Twelve days ago, The Washington Post reported that the Bush White House had concluded that George W. Bush–who was facing sinking polling numbers regarding the war in Iraq–needed to “shift strategies.” He would (of course) not be implementing any policy changes, the paper noted; his new approach” would be “mostly rhetorical.” Yet in his prime-time speech on Iraq–delivered before a quiet audience of troops at Fort Bragg on Tuesday evening–Bush proved the Post report wrong. There was no shift of strategy–rhetorical or otherwise. Bush delivered a flat recital of his previous justifications of the war, while offering vague assurances that (a) he realizes (really, really) that the war in Iraq is “hard” work and that (b) his administration is indeed winning the war. On that latter point, Bush mentioned no metrics (as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would call them)–that is, concrete indicators–to demonstrate that he holds a more accurate view of the war than, say, Republican Senator Chuck Hagel who days ago exclaimed, “The reality is that we’re losing in Iraq.” Bush’s plan this night was rather transparent: assert success…and then assert it some more.
At other points during the war when the White House became worried about public opinion, the White House dispatched Bush to make a major speech on the war. But those speeches had little, if any, impact on the public mood, the policy debate, or the events in Iraq. His Fort Bragg address can be filed in the same folder. It was an artificial event; Bush was standing at the podium and reading words off a TelePrompTer that were written by a speechwriter not because he had anything new or significant to say but because the White House had no better PR alternatives at this moment. (What no flight suit?) And in this White House reconsidering policy is not an option.
So Bush warmed up and doled out the usual fare. He didn’t even bother to come up with new lines of “disassembling.” Once more Bush claimed the war in Iraq was an appropriate and mandatory response to 9/11. He repeatedly referred to the enemy in Iraq as “the terrorists,” not the insurgents, continuing his strategic effort to blur the distinction between the foreign jihadists who have flocked to Iraq to kill Americans and the homegrown insurgent thugs who blow up US troops and Iraqi civilians for a different set of motivations. Bush keeps tying the insurgency in Iraq to 9/11: “Many terrorists who kill innocent men, women and children on the streets of Baghdad are followers of the same murderous ideology that took the lives of our citizens in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania. There is only one course of action against them: to defeat them abroad before they attack us at home.” Many–and probably most–of the enemy forces faced by US troops in Iraq are not followers of Osama bin Laden. According to recent estimates gathered by the Brookings Institution, there are now about 16,000 insurgents and about 1,000 foreign fighters engaged in the war against the US military and the interim Iraqi government. And Bush neglected to mention the recent intelligence report noting that Iraq–thanks to his invasion–has become an effective breeding ground for the anti-American terrorists who may indeed look to attack the United States elsewhere.