In his press conference Wednesday, George Bush presented a very different tone than we’ve heard from him before. He was frank about the violence in Iraq, the slow movement toward political reform, and his disappointment about both. He even admitted that he had been too optimistic about the pace of progress last spring, which for a president who doesn’t like admitting mistakes was like going on Oprah. But there was one point at which Bush stopped being candid. He talked about new bench marks for progress in Iraq but would not answer a hypothetical question about what would happen if the Iraqis miss those targets.
It’s always curious to hear this president say he won’t answer hypothetical questions—since the Iraq war was launched on the hypothetical proposition that Saddam might give a weapon of mass destruction to al-Qaida. This particular dodge was also curious given that when Bush talks about his No Child Left Behind education program, he boasts about the power of holding schools to account for not meeting performance bench marks.
But there are good diplomatic reasons for the president not to lay out in front of the cameras the consequences for the Iraqi government if it doesn’t clean up corruption within its security forces and make the political alliances necessary to give all parties a share in the country’s future. To do so would be to make Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Malaki look like a puppet before the world and the Iraqi people. To counter that view, the United States bent over backward to suggest that the Iraqi leaders cooked up the new bench marks on their own. Even so, al-Malaki held his own strained press conference: “This is an elected government, and only the people who elected the government have the right to make time limitations or amendments.” The schoolyard translation: “You’re not the boss of me.”
There is a reason conservatives used to be against nation building. It can turn into baby-sitting. That’s what this war feels like it has become: a tense exercise in which the United States tries to balance an uncomfortable mix of threats and pleas without being able to use ultimate force. If the al-Malaki government doesn’t do what the Bush administration wants, Iraq will become an even greater nightmare. But if the United States gets fed up and leaves, Iraq will become an enduring nightmare. In baby-sitting, this lack of true force is usually resolved when the parents come home. No such luck here.
The president said that he won’t put any more pressure on the Iraqi political system than it can bear, but how can he know what the Iraqi government can bear? He doesn’t even know what the American government can handle. President Bush outlined two goals for his second term—comprehensive immigration reform and Social Security reform. Neither worked out. It’s quite a stretch to think he’ll be more successful at evaluating, from half a world away, what the Iraqis are capable of and whether they’ve achieved that. It’s like trying to do brain surgery while wearing oven mitts.
The president used to rely on what he believed was the Iraqi people’s innate yearning for freedom. He could refer to their courageous turnout on Election Day and hope that spirit would ultimately move their political leaders in the right direction. That hasn’t happened. Now he’s making an even longer-odds bet: that he can influence Iraqi politicians to do the right thing without making them bristle. This seems far harder than merely securing the streets and turning on the lights. As a political matter at home, this strategy seems likely to build pressure for American withdrawal because it focuses all of our eyes on the behavior of Prime Minister al-Malaki. If his government misses a bench mark, it looks incompetent. If al-Malaki asserts his independence by telling Bush to back off, he looks ungrateful. Both will feed the growing sentiment among Bush’s conservative allies that Iraqis cannot handle this freedom that has been given to them no matter what the United States tries or how many troops fill the streets. And if the Iraqis can’t handle it, then why should Americans keep dying to help them? This, of course, is not the conclusion the president wants people to reach, but his welcome candor about the state of affairs in Iraq also pointed out how few options he has left.