Bush's speech was a sad, demoralizing spectacle.
In this regard, Bush's speech—which was clearly meant to revive support for the war—could not have been reassuring. "This war," he said, "will require more sacrifice, more time, more resolve." (One clear inference from this speech: The Joint Chiefs of Staff, the U.S. commanders in Iraq, and several Republican politicians may be planning for major troop withdrawals to begin next year, but the president seems to have no such intentions.)
It was an uncharacteristically defensive speech, Bush reciting, then rebutting, the arguments of his critics. But his counterblows were usually unpersuasive. For instance:
Some have argued that extremism has been strengthened by the actions of our coalition in Iraq, claiming that our presence in that country has somehow caused or triggered the rage of radicals. I would remind them that we were not in Iraq on September 11, 2001, and al-Qaida attacked us anyway.
This is mere playing with words. Notice: First, he cites the claim that the U.S. occupation has "strengthened" the extremists; then he dismisses some straw man's contention that our presence has "caused or triggered" the radicals' rage. The fact that 9/11 preceded the invasion of Iraq is irrelevant to the point that he started to counter—that the occupation "strengthened" the insurgency. This point is incontestable. (On the most basic level, before the invasion, there was no insurgency and no al-Qaida presence in Iraq, except for a training camp run by Zarqawi—and that was in the Kurdish-controlled northern enclave, which Bush could have bombed, and was encouraged by the Joint Chiefs to bomb, at any time.) More important, to evade the point is to misunderstand this phase of the war—and, therefore, to misjudge how to win it.
Near the start of the speech, Bush declared, "We will never back down, never give in, and never accept anything less than complete victory." What he has to do now—because, after all this time, he still hasn't—is to explain what he means by "victory" and how he plans to get there.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of President Bush by Brendan Smialowski/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images.