War Stories

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Bush’s Iraq speech was great on the stakes and terrible on strategy.

Compelling and yet vague; honest and yet mendacious

President Bush’s speech tonight was the best and the worst of all his addresses on Iraq. When he spoke of the stakes in the battle and why the United States can’t yet leave, he made a more compelling case than he ever has. When he talked about the progress to date and his strategy for victory, he was even vaguer and lamer than usual.

He was honest enough to acknowledge that the road ahead is long and hard; that the insurgents still pose a dangerous threat; and that the new Iraqi government’s forces are at “different levels of readiness,” with some proficient at fighting on their own, others able to fight only with our help, and still others “not yet ready to participate fully in security operations.”

So much for Vice President Dick Cheney’s glib prognosis that the insurgency is in its “last throes.” Bush’s speech will have been worth plenty if it results in a widening awareness that Cheney is not to be trusted ever again.

Yet Bush engaged in his own mendacities. Over and over, he linked the war in Iraq to the attacks of 9/11, despite the by-now-definitive discrediting of any connection. He said he hasn’t sent more troops to Iraq only because the U.S. commanders on the ground say they don’t need more—a claim that the 700 Army airborne troops, who politely served as the president’s live audience, must know to be untrue. And in the one section of the speech that laid out “three new steps” in the battle for Iraq, he in fact listed three very old steps.

First, he said, “coalition units” are being posted with Iraqi units in combined operations. Second, coalition officers are being embedded inside Iraqi units as advisers. Third, we are working with the Iraqi interior and defense ministries. If any of these steps truly were new, saying so would amount to a shocking admission of how slowly the Iraqi troops are being trained. In fact, though, these operations have been taking place—sporadically and with mixed results—for well over a year.

Perhaps the most appalling part of the speech came toward the end, when President Bush told the American people how they can contribute to the cause. This Fourth of July, he suggested, write a letter of thanks to a member of the U.S. armed forces or help out a military family that lives down the street. Up to this point, the president had been describing the many ways in which the fate of Iraq will shape the peace and freedom of the Middle East and the security of democratic nations everywhere. And this is his idea of commensurate sacrifice?

Too bad, because in the first part of the speech Bush argued quite well that Iraq, as it stands now, is worth a fight. Yes, it was disingenuous and offensive for Bush to stand there and say with a straight face, “Terrorists want to attack our country and kill our citizens, and Iraq is where they are making their stand.” After all, terrorists came to Iraq only after Bush invaded it, then failed to secure it, practically inviting jihadists across the region to come perfect their bomb-making talents against the American infidels.

Nevertheless, the inescapable fact is that terrorists are making their stand in Iraq now, abetted by Baathists, criminals, and tribal or nationalist resisters. The Iraqi military is not nearly strong enough to stave them off. If the United States withdrew now or announced a date of departure in the near future, there is a real danger that Iraq could turn into another Afghanistan—or spark the tinder of a regional war.

It was equally infuriating to hear Bush quote Osama Bin Laden saying, “The whole world is watching this war,” meaning the current phase of the war in Iraq. Bin Laden had nothing to do with Iraq, and vice versa, before Bush launched the war two years ago. Nonetheless, he does now, through his associate Abu Musab Zarqawi, and therefore Bush is lamentably right when he says, “The outcome will leave them emboldened or defeated.”

And yet what are we—and what are those airborne troops in the audience, most of whom have served in Iraq and will probably be returning for another tour—to make of this speech? President Bush claimed the war is important, even vital. But he didn’t acknowledge for a second that any mistakes have been made, that any correction in course might be necessary. He defined the war as a regional, even a global, conflict—yet he outlined no new ideas on how to attract more allies. He did not lay out a strategy, except to continue along the same shrapnel-strewn path and hope for the best.