Message: Stay the Course
There was nothing new in Bush's weird, rambling speech.
Some officers and midlevel officials have been telling me and other reporters that President George W. Bush is preparing to give in on Iraq—to recognize that victory is no longer feasible, that the "surge" isn't working, and that it's time to cut back U.S. troop levels and shift strategy once more.
After watching Bush's speech in Cleveland this afternoon, I can only conclude that this prediction—like all the similar predictions of an impending drawdown these past three years—is wishful thinking.
The president seemed, as much as ever, committed to the war, certain of liberty's inevitable triumph, and deluded about the nature and direction of the conflict.
It was, even by his standards, an unusually rambling speech, alternately folksy and haranguing, most of it about the virtues of tax cuts and private health care. A half-hour passed—and the cable news channels cut away to an incident at the Oakland airport a couple of times—before he came to the main point, the reason they were carrying the speech live: to articulate his latest views on Iraq.
And the startling thing about these views is that they haven't changed a bit.
This is the case, despite the serious Republican defections—and the urgings by the most senior of these Republicans that the president shift his strategy and draw down some U.S. troops or see Congress cut off funds and end the war altogether.
This is the case, despite news of a forthcoming administration report—to be delivered to Congress this week—that concludes the Iraqi government has met none of the political or security "benchmarks" that Bush himself once urged them to meet in exchange for continued U.S. support.
This is the case, despite the fact that nearly everyone around him is at least very skeptical of the surge's prospects. (One must assume that Dick Cheney is an exception, and perhaps the only exception necessary.)
Unlike earlier talks of this sort, in which Bush's speechwriters at least assembled some stray facts and passed them off as evidence of progress, this speech—which seemed entirely improvised—was founded on nothing but faith.
"We can accomplish and win this fight in Iraq," Bush said at one point in the speech. "I strongly believe we will prevail … that democracy will trump totalitarianism every time," he said later, as if the war in Iraq is somehow about democracy and totalitarianism.
"I wouldn't ask a mother or a dad" to send a son or daughter to this war "if I didn't feel this is necessary to the security of the United States and the peace of the world."
He pulled out the Sept. 11 gambit more blatantly than ever (and that's saying a lot). There was a brief time, a couple of years ago, when President Bush acknowledged the complexities of Iraqi society, made distinctions among the different insurgent groups, and allowed that some were only nationalists opposed to occupation, that not all were jihadists.
But today, Bush spoke (screamed, really) as if the fighters in Iraq were under the command of Osama Bin Laden. Speaking of the suicide attacks in Iraq, he said, "Al-Qaida is doing most of the spectacular bombing—the same people who attacked us on September 11." Sectarian violence didn't exist in Iraq, he claimed, until it was incited by al-Qaida—"the killers who attacked America."
Does he believe this? Probably not. He also would have had to approve the recent U.S. military strategy of forming alliances with Sunni tribalists for the common cause of bashing al-Qaida.
Bush was right about one thing: A precipitous and total U.S. withdrawal from Iraq probably would have "serious consequences." Iraq could erupt into sheer chaos. (If you think the country's already as bad off as it can be, think back on Lebanon during the civil war or Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.) This chaos could impel neighboring countries to intervene, either to contain the violence or to fight alongside their respective sectarian allies.
However, this warning is beside the point. Few Democrats, much less Republicans, want a rapid and total pullout, for precisely these reasons. The defecting Republicans are telling Bush—either directly or through his aides, who have been scrambling to Capitol Hill this past week—that the only way the congressional leaders might vote for a total pullout is if the White House forces them to do so. If Bush fails to present an alternative strategy—if the only choice Bush gives them is "Stay the course" or "Cut off all the funding"—the weary legislators might well call his bluff.
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.