What a dispirited, dispiriting speech President George W. Bush delivered this morning to mark the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.
One could argue that it would have been dishonest to deliver any other sort of speech, for few things are more dispiriting than this war, which has now gone on for a quarter-year longer than America's involvement in World War II. Yes, the war in Iraq is a very different war, but one would have thought—certainly we were told—it would be a lot shorter.
And President Bush made it very clear that this war is not nearly over.
The "surge" of 20,000 or so U.S. troops, which Bush announced two months ago, is still in "its early stage," he noted this morning. Fewer than half the reinforcements have arrived in Baghdad.
"Success will take months, not days or weeks," he said—the exact reverse of Vice President Dick Cheney's insouciant assurance on March 16, 2003, three days before the invasion, that the war would be over in "weeks rather than months."
In the meantime, Bush said, "there will be good days and there will be bad days"—the exact same words he used in a campaign speech in Pennsylvania on Oct. 7, 2004.
"Those on the ground," he said today, "are seeing some hopeful signs." But his itemization of those signs was hardly encouraging:
"The Iraqi government has completed the deployment of three Iraqi army brigades to the capital" and "has also lifted restrictions that once prevented … forces from going into … Sadr City." And: "American and Iraqi forces have established joint security stations … throughout Baghdad … helping Iraqis reclaim their neighborhoods from the terrorists and extremists."
Yet, significantly, he made no claims for the effect of these developments. According to a BBC poll released today, just 26 percent of Iraqis feel safe in their neighborhoods—down from 63 percent in 2005.
Bush said the Iraqis are "beginning to meet the benchmarks they had laid out for political reconciliation." Yet the claim pushes optimism beyond prudent boundaries.
For instance, he noted, "Iraq's Council of Ministers approved a law that would share oil revenues among Iraqi people." This is a vital law, which might soothe the discontent of Sunni Arabs, whose provinces have no oil. But Bush did not point out that the law has not yet been passed by parliament.
He said the parliament passed a $41 billion budget that included $10 billion for reconstruction. But he did not point out that Iraqi officials doubt that their government's ministries are equipped to spend anywhere near that much money on actual projects.
He said that last week Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visited Ramadi, a city in Iraq's Sunni heartland, to reach out to Sunni tribal leaders. But the sensible reaction to this news flash is: Maliki's been prime minister for a year, and he's just getting around to visiting Ramadi now?
This was the sum total of good news that President Bush reported in his speech. If there were more, if there was anything tangible, much less remarkable, he would have remarked on it. He didn't.
"Today the world is rid of Saddam Hussein"—that was the lead of the speech. A great bit of news indeed, but, much like the events in Iraq itself, the speech went downhill from there.
Imagine that President Harry S. Truman had not put into motion the Marshall Plan, the Bretton Woods Agreement, NATO, and the various other institutions that propped up Western freedom in the destructive wake of World War II—and that, on the fourth anniversary of V-E Day, the greatest boast he could make was: "Today the world is rid of Adolf Hitler." It would have been a great boast, but beside the point as Paris and Rome collapsed amid poverty, despair, and subversion.
So it is with George W. Bush, whose failure to repair postwar Iraq is particularly disgraceful, since this war was launched at his initiative, not as a response to aggression.
In his speech today, President Bush warned, "If American forces were to step back from Baghdad before it is secure, a contagion of violence could spill out across the entire country" and possibly "engulf the region."
He's right, but it's clear the U.S. Army can't block this contagion all alone—not in Baghdad or the rest of Iraq, much less across the Middle East. The surge falls far short of the required troop levels, as calculated in Gen. David Petraeus' own manual on counterinsurgency. And, given the supply shortages, maintenance backlogs, and overextended troop rotations, it's unclear that even this surge can be sustained through the end of the year.
So, what is President Bush's plan for outreach? Where is his initiative for regional security? If Maliki can go talk to the tribal elders of Ramadi, when will Bush go meet with the leaders of Iran and Syria?
The fourth anniversary of the invasion presented an opportunity for reassessment and bold moves. Instead, it was used as yet another midmorning prayer call for unearned patience and trust.