Another Irrelevant Speech on Iraq

Finally, after two-and-a-half years, George W. Bush has demonstrated that he -- or, that is, his speechwriters -- is not completely out of touch with reality regarding Iraq.

In yet another Big Speech on Iraq -- delivered at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland -- Bush recognized that the insurgency in Iraq encompasses more than "terrorists" linked to al Qaeda. In speech after speech in recent months, Bush and Dick Cheney have sold their war in Iraq as an us-versus-them confrontation between the United States and "terrorists" who want to destroy America. They regularly misrepresented the insurgency, refusing to acknowledge that it was mostly a homegrown rebellion composed of Sunni Arabs, some of whom are former Baathists looking to regain power, some of whom are fighting out of sectarian motivation. (This gang, while certainly anti-American cares more about gaining power in Iraq than annihilating Cincinnati.) Bush and Cheney talked about the war in Iraq as only a black-and-white showdown between US troops and al Qaeda-ish terrorists.

But at the Naval Academy, Bush presented a less comic-bookish analysis of the war. He conceded that the insurgency has been made up of Sunni Arab rejectionists, Saddamists, and terrorists. And he said the largest element in the insurgency is the Sunni Arabs. The terrorists, he said, are the smallest but most lethal slice of the insurgency. Here was the president at long last characterizing the insurgency in an accurate fashion. That's a good sign. After all, how can you win a war if you don't know who or what you're fighting?

Still, belatedly defining the enemy properly should not be considered a major accomplishment for a commander in chief who launched an elective war to neutralize a supposed immediate threat (Saddam Hussein harboring stockpiles of WMDs, building nuclear weapons, and plotting with al Qaeda) that did not exist. So Bush in his speech maintained that the effort to stand up Iraqi security forces is proceeding well. Speaking beneath a sign that declared, "Plan for Victory" (what happened to "Mission Accomplished"?), Bush threw out statistics illustrating progress in this area. He quoted US and Iraqi military officers saying that the Iraqis are increasingly able to handle security responsibilities.

But the Bush administration has attempted to prop up support for the war with impressive-sounding but not reality-based figures before. As former CIA analyst Larry Johnson noted yesterday:

[A]ccording to Rummy, Iraqi military and police forces are growing stronger each day. He said it so it must be so. Only one problem -- he said it before. Let's go back to October 2003 when Rummy asserted,
"In less than six months we have gone from zero Iraqis providing security to their country to close to a hundred thousand Iraqis. Indeed, the progress has been so swift that ... it will not be long before [Iraqi security forces] will be the largest and outnumber the U.S. forces, and it shouldn't be too long thereafter that they will outnumber all coalition forces combined."
So, what did Mr. Rumsfeld say today?
"The Iraqi army now has eight division and 33 brigade headquarters in operation, compared with none in July 2004, while the number of Iraqi army's combat battalions has grown to 95, compared to five in August 2004."
What in the world was he talking about in 2003? A division consists of about 15,000 troops. Fifteen times eight gives us 120,000. A battalion can be as large as 1000 men. So Rummy is claiming that there are 95,000 Iraqi combat troops as well as 120,000? But in 2003 Rummy claimed the Iraqi Army was close to 100,000. Which is it Don?
More than once in the past two years, the administration has presented upbeat numbers on the Iraqi security forces that proved to be tissue-thin. Moreover, the issue these days is not whether the Iraqi government's security forces can put down the small-but-lethal band of terrorists. Nor is it whether the foreign terrorists will take over Iraq, as Bush continues to suggest as a possibility. ("We will not turn that country over to the terrorists," he told his audience at the US Naval Academy.) Can Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's force of a thousand or so followers overthrow a hungry-for-power Shiite government backed by the United States and Iran? Increasingly, the issue is the rise in sectarian violence and the appropriate US response (military and otherwise) to a development that may be beyond the control of Washington.

As The New York Times reported yesterday, there is increasing death squad-style activity under way in Iraq, conducted by Shiite forces, not the Sunni-based insurgency. And as I noted before, the emerging political powers in Iraq are Shiites connected to brutal militias and torture. If civil war does break out, what should the United States do? Put another way, if the Iraq government is victimizer as well as victim, what should be United States' position?

Bush did not deal with such nuanced mattes. At the Naval Academy, he stuck to his usual rhetoric. He declared, "We will stay as long as necessary to complete the mission." He said if US military commanders say we need more troops, "I will send them." He decried Washington politicians who call for "artificial timetables" for withdrawing US forces. "America will not run ... as long as I am your commander in chief," Bush proclaimed. The audience applauded.

Will this speech work? Probably not. How many Americans are watching cable television at 9:45 in the morning (or 6:45 am on the West Coast)? Bush touted a document put out by the White House called "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq," which, the paper says, "articulates the broad strategy the President set forth in 2003 and provides an update on our progress" But much of the public has already rejected the "broad strategy" of 2003. Sixty percent of the public says the war was a mistake and that Bush "deliberately misled" the nation into war. An optimistic strategy paper promoted in the morning hours is not likely to change that.

At this stage -- 32 months after an invasion that Bush's allies said would be a cakewalk -- rhetoric and white papers cannot trump the depressing realities of Iraq. And every time Bush has served up a Big Speech on Iraq he has failed to sway the public. In his "National Strategy for Victor in Iraq" paper, Bush says, "Our strategy is working." Yet many Americans can look at recent developments in Iraq -- and the continuing loss of American life there -- and justifiably wonder, "this is what you call 'working'?" And if the mid-December elections go well in Iraq, this could lead to more calls in the United States for disengagement. If they don't go well, the same could happen.

True, the public may not be patient. But then the Bush administration did much before the war to underplay the potential (and, to some, obvious) problems and challenges that would emerge after the invasion. And patience does tend to wear thin if you believe you were bamboozled. So assertions from the fellow who many Americans see as the bamboozler in chief are not likely to resonate positively across the land. The value of Bush's word is at its lowest point in his presidency. This speech, like his previous speeches on Iraq, will have no echoes; it will fade quickly. But his mess in Iraq will remain.

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