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.
Such facts are perhaps too subtle or nuanced to fit into the hit-the-bastards-before-they-hit-us view Bush wants to sell to the public. He noted, “We are fighting against men with blind hatred and armed with lethal weapons who are capable of any atrocity. They wear no uniform; they respect no laws of warfare or morality.” That is true. But if the war in Iraq is nothing but a fundamental battle of good (us) against evil (them), then why is the US military, as the administration has acknowledged, negotiating with certain leaders of the insurgency? Can you cut a deal with evil?
Bush continued to maintain that Iraq is “a central front in the war on terror.” How did he prove this case? He quoted Osama bin Laden, who once said, “This third world war is raging in Iraq. The whole world is watching this war.” You see, Bush attacked Iraq (which had no weapons of mass destruction and no operational ties to the terrorists who mounted the horrific attacks of 9/11), a war ensued, Islamic fundamentalists rushed to Iraq to do battle with the Americans, bin Laden welcomed this opportunity to have his followers kill US troops (who might otherwise be coming after him or securing Afghanistan), and that is Bush’s proof the war in Iraq is “a central front in the war on terror.” In essence, because bin Laden said so after Bush invaded Iraq.
Don’t forget about DAVID CORN’s BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on who was wrong on Iraq, NPR’s vacancy in Baghdad, and Karl Rove’s hypocrisy.
Bush tried to acknowledge the troubles in Iraq, while pushing the good news: “Our progress has been uneven, but progress is being made.” He also said, “In the past year, we have made significant progress.” In case anyone missed the message, he noted, “The progress in the past year has been significant, and we have a clear path forward.” He also remarked, “We have made progress, but we have a lot more work to do.” What signs of progress did he point to? He claimed that 160,000 Iraqi security troops have been trained and that NATO and several nations have joined in the training effort. Bush did not address the fact that several nations have pulled troops out of Iraq. But he did concede that these Iraqi security forces “are at different levels of readiness.” How different he didn’t fully explore. For example, how many of these troops are capable of fighting the insurgents on their own? Bush’s answer: “some.” When Senator Joe Biden returned recently from a trip to Iraq, he said he had been told that of the 107 Iraqi battalions being trained, only three were operational. Three certainly is “some.”
Bush hailed developments that have been mixed at best. He declared, “we are partnering coalition units with Iraqi units. These coalition Iraqi teams are conducting operations together in the field. These combined operations are giving Iraqis a chance to experience how the most professional armed forces in the world operate in combat.” But media reports from Iraq note that Iraqi and American units have often not worked together effectively. American soldiers have expressed doubts about the abilities and commitment of their Iraqi counterparts. The Iraqis have voiced resentment about their American partners. (Click here for one depressing account.) In any event, US military officials have estimated it could take several years to train an effective Iraqi security force. Bush made no reference to such a timeframe. Instead, he tossed out catchy spin: “As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.” Nor did he have anything to say about Rumsfeld’s and Vice President Dick Cheney’s recent comments on the insurgency. (Cheney said the opposition was in its “last throes,” Rumsfeld noted that quashing the insurgency could take up to twelve years.)
No, everything policy-wise is fine. There is no reason for even minor adjustments. And Bush hid behind his commanders when necessary. “Some Americans ask me,” he said, “‘If completing the mission is so important, why don’t you send more troops?’ If our commanders on the ground say we need more troops, I will send them. But our commanders tell me they have the number of troops they need to do their job.” Then why do backers of the war complain about the porous borders (especially the Syrian border) that permit foreign jihadists to enter Iraq? Might that have something to do with there being not enough troops to secure the borders?
But never mind all that on-the-ground stuff; freedom is on the march. “Iraqis,” Bush said, “will bind their multiethnic society together in a democracy that respects the will of the majority and protects minority rights.” Let’s hope he’s right. But such happy-talk ignores the sectarian violence that appears to be on the rise within Iraq. The problem there is not merely that anti-American terrorists are using murder and mayhem to block the achievement of democracy. There are fundamental divides within the nation that are playing out–all too often in violent fashion–as well. But recognition of that would interfere with Bush’s comic-book version of the evildoers-versus-us struggle in Iraq.
In this speech, Bush reprised the messianic and simplistic neocon analysis (or fantasy) that the war in Iraq has led to the spread of democracy elsewhere. He proclaimed, “Across the broader Middle East, people are claiming their freedom. In the last few months, we have witnessed elections in the Palestinian Territories and Lebanon. These elections are inspiring democratic reformers in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.” Well, Yassir Arafat’s timely death did more than the war in Iraq to bring about the recent electoral success in the Palestinian Territories. The election in Lebanon was scheduled before Iraqis trekked to the polls. The Saudi election was a modest affair (and women need not apply). And in Egypt, democratic reformers howled about Laura Bush’s support of an election law that allowed the ruling party to decide who could run against it.
Without showing much enthusiasm–is he war-weary?–Bush ended with the usual rah-rah. He suggested that anyone who counsels withdrawal is not part of the American tradition: “The American people do not falter under threat, and we will not allow our future to be determined by car bombers and assassins….Americans have always held firm, because we have always believed in certain truths. We know that if evil is not confronted, it gains in strength and audacity and returns to strike us again. We know that when the work is hard, the proper response is not retreat, it is courage.” In other words, don’t be wimps, don’t listen to those who say that it might be time to rethink what the United States is doing in Iraq. Stay the course. Just do it. Believe.
With the polls registering what might be deepening skepticism about the war, this may be the most powerful political argument Bush has: Americans don’t quit. His allies in Congress and the commentariat have been repeating a street-level variant of this message: America does not turn tail. It’s the ultimate fall-back position for the pro-war crowd. It is not a policy argument; it’s pushing a psychological button. And as the public mood appears to sour on the war, Bush-backers are also starting to accuse critics at home of undermining the war effort and–worse of all–demoralizing the troops in Iraq. Bush stayed clear of this scoundrel maneuver. But soon after his speech was done, Senator John Warner, the Republican chairman of the armed services committee, was on Fox News Channel warning unnamed persons of making “statements back home….that are troubling the troops.” He added, “We here at home have to show a strong bipartisan support for our troops.” This is the ultimate escape hatch for supporters of a war that is not going well: the critics are to blame. Bush ended his speech by thanking and praising the members of the US military and their families. He said nothing about the recently disclosed $1 billion shortfall in funding for veterans’ health care.
Bush’s speech will not alter the landscape–here or in Iraq. It was the rhetorical equivalent of treading water. Before the speech, NPR had asked me to talk about the address afterward with a conservative pundit. Minutes before we were to go on, an NPR worker called. We’ve decided, she said, that there was not enough in the speech to warrant an analysis segment. I could hardly protest.
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