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.
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.