At his press conference Wednesday, the president was asked what lessons he’s learned after five years of war. He’s been asked a version of this question many times since he had such trouble answering it in April 2004. He has tried various responses over the years and none has been satisfying. This morning’s answer also fell short: “It is important for us to be successful going forward is to analyze that which went wrong, and clearly, one aspect of this war that has not gone right is the sectarian violence inside Baghdad.”
It is progress of a kind for the president to talk about the need to examine past failures—there was a time when he didn’t even admit them—but the answer still failed. First, Bush didn’t actually answer the question. He talked about what went wrong, but not what he learned. Second, Bush seemed to suggest that the sectarian violence in Iraq was unforeseen—not so much something that went wrong, but a surprise they didn’t anticipate. But war planners did know the sectarian violence was coming. The State Department, Army War College, and CIA analysts all predicted that the Shia and Sunnis would go after each other (apparently they’ve been at it for a while). The president and his team ignored or discounted these assessments.
It’s hardly surprising that the president didn’t answer a question at a press conference. Bush regularly answers the wrong question at length to give the appearance of answering without actually doing so. He gives a response when what we want is an answer. (Even his dodge Wednesday was familiar.) What’s so curious is why Bush is keeping up this avoidance act while at the same time trying to rebuild his trust with the country. By not answering this specific question, he trades away perhaps his only chance to get people to listen to him again.
People don’t trust the president on the war, and they don’t approve of the job he’s doing. They haven’t for a long time. They think he’s either lying to them or that he’s out of it. The tricks he has offered to win them back to his strategy—from scaring the public about Democrats and their proposals, to hyping the consequences of not following his policies, to poking his finger in the air—have not worked. This is a problem for him, because in January he will give yet another Big Speech on Iraq. In it he will offer his new strategy for completing the mission.
But why will anyone listen to Bush’s new approach?
To win back that portion of the audience that hasn’t completely turned away from him, the White House is employing a two-pronged strategy. First, Bush’s people are trying to show that the president is working really hard to find the new answer. He has ordered reviews at the State Department and Pentagon and held repeated meetings with military officials. He’s also studying the Iraq Study Group plan (even though he has pretty much trashed its major recommendations). Second, the president and his aides are trying to show that he actually understands how grave the situation is in Iraq. On Tuesday, he told the Washington Post that America is not winning in Iraq, matching the candor for which his incoming secretary of defense was praised during his confirmation hearings.
It’s great that the president is being more candid about the ground truth in Iraq, but that’s not enough to regain support for next month’s big speech. That’s only enough to keep people from thinking he’s delusional. It’s also not enough to be told that Bush and his advisers have thought really long and hard about the new way forward. Presumably they were thinking long and hard over the last several years. Perhaps they should think less. (As Bush’s policies about the war, stem-cell research, and Social Security reform suggest, public displays of thoughtfulness are more a public relations effort than a sign of a vigorous assessment of policy.)
To get people to buy into his solutions, the president has to put candor into his policy review. He has to prove that the new solutions weren’t cooked up with the same broken process that cooked up the first batch of bad solutions. Which brings us back to the question of what lessons he’s learned. He’s been accused of living in a bubble, so who told him things during this round of meetings that he didn’t want to hear? Whom did he seek out at the State Department that he would not have in the past? Who yelled at him? Who talked him out of a bad idea? What gut instinct that he trusted in the past has he learned to think twice about? He should answer the question about what he’s learned from his mistakes, how he incorporated those lessons into his new policy process, and how the strategy he’s put forward is the fruit of that new way of operating. That might—might—persuade some Americans to give him one more chance.
White House officials and Bush supporters have always thought questions about mistakes and lessons learned are merely press attempts to make Bush whip himself in public. But Bush and his aides should get over it. If they don’t, his speech in January will have the same dismal result as all the Big Iraq Speeches that came before it.