It's also time to reassess what has been the Bush administration's strongest argument for staying the course—that if we fail in Iraq, "al-Qaida will be emboldened." The argument may be true. Then again, if we keep fighting to no avail in Iraq, al-Qaida might be emboldened as well—and, the longer this futile fight goes on, and the longer they can portray us as infidel occupiers, the more resentful warriors they can rally to their cause.
By exaggerating both al-Qaida's significance and its omnipresence generally, President Bush is only helping fulfill his direst fears.
At the start of a fight, there's some strategic sense in hyping the consequences of defeat: It galvanizes the troops, builds popular support, and discourages political critics from even talking about withdrawal.
However, if it becomes clear that victory (especially victory as it was originally defined) might be impossible, and if there's little a commander or leader can do to reverse the trend, it's strategically shrewd to start lowering the stakes. In this case, the president, in his rhetoric, should start downplaying the role of al-Qaida. And he should start revving up the diplomatic machinery, so that when we do withdraw (or scale back), the move can be presented in the context of some regional security arrangement—in other words, to make it look as little as possible like a rout.
Some of President Bush's remarks this morning were not so much wrong or right as simply odd. For instance, in recounting America's view of the world before 9/11, he said:
The Middle East looked nice and cozy for a while. Everything looked fine on the surface, but beneath the surface, there was a lot of resentment, there was a lot of frustration, such that 19 kids got on airplanes and killed 3,000 Americans. It's in the long-term interest of this country to address the root causes of these extremists and radicals...
Where to begin?
First, complacent as many Americans may have been in those halcyon years between the Berlin Wall's crumbling and the Twin Towers' toppling, nobody—least of all Bush's predecessors in the White House—mistook the Middle East for a "nice and cozy" place.
Second, Bush is right about "the root causes" of extremism, but he has done virtually nothing to "address" them. This is one reason Lebanon is falling apart: Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas swiftly exploited the extremists' passions, while the United States (and the rest of the Western world) did absolutely nothing to co-opt or counter them and only slightly more to bolster the Lebanese government's power and appeal.
Bush still seems to think that democracy is the answer to all problems and that elections are the essence of democracy. Once more, he touted the 12 million Iraqis who turned out at the polls—ignoring how the pattern of their voting only hardened the country's sectarian divisions. "Democracy," he said, "has proven to help change parts of the world from cauldrons of frustration to areas of hope." True, but in places that lack democratic institutions, it has often had the reverse effect. Hezbollah became a major political party in Lebanon, Islamist militia leaders gained a foothold in the government in Iraq, Hamas came to power in the Palestinian territories—all through democratic elections that the Bush administration encouraged.
Again, does he believe all this, or does he just think he needs to keep up an encouraging face? Has he learned anything the past four years, and if he has, what will he do the next year and a half? Is he looking to solve the crises in Iraq, or is he just running out the clock so that his successor has to make the tough decisions?