The Good News—Bush Finally Has a Plan
The bad news—it's an ill-defined muddle.
The most remarkable thing about the document President George W. Bush released today, titled National Strategy for Victory in Iraq, is that it was released today (and written not much earlier—it's authored by the National Security Council and dated November 2005).
It is symptomatic of everything that's gone wrong with this war that, after two and a half years of fighting it (and four years after starting to plan it), the White House is just now getting around to articulating a strategy for winning it.
To put this in perspective: From December 1941 to August 1945, the U.S. government mobilized an entire nation; manufactured a mighty arsenal; played a huge role in defeating the armies, air forces, and navies of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan; and emerged from battle poised to shape the destiny of half the globe. By comparison, from September 2001 to December 2005, the U.S. government has advanced to the point of describing a path to victory in a country the size of California.
Now, what about this path—the strategy for victory—and the speech that President Bush gave at the U.S. Naval Academy this morning to promote it?
The document and the speech are better than previous efforts. They're more detailed. They identify not just some ultimate ideal (defeat the terrorists or spread freedom throughout the world), but specific, achievable stages of success along the way. The speech even acknowledges that mistakes have been made—only tactical errors, involving the poorly wrought initial approaches to training Iraqi security forces, but still, publicly admitting any error is a first for this president. The NSC document goes still further and frankly specifies many of the "challenges"—political, military, and economic—yet to be overcome.
Had the president made this speech and issued this report a year or two ago, they would have been seen as hallmark statements; they might even have shaped the ensuing debate.
But the debate has now shifted—a result of the rising casualties in Iraq, the diminishing support for the war at home, and the growing demand for troop withdrawals from even once-hawkish quarters. Bush, in fact, gave the speech and ordered the report precisely to deal with this shift—and both must be deemed failures, because they don't really deal with it at all.
First, though the document is called a "strategy for victory," Bush doesn't clearly define either term. And even where he defines the terms nebulously or inconsistently, he doesn't tie them to the more pressing questions now consuming public discussion of the war: What do we do now? When can we start to pull out—under what circumstances, with what sorts of troops remaining, to what end, for how long?
In the speech, Bush says (as he has said many times before), "We will stay as long as necessary to complete the mission." But what is the mission? At one point he says, "When our mission of training the Iraqi security forces is complete, our troops will return home to a proud nation." However, a bit later, he says the mission will be complete "when the terrorists and Saddamists can no longer threaten Iraq's democracy," and he adds, "I will settle for nothing less than complete victory."
So, which is it: Our job is done when the Iraqis can fight the bad guys on their own—or when the bad guys are defeated? Those are two very different standards, involving very different benchmarks of progress.
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 George Bush by Alex Wong/Getty Images.