War Stories

No Exit

The State of the Union made Bush’s Iraq strategy perfectly clear. Iran, that’s a different story.

Much can be challenged and attacked in tonight’s address, but one charge leveled by the president’s critics—that he hasn’t laid out a strategy for our continued presence in Iraq—was firmly laid to rest. Those who thought President Bush might use Iraq’s election as the occasion to withdraw U.S. troops had their illusions dashed tonight. “We will not set an artificial timetable for leaving Iraq,” he said. “We are in Iraq to achieve a result—a country that is democratic, representative of all its people, at peace with its neighbors and able to defend itself.” Only when those results are achieved, he added to stormy, bipartisan applause, will our troops come home.

Some might dispute this strategy or these preconditions for withdrawal, but if they do, let them devise their own plans and start a substantive debate. Why do I doubt this will happen?

Still, that is quite a list of preconditions, and, by the most optimistic of appraisals, it suggests we’re staying in Iraq for many years. Take just those two last criteria of success—that Iraq must be “at peace with its neighbors and able to defend itself.” This requires not just a trained police force but also a well-equipped army. Iraq has few if any tanks or fighter planes, and few surviving soldiers or pilots who could operate them. Nor is the U.S. military training effort (which the president acknowledged is just beginning to get serious) geared toward defending borders or repelling an invasion.

Otherwise, in the few minutes he devoted tonight to foreign and military policy, President Bush stood on shakier ground. The most startling moment occurred when he encouraged a popular insurrection in Iran. At least that’s how I read this crisply enunciated sentence: “And to the Iranian people, I say tonight: As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you.” In his inaugural address last month, he pledged to support democratic movements everywhere, but the statement was so broad, it could be shrugged off as rhetoric. This call tonight, though, was specific. Is he telling the Iranian mullahs he’s got them in his crosshairs? If not, what is he telling them? And if the rebels of Tehran did rise up tomorrow, what is President Bush prepared to do for them? It’s dangerous to engage in this sort of talk without having a real plan. Ask the Hungarians who rose up after our urgings and got plowed down in 1956, or the Shiite Iraqis who did the same in 1991.

Some of the president’s statements on national security were simply puzzling. Again on Iran, he said, “We are working with European allies to make clear to the Iranian regime that it must give up its uranium-enrichment program and any plutonium reprocessing.” This is just false. The three major powers of the European Union—Britain, France, and Germany—are negotiating with Iran over these issues. It’s uncertain whether these talks will succeed. It’s absolutely certain that they won’t succeed without U.S. participation. Yet, despite the EU’s urgings, the Bush administration is resolutely staying away from the discussions. It wants to change the regime (see above), not deal with it, even if that means Iran ends up a nuclear power.

That brings us to North Korea. “We are working closely with governments in Asia to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions,” he said. Again, this is false. The six-party talks involving South Korea, China, Japan, Russia, North Korea, and the United States are in suspension. Our allies in the region have tried to persuade the Bush administration to engage in bilateral as well as multilateral talks with Pyongyang. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell favored such diplomacy. Bush rejected it, saying it would “reward bad behavior.” And so, North Korea has probably built a couple A-bombs since it resumed reprocessing two years ago. The Bush stance is particularly dispiriting given the news earlier today that North Korea supplied enriched uranium to Libya—a discovery made by Department of Energy lab scientists, not by our intelligence agencies. At one point in his speech, the president said, “There are still regimes seeking weapons of mass destruction—but no longer without attention and without consequence.” Kim and a few other bad guys must have had a good laugh out of that one.

There was one intriguing moment when the president said, “In the long term, the peace we seek will only be achieved by eliminating the conditions that feed radicalism and ideologies of murder. If whole regions of the world remain in despair and grow in hatred, they will be the recruiting grounds for terror and that terror will stalk America and other free nations for decades.”

Good point. So what are the “conditions that feed radicalism” and how best can we relieve them? His answer was all too vague: “The only force powerful enough to stop the rise of tyranny and terror, and replace hatred with hope, is the force of human freedom.” Well, money probably helps, too—which the president implicitly recognized in his well-applauded request for $350 million to shore up the new Palestinian authority. This all leads us back to the questions he raised, but didn’t remotely answer, in the inaugural address: What is freedom and how do we best spread it without wreaking chaos or empowering our enemies? (A “free and democratic” Saudi Arabia just now, after all, might well offer Osama Bin Laden a ministerial post.)

Finally, as he always does, President Bush infused his mission with a sense of not just confidence but inevitability, as if it were guided not merely by his determination but by the forces of history. “We will succeed,” he said, “because the Iraqi people value their own liberty.” (Would that right made might so easily!) His certainty is a trait that many admire—it’s probably what got him re-elected—but it can mislead people (perhaps including himself) into believing that this course can be traveled without risk or serious cost. Since so many commentators compared last month’s inaugural address to President John F. Kennedy’s in 1961, it’s worth looking at JFK’s first State of the Union speech, too. Like President Bush’s, Kennedy’s concentrated almost entirely on domestic issues (following an inaugural almost exclusively devoted to foreign affairs). But when he did turn to the challenges and dangers abroad, and when he extolled the value of human freedom, Kennedy plainly warned:

Our problems are critical. … Life in 1961 will not be easy. Wishing it, predicting it, even asking for it, will not make it so. There will be further setbacks before the tide is turned. But turn it, we must.

A return to that sort of candor—the acknowledgement that nothing is certain, that victory requires effort and sacrifice, and not just from the soldiers we send to do the fighting—would be refreshing.