Deceptive or Delusional?
Bush's appalling Iraq speech.
As he himself admitted, those goals haven't yet been achieved in Anbar, much less in Baghdad, much less in national Iraqi politics. He could not evade today's news—that Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, leader of the Sunni tribes' revolt against al-Qaida in Anbar province, has been assassinated.
He admitted that the Iraqi government "has not met its own legislative benchmarks" of success. But he then returned once more to the promise of Anbar and proclaimed, "As local politics change, so will national politics." This adage isn't nearly always true in the United States. It certainly isn't true in a country like Iraq, which is fissuring into at least three separate countries.
The president then turned to long-term U.S. policy in Iraq, and his attempts at assurance were anything but.
He cited Gen. Petraeus' testimony recommending not only a reduction in troops but a gradual change in their mission. "Over time," Bush said, "our troops will shift from leading operations, to partnering with Iraqi forces, and eventually to overwatching those forces. As this transition in our mission takes place, our troops will focus on a more limited set of tasks, including counterterrorism operations and training, equipping, and supporting Iraqi forces."
However, the chart that Gen. Petraeus presented in this part of his testimony gave no dates—not even a projected range of dates—for when this shift in mission would take place. Many Democrats, some Republicans, and a fairly large number of Army and Marine generals would like to see this shift begin now. That is the debate that Congress will be taking up. Bush's speech is an evasion.
Then Bush muddied the waters further. On the one hand, he has a "vision for a reduced American presence" in Iraq. On the other hand, he foresees a need for "U.S. political, economic, and security engagement that extends beyond my presidency," and he talked about building "an enduring relationship" between the United States and Iraq.
What is this enduring relationship? What does it require, in the way of troops, bases, and other resources? What other countries or international agencies will be involved? Do the relationship's elements include stepped-up diplomacy with Iraq's neighbors? None of these vital questions was broached, much less answered.
Finally, he presented a series of pleas under the guise of compromise.
He asked the Congress to "come together" and support Gen. Petraeus' recommendations on troop cuts—not seeming to recognize that a mere return to pre-surge levels (which will be inevitable by next summer), with no change in direction, is no basis for a sustained consensus.
He asked "the Iraqi people" to "demand that your leaders make the tough choices needed to achieve reconciliation"—not seeming to recognize that "the Iraqi people" is a tenuous concept and that many of Iraq's Shiites, Sunni Arabs, and Kurds themselves have very different, possibly irreconcilable, demands about their futures.
Oddly, he thanked "the 36 nations who have troops on the ground in Iraq." At the peak of the "coalition," back in the fall of 2004, only 31 countries besides the United States had any troops in Iraq. They amounted to 24,000—fewer than one-fifth of America's numbers—and one-third of those were contributed by Britain. Now, according to the most recent official report (dated Aug. 30, 2007), just 25 countries have troops there; they number fewer than 12,000 (an average of fewer than 500 per nation), and more and more, including Britain, are leaving every month.
The question could be asked throughout the speech, but particularly at that point: In what world is the president of the United States living?
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.