Message: Stay the Course
There was nothing new in Bush's weird, rambling speech.
Bush's main message in Cleveland was: Wait, don't do anything! Trust, for now, in Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq—a "smart" guy who gives the president "candid advice." The surge, Bush said, "just started. He got all the troops there a couple weeks ago. … They just showed up. And in Washington, they've got people saying, 'Stop.' "
It is true that the last of the surge's five combat brigades just recently arrived, but the others have been there for several months. The results have been at best uneven and by most accounts negligible. The one area of substantial improvement, Anbar province, has nothing to do with the surge; it's strictly the result of political maneuvering—the U.S. forces' alliance of convenience with the tribal Sunnis against the jihadists.
There was one moment in today's speech when Bush might have signaled—contrary to all the other, more explicit signals he was sending and repeating over and over—that a shift of some sort could be in the works.
The moment came when he noted that the point of the surge is to provide security for the people of Baghdad, so that Iraq's political leaders could have the breathing room to make "progress" toward unity and reconciliation. The administration's dismal report on the Iraqis' progress toward political benchmarks will be out this week. Gen. Petraeus will be submitting his report, on the larger political and military questions, in September.
"I call upon the U.S. Congress," Bush said, "to give Gen. Petraeus a chance to come back and tell us whether his strategy's working, and then we can work together on a way forward."
Notice that, suddenly, the surge is "his" strategy—the general's, not the president's. Is Bush's plan to hold back, stay the course, demonstrate his firm commitment and good intentions—until the chief commander in the field tells him that the chances for military success look grim, mainly because the Iraqi politicians aren't pulling their weight?
The most compelling critique of the surge is less military than political in nature. The purpose of the surge, as Bush himself said today, is to provide security so that Iraq's political leaders can negotiate a deal in peace. But if the politicians are incapable of striking a deal, the surge is futile and should be abandoned.
Bush accepted the critique's premise—about the purpose of the surge. Is he now waiting for Petraeus to hand him the four-star seal of approval for the critique's conclusion, too?
Maybe, but I doubt it. At the end of today's speech, Bush repeated his oft-told tale about meeting with Japan's prime minister on the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. Bush's father had fought the Japanese with all his heart in that war. Now the son was good friends with the democratically elected leader of Japan, and our two countries are the closest of allies.
Either Bush is putting on an extraordinary performance or he really thinks that Iraq in the mid-21st century will be like Japan is today—and that some future president of the United States might look back in gratitude for George W. Bush's wisdom and foresight, the same way that people today regard Harry Truman.
"I've got great faith in the power of liberty," Bush said at the end of his speech. "The question is: Will we keep that faith?"
If he sees Iraq as a battle for liberty, and if this is his primary question, then we're not going anywhere, as long as he has anything to do with it.
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.