Though President Bush was tired after his late-night return from Baghdad, his aides were smart enough to know that they could take advantage of at least one more news cycle. At his press conference Wednesday morning, Bush was clearly energized about progress in the Iraqi government. He started to talk before he’d even made it to the podium. He can be dangerous when he’s in a good mood—he gets cocky and Bushisms abound. But aides are willing to take the risk because his kinetic responses to questions about Iraq do more to promote his policies than hours of set-piece speeches.
He moved off the talking points to emote about his gut instincts about the new government, a spooky echo of his first assessment of Putin, and then made the extraordinary claim that his “doubts about whether or not this government has got the will to go forward was expelled [sic].” The president also employed dashes of candor he’s been adding since last fall, made some nods to his critics, and acknowledged mistakes—rhetorical moves he’s also been working on for a while. He even chastised himself for sounding too bullish about progress. Commentators afterward immediately picked up on Bush’s tone and his energy just as the White House had hoped.
At the same time, the substance of what Bush had to say was unusually boring. He talked about the Iraqi ministries, energy policy, the “new rule of law initiative,” “reconciliation committee,” “hydrocarbon law,” “public finance system,” and an “economic framework that promotes growth and job creation and opportunity”—were we suddenly in Brussels? Parts of the press conference felt like a tedious ministerial meeting at the European Commission. The president was this close to talking about plenary sessions. To make matters worse, then the president went on to delineate all the different Cabinet agency officials who will be making field trips to Iraq. Throughout the summer and fall we’re going to have to hear about Commerce, State, Energy, and Agriculture teams slogging over there to meet with their Iraqi counterparts. The only thing more boring than bureaucrats visiting bureaucrats is hearing plans about how bureaucrats are going to interface and dialogue with bureaucrats.
Perhaps this is a clever new political strategy. Despite yesterday’s flashy photo-op visit, the president’s most effective new gambit may be to make his progress reports on Iraq sound as tedious and normal as any other political occasion. It’s not a perfect pitch—it’s hard for Cabinet officials to hold “normal” meetings when everyone’s wearing 80 pounds of body armor—but the details of normalcy are a more powerful retort to the images of car bombs than any of Bush’s careful new formulations about the pace of progress.
The White House once thought a flashy carrier landing was the ceremony for success in Iraq. But the true indication of progress may be when the president’s speeches on the subject are just as boring as the State of the Union.