Bush's speech was a sad, demoralizing spectacle.
President Bush's speech this morning, billed as a major statement about Iraq and the war on terror, was a sad spectacle—so ripe with lofty principles, so bereft of ideas on what to do with them. He approached the podium amid growing disapproval of his performance as a war president, ratcheting chaos and violence in Iraq, continuing terrorist attacks worldwide—and pleaded for nothing more than staying the course, with no turns or shifts, for a long, long time to come.
He crisply outlined the stakes of the larger struggle against Islamofascism: fear vs. freedom, oppression vs. tolerance, the dark ages vs. modern civilization. "The defense of freedom," he declared, "is worth our sacrifice." And he's right. Which is why his failure to articulate a strategy—his evasion of the difficulties and dilemmas that his own aides and commanders are grappling with—is so distressing.
Early on in the speech, he observed that this new terrorism is "not centrally directed," that it's "more like a loose network with many branches than an army under a single command." This is a crucial, though long-obvious, insight; it implies that this war cannot be fought—and progress cannot be measured—in traditional ways. Maybe, I thought at this point in the address, Bush would finally lay out a new strategy for this new kind of conflict.
Alas, no. He instantly retreated to the same old, irrelevant formulas. He likened the struggle against terrorism to the Cold War struggle against Communism—ignoring that Communism's strength derived less from its ideology than from its embodiment in the massive, heavily armed, centrally controlled Soviet state. He boasted that we had killed or captured "nearly all" of those responsible for the 9/11 attacks—not just finessing his failure to find Osama Bin Laden, the man most responsible, but also ignoring that such head counts might not matter in fighting a "loose network."
President Bush chided those who despair over the state of affairs in Iraq. Pessimism, he said, "is not justified. With every random bombing and with every funeral of a child, it becomes more clear that the extremists are not patriots or resistance fighters. They are murderers at war with the Iraqi people themselves."
Maybe so, but what about the Iraqis killed by American bullets or bombs? I am not asserting the slightest "moral equivalence" between U.S. soldiers and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's suicide bombers. However, Bush's own top military advisers have ruefully acknowledged that the dynamics of escalation work both ways.
It was almost exactly two years ago, on Oct. 16, 2003, that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld sent his aides a searching memo (soon after leaked to USA Today), in which he noted:
Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror. Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?
The shocking thing is not so much that it took two years, following 9/11, for Rumsfeld to formulate the right question; it's that two more years have passed, and the administration is only now seeking an answer. Military analyst William Arkin reports in his Washington Post blog, Early Warning, that just last month the Defense Department issued a solicitation for outside contractors to devise "a system of metrics to accurately assess US progress in the War on Terrorism, identify critical issues hindering progress, and develop and track action plans to resolve the issues identified."
I suspect this is why support for the war is waning on the home front—not because Americans doubt that the stakes are high, but because they wonder if the commander in chief knows what he's doing. We were supposed to be in and out of there in a matter of months; Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz all said so. Now it's stretching out for years, with no end in sight—and dubious prospects of meaningful victory.
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 email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of President Bush by Brendan Smialowski/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images.