War Stories

Bush Goes Back to Black and White

Sunday’s speech showed glimmers of frankness, then reverted to caricature.

Almost, but not quite

President George W. Bush came close to delivering a frank and forthright speech on Iraq Sunday night, but in the crunch, he reverted to form and the by-now-predictable mix of fact, distortion, and fantasy.

His tack these days—developed over the course of four earlier speeches carried by daytime cable and polished to a shine for his prime-time network address—is to admit past mistakes yet project absolute confidence in the course ahead; to acknowledge dissenting views yet denounce them as “defeatist”; to trumpet total victory as the only alternative to defeat yet fail to define the term in any realistic fashion.

On matters of substance, it is hard to tell whether the president believes what he is saying, and it’s harder still to gauge which possibility would be worse—that he does or he doesn’t.

For instance, at the start of his Oval Office speech, Bush said that the very holding of last week’s Iraqi elections “means that America has an ally of growing strength in the fight against terror.” He went further at this morning’s press conference, saying in his opening remarks that Iraq’s “rulers now derive their power from the consent of the governed.” During the Q & A, he added, “My optimism about a unified Iraq moving forward was confirmed when over 10 million people went to the polls.”

First, nobody knows, nor will anyone know for several weeks, how many people voted. Second, and more important, nobody yet knows how they voted. If they voted along a hard line of identity politics (Sunnis for rejectionist Sunnis, Shiites for fundamentalist Shiites, Kurds for secessionist Kurds), then the prospects for Iraqi democracy—for a politics that can forge consensus across regional and sectarian lines—don’t look so good.

Third, and still more important, democracy—as Bush himself has occasionally noted—is about more than elections; it’s also about, and critically requires, democratic institutions. Yet Bush is now talking as if the mere casting of ballots (even before their counting) has set the course of the fate of Iraq and, more, of the whole Middle East. The rulers “now” derive power from the consent of the governed. Really? Already? America “has” an ally in the fight against terror. Oh? Will a government beholden to the Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani share intelligence and devote troops to help defeat Islamo-fascism worldwide?

For a brief spell a few weeks ago, President Bush departed from his monochromatic view that the Iraqi insurgents consisted entirely of Saddamists aching for a comeback and jihadist terrorists aiming for a caliphate. He acknowledged a third—and much larger—group: “ordinary Iraqis” who simply oppose occupation. Now he seems to have dropped the complexity. “The mission of American troops,” he said in Sunday night’s speech, has been “fighting Saddam loyalists and foreign terrorists.”

The omission of the third group—those who are fighting strictly against the occupation—is not a small matter. To ignore this group is to misunderstand the insurgency’s dynamic, the main ingredient of its appeal, and the dilemma that underlies the stateside debate over whether to withdraw U.S. troops.

Here is where President Bush gets things most flagrantly wrong. In his Sunday night speech, he noted that many Americans are asking “if we are creating more problems than we are solving.” He went on:

That is an important question, and the answer depends on your view of the war on terrorism. If you think the terrorists would become peaceful if only Americans would stop provoking them, then it might make sense to leave them alone.

This is a caricature of the critics’ position. Most critics recognize that the U.S. occupation, in one sense, promotes order—but they also see that in another sense, it fosters chaos. The occupation’s deep unpopularity attracts many Iraqi Sunnis to the fight; it legitimizes the radical elements who would otherwise find no favor; and it forges new and especially dangerous bonds of alliance between jihadists and Iraqi nationalists. This is why American forces have so often seen tactical victories yield strategic setbacks. (For every Sunni killed, several of his cousins join the insurgency or at least provide passive support.) And this is why so many politicians, analysts, and military officers—including supporters of the war’s aims—think some sort of withdrawal must figure in any plan to avoid grave defeat.

And so the options facing the United States are not so stark or simple as the ultimatum—”victory or defeat”—that Bush put forth in his speech, especially if those terms are taken as synonyms for “staying the course or withdrawing.”

The president’s main point in all five of his speeches these past few weeks has been to stave off calls for a swift and total withdrawal of U.S. troops. Such a pullout, he said, would “abandon our Iraqi friends and signal to the world that America cannot be trusted.” The Middle East’s tyrants would “laugh at our failed resolve.” Global terrorists would be “emboldened.”

On these big points, Bush is right—and it’s why his evasions and omissions on the other points are so dangerous. Some sort of withdrawal is inevitable over the next two years. Everyone says so, from the secretary of state to the Pentagon’s top brass on down, publicly or privately, boldly or between the lines—not least because the troop deployment cannot physically be sustained.

Contrary to the president’s portrayal (another caricature), almost nobody with any political clout is calling for a complete or immediate withdrawal (not even Rep. John Murtha, who got the ball rolling). Almost everyone realizes that some U.S. troops—for air support, logistics, training, and low-profile special ops—will need to stay for quite a while, at least as long as the Iraqi government allows. But how the phased withdrawal is handled—far more, at this stage, than the outcome of any military battle—will determine the perception of reasonable success or abject failure. Until President Bush talks about this challenge and these dilemmas, any further speeches will amount to an evasion.