause line brought Rice to her feet, and she scanned the House chamber to see if it had connected with a Congress that has in recent weeks heard bipartisan expressions of opposition to the president’s scheming to expand the war. There was little question that she was hoping for a signal that members of the House and Senate were prepared to give Bush the time he was pleading for in a speech that featured the line: “Our country is pursuing a new strategy in Iraq–and I ask you to give it a chance to work.”
The response to the “nothing is more important” line on Iraq was anything but enthusiastic, as many — perhaps most — members remained seated. The Congress was not convinced by a repetition of tired rhetoric from a president who has repeatedly misjudged and misguided the war on terror.
Senator Barack Obama, D-Illinois, explained after the speech was done that, “The pall over the room was Iraq.”
Rice did not need Obama’s analysis. She knew exactly how heavily that pall hung over the chamber as she settled back into her seat Tuesday night.