Rhetoric only goes so far in trumping reality–especially when it comes to a messy war. George W. Bush has been on a roll the past two weeks, delivering one speech after another on Iraq, repeating incessantly he has a “plan” for “victory” and quasi-acknowledging that progress in Iraq (until now) has been a tad bit on the slow side. His poll numbers have improved slightly in this time period, causing some pundits to suggest that Bush’s sales pitch has been working–even though the fall of gas prices might be more the cause for the slight reverse in Bush’s freefall. Still, when you’re in a groove, why not try to keep it going? So on Sunday night, Bush took the best lines of his recent speeches and put them into a brief primetime presidential address carried by all the networks. Which meant that once again Bush–despite the fact he was trying to put a new perspective on the war and his management of it–resorted to the old spin.

There’s no need to obsess over every statement. Bush’s PR–even if it’s improved–is not going to have any impact on what happens in Iraq. His words cannot determine whether or not the new government there is run by theocratic, pro-Iranian Shiites looking to develop a Shiite super-state in the south. They cannot stop the rising sectarian violence under way in Iraq. Marginally better speeches might win Bush points at home. They will not matter in Iraq. Still, let’s look at some of the notable comments in this address.

* “This election will not mean the end of violence. But it is the beginning of something new: constitutional democracy at the heart of the Middle East. And this vote –6,000 miles away, in a vital region of the world–means that America has an ally of growing strength in the fight against terror.” It might mean that. The election might also lead to a breakdown in Shiite-Sunni relations that ignites a civil war (or, as some would argue, fuels an already existing civil war). Hope, as I’ve previously written is no substitute for analysis.

* The war “has caused sorrow for our whole Nation–and it has led some to ask if we are creating more problems than we are solving. That is an important question, and the answer depends on your view of the war on terror. If you think the terrorists would become peaceful if only America would stop provoking them, then it might make sense to leave them alone.” C’mon, who believes that al Qaeda would become peaceful if the United States did nothing? This is an utterly false argument. The issue is whether the war in Iraq (a) was a diversion from the fight against al Qaeda and other Islamic jihadists and (b) produced conditions favorable for the jihadists–such as recruiting and training opportunities and a decline in America’s standing abroad. No sentient person has ever said if you leave the “terrorists” alone they will leave us alone. This is brazenly disingenuous spin.

* “If we were not fighting them in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Southeast Asia, and in other places, the terrorists would not be peaceful citizens–they would be on the offense, and headed our way.” Tell that to the dead of London and Madrid. Bush infantilizes his critics by stating that they believe al Qaeda would be peaceful were it not for the invasion of Iraq. And it’s rather doubtful that because Zarqawi has managed to attract several hundred jihadists to Iraq that the terrorist threat to mainland USA has diminished. Most of the folks doing the fighting in Iraq are indigenous.


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* “My conviction comes down to this: We do not create terrorism by fighting the terrorists. We invite terrorism by ignoring them. And we will defeat the terrorists by capturing and killing them abroad, removing their safe havens, and strengthening new allies like Iraq and Afghanistan in the fight we share.” Safe haven? There is no evidence that Iraq was a safe haven for al Qaeda before the war. That’s been established by the 9/11 commission. And–once more–no one claims that ignoring the terrorists will lead to less terrorism. But the invasion of Iraq had nothing to do with fighting the terrorists who struck the United States.

* “America, our Coalition, and Iraqi leaders are working toward the same goal–a democratic Iraq that can defend itself–that will never again be a safe haven for terrorists–and that will serve as a model of freedom for the Middle East.” Again with the safe haven? Is this new way Bush is trying to link–perhaps more subtly–Iraq to the 9/11 attack? Saddam Hussein did support anti-Israeli terrorists (as have other Arab states). He did not–according to the available evidence–provide a base to al Qaeda.

* “At this time last year, there were only a handful of Iraqi army and police battalions ready for combat. Now, there are more than 125 Iraqi combat battalions fighting the enemy–more than 50 are taking the lead–and we have transferred more than a dozen military bases to Iraqi control.” At this time last year, the Pentagon and the administration was claiming that much progress had been made in the training area and that tens of thousands of Iraqis were ready for action. That was not true. Any reason to believe the current numbers? How about an independent assessment from a commission or bipartisan congressional panel?

* “We are helping the Iraqi government establish the institutions of a unified and lasting democracy, in which all of Iraq’s peoples are included and represented.” Any comment on the rise in sectarian violence–particularly that conducted by militias associated with the major political figures?

* “We will continue to listen to honest criticism, and make every change that will help us complete the mission. Yet there is a difference between honest critics who recognize what is wrong, and defeatists who refuse to see that anything is right. Defeatism may have its partisan uses, but it is not justified by the facts.” Continue to listen to honest criticism? Here Bush is saying, let’s have a vigorous debate, but I reserve the right to label all you critics “defeatists.”

* “It is also important for every American to understand the consequences of pulling out of Iraq before our work is done….We would hand Iraq over to enemies who have pledged to attack us….To retreat before victory would be an act of recklessness and dishonor–and I will not allow it.” If the United States pulled out everything tomorrow, that would not “hand Iraq over” to al Qaeda and other jihadists (who may number only 1000 or so). The Iranian-backed Shiites (and their militias) would hardly roll over. And whatever accommodation reached between the Sunni insurgents and the foreign fighters would probably go poof. Whether withdrawal is the right policy or not, it is a scare tactic to depict disengagement as leading inexorably to an Iraq run by al Qaeda.

* “In the months ahead, all Americans will have a part in the success of this war. ” But not taxpayers. Bush will submit a $100 billion bill to Congress soon, and he will not ask wealthy Americans to help pick up this tab. Instead, he will just use the national credit card and leave it to future administrations to cover the extra debt generated by this war.

* “I also want to speak to those of you who did not support my decision to send troops to Iraq: I have heard your disagreement, and I know how deeply it is felt. Yet now there are only two options before our country–victory or defeat. And the need for victory is larger than any president or political party, because the security of our people is in the balance.” Is he saying that anyone who disagrees with his policy now is in favor of defeat and imperiling our nation’s security? Yes.

* “We remember the words of the Christmas carol, written during the Civil War: ‘God is not dead, nor (does) He sleep; the Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with peace on Earth, goodwill to men.'” Justifiably or not, many folks around the world see the war in Iraq as a war on Islam. Given this sad reality, is it wise to be quoting a Christmas carol to defend and promote the war? Who says Bush has come out of the bubble?