George W. Bush finally has dipped his toe into the reality-based pool.
Standing in the White House library–because his PR guides wanted him to seem “conversational”–the president delivered a long-in-the-hyping speech on Iraq on Wednesday night, and he conceded what the American people have already figured out: his war is not faring well. Shortly before the November elections, Bush declared, “we’re winning” in Iraq. With public opinion polls showing that close to three-quarters of the nation disapprove of his handling of the war, Bush wanted to demonstrate that he, too, is aware that Iraq is a mess. So he said, “The situation in Iraq is…unacceptable to me….Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me.” But here’s the obvious question: given the president’s history of false and misleading statements about the war and his record of poor decision-making related to the war, why should anyone accept anything he says or proposes now? He has no credibility–and far too long of a resume of failure. One speech–standing or sitting–will not make a difference in how Americans regard Bush and the war. There will be no surge of popular support for his newest plan: sending 21,000 additional US troops to Iraq for a last-chance stab at securing and stabilizing Baghdad.
Bush’s announcement of this escalation came as no surprise. Critics and advocates of such a thrust have been debating the idea for weeks, anticipating Bush would order such a move. After all, it seemed the only choice left available to pro-war partisans. But the whole notion rests upon a rather iffy proposition: that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki shares Bush’s vision and can deliver. Maliki is Bush’s lifeline in Iraq. Bush’s escalation can only succeed if Maliki’s government does what Bush says it will do: clamp down on the sectarian violence that is partly fueled by Shiites who are part of Maliki’s government. In his speech, Bush credulously quoted a Maliki statement from last week: “The Baghdad security plan will not provide a safe haven for any outlaws, regardless of [their] sectarian or political affiliation.” And Bush noted that Maliki has pledged that there will be no “political or sectarian interference” in the coming campaign to pacify Baghdad. As a cynical foreign policy realist might say, Isn’t it pretty to think so?
Maliki’s word is not much better than Bush’s. Parts of his government have protected–if not sponsored–Shiite death squads. And two weeks ago, Maliki told The Wall Street Journal that he wanted to bow out as prime minister before his term expires. Bush’s reliance on Maliki’s promises and character brings to mind his 2001 endorsement of Russian President Vladimir Putin: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy….I was able to get a sense of his soul.” Without a sincere and successful effort from Maliki and his colleagues, Bush’s plan has no real meaning. And that means the lives of US soldiers in Iraq will depend upon the integrity and competence of a leader who so far has failed and who recently expressed a desire to abdicate.