Deceptive or Delusional?
Bush's appalling Iraq speech.
President Bush's TV address tonight was the worst speech he's ever given on the war in Iraq, and that's saying a lot. Every premise, every proposal, nearly every substantive point was sheer fiction. The only question is whether he was being deceptive or delusional.
The biggest fiction was that because of the "success" of the surge, we can reduce U.S. troop levels in Iraq from 20 combat brigades to 15 by next July. Gen. David Petraeus has recommended this step, and President George W. Bush will order it so.
Let's be clear one more time about this claim: The surge of five extra combat brigades (bringing the total from 15 to 20) started in January. Their 15-month tours of duty will begin to expire next April. The Army and Marines have no combat units ready to replace them. The service chiefs refuse to extend the tours any further. The president refuses to mobilize the reserves any further. And so, the surge will be over by next July. This has been understood from the outset. It is the result of simple arithmetic, not of anyone's decision, much less some putative success.
It is true that Bush is ordering the withdrawal of 5,700 of those troops—one Army brigade and a Marine expeditionary unit—before Christmas, a few months earlier than they need to go home. This is clearly in response to a request by Sen. John Warner, the ranking Republican on the armed services committee. The Republicans need political cover on the war; they need to show they're bringing some troops home soon; they hope that doing so will defuse the war as an election issue. Bush hopes this will be enough to keep them on his side—and limit the support for Democrats' proposals of speedier withdrawals.
But by acceding to this political compromise—and by selling the larger withdrawal as a decision instead of as an inescapable fact of life—Bush undermined his case that the fight for Iraq is the central fight for civilization. If this claim is true, why pull any troops out earlier than necessary?
His showcase example of success was the recent alliance between U.S. troops and Sunni insurgents to join forces against jihadist terrorists in Anbar province (an alliance, by the way, that was formed before the surge). Yet even so, the president said in tonight's speech, "In Anbar, the enemy remains active and deadly." Again, under the president's own assumptions, what's the substantive case for letting any troops leave?
The speech was rife with evasion and fantasy from the outset.
"In Iraq," he declared, "an ally of the United States is fighting for its survival." This sounded as if some well-established government were under attack from an outside force. In fact, a U.S.-installed regime is racked with divisiveness as a result of sectarian clashes within its own society. That is a very different thing. As Gen. Petraeus has said many times, there is only so much U.S. military force can accomplish under such circumstances.
Back to the speech: "Terrorists and extremists who are at war with us around the world are seeking to topple Iraq's government, dominate the region, and attack us here at home." Even if it were true that the movement called al-Qaida in Mesopotamia is one and the same with the larger al-Qaida organization (a point that the U.S. intelligence community disputes), AQM accounts for only 5 percent of the attacks inside Iraq—some of the deadliest 5 percent, but it is misleading to suggest that they are the biggest obstacle to Iraqi unity, much less the greatest threat to regional peace.
The rationale for the surge was to improve security in Baghdad and thus give Iraq's national political leaders the "breathing room" to reconcile their differences, pass key legislation, and form a unified government. The recent debates over conflicting charts and statistics—some showing a decline in civilian deaths and sectarian attacks, others showing an increase—are beside the point. The point is whether life in Baghdad has improved enough to allow for political progress on a national level. As Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker conceded several times in congressional hearings this week, no such progress has been made.
President Bush tonight tried to suggest otherwise. He correctly outlined the premise of the surge strategy: "For Iraqis to bridge sectarian divides, they need to feel safe in their homes and neighborhoods. For lasting reconciliation to take root, Iraqis must feel confident that they do not need sectarian gangs for security. The goal of the surge is to provide that security and help Iraqi forces to maintain it."
But then he said: "As I will explain tonight, our success in meeting these objectives now allows us to begin bringing some of our troops home." (Italics added.) Does he really think, whatever the advances toward these goals, that we have reached "success in meeting these objectives"?
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 email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.