Bush's Speech Full of Reality-Based Desperation
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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 "conservational" -- 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.
What's going to change on the Iraqi homefront to make the deployment of more American troops worthwhile? Bush said that Maliki's government has to meet a series of benchmarks (including assuming responsibility for security in all provinces by November, passing a law that ensures the sharing of oil revenue, spending $10 billion on reconstruction projects that create jobs, and reforming the draconian de-Baathification laws), and he reported that he had warned Maliki that the US commitment to Maliki's government is "not open-ended." But can Bush pressure Iraq's political actors to ignore domestic politics and behave in a fundamentally different manner than they have to date? Can the White House count on the current leaders in Baghdad to mount a multi-billion-dollar New Deal within months -- and do so free of political and financial corruption? (Bush noted that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice "will soon" appoint a "reconstruction coordinator" in Baghdad "to ensure better results" for US economic assistance being spent in Iraq. Why does no such animal exist -- after nearly four years of botched and fraudulent reconstruction spending?) And how does Bush define "not open-ended"? In discussing his so-called surge, Bush never used the word "temporary."
Bush is doing what could be expected: digging a deeper hole in Iraq. It's possible that sending more troops might improve security in Baghdad and that doing so might create breathing space that might allow for some measure of political reconciliation. It's just as possible -- if not more so -- that the deployment of additional troops to Baghdad will do nothing other than force sectarian militants to do violence elsewhere and not address the basic factors driving the chaos and conflict that has been unleashed by Bush's war. Bush is merely placing a bet; the chips are the lives of American soldiers.
Bush's speech -- make that, conversation -- was absent soaring rhetoric. He did claim that the war in Iraq was essential to both the war on terrorism and the American mission to spread liberty. But it seemed that even he has come to realize that the time for such easy sentiments has passed. Americans, he acknowledged, want to know what he's going to do to undo the disaster in Iraq. He cannot say -- as did James Baker and the other members of the Iraq Study Group -- that there is no good solution for the problem he created in Iraq. So Bush is escalating the conflict. For him, there's not much choice. Staying the course would be unsellable. And extrication without victory is not an option. He has painted himself -- and Americans and Iraqis -- into a bloody red corner.
In a moment of quasi-candor, Bush noted, "Even if our new strategy works exactly as planned, deadly acts of violence will continue, and we must expect more Iraqi and American casualties." Indeed, Bush has gotten around to recognizing reality -- at least its most obvious elements. Yet he still is boxed in by his earlier refusals to do so. As a consequence, Bush's war in Iraq is about to become larger.