The sad thing about President George W. Bush's final State of the Union address is that he seems to have learned so little about the crises in which he's immersed his nation so deeply.
His first words on foreign policy in tonight's address reprised the theme of previous addresses: "We trust that people, when given the chance, will choose a future of freedom and peace." He cited, as "stirring" examples of this principle, the "images" of citizens demanding independence in Ukraine and Lebanon, of Afghans emerging from the Taliban's tyranny, of "jubilant Iraqis holding up ink-stained fingers" to celebrate free elections.
One waited for the president to invoke the lamentable flip side of these images, the retreats and retrenchments that followed (perhaps the "challenges" ahead?)—but he didn't. Is he still living in the dream world of the spring of 2004? It's a pleasant world, but it had gone up in smoke by that summer. If we were truly serious about promoting freedom, it would be useful to explore the lessons of those hopes as they were not only stirred but then crushed. As with his previous State of the Union addresses, this was not seen as a time to face reality.
The president, once more, depicted the complex conflicts of our time as one-dimensional struggles between the forces of light and darkness. In the war on terror, he proclaimed, "there is one thing we and our enemies agree on: In the long run, men and women who are free to determine their own destinies will reject terror and refuse to live in tyranny. That is why the terrorists are fighting to deny this choice to people in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Palestinian Territories."
The question comes to mind, as it has come to mind in all of these speeches when Bush recites this argument: Does he believe what he's saying? Does he believe that the violent battles for power in these lands really come down to freedom vs. tyranny? If so, no wonder this government has had such a hard time getting a handle on these dangers, much less trying to engage them.
He went on, "And that is why, for the security of America and the peace of the world, we are spreading the hope of freedom." Has he ever wondered why so few people in the world—not least those he aspires to help—see us that way? It is a horrible shame, a dreadful legacy of this administration, that the majority of people in so many once-allied (or at least not-unfriendly) nations, particularly in the Middle East and Asia, regard America as a bigger threat than Iran and Osama Bin Laden. To think seriously about why these views exist, to address the perception in a serious way, doesn't mean accepting their validity. Not to think seriously about this question is to perpetuate our bad image and diminish our real security.
Maybe the president believes that saying something makes it close to true. (Some of his former aides have told me they suspect this is the case.) For instance, toward the end of the address, he said that protecting the nation's security "requires changing the conditions that breed resentment and allow extremists to prey on despair. So America is using its influence to build a freer, more hopeful, and more compassionate world." The first sentence is true, the second encouraging. What's his follow-up—what are some examples of America using its influence to this end? "America is opposing genocide in Sudan," he said. (That's nice. What are we doing?) "And supporting freedom in countries from Cuba and Zimbabwe to Belarus and Burma," he added, without saying how we're doing that or in what way any of those countries is central in the war on terrorism.
"In the Holy Land … we have new cause for hope," the president said. His evidence: "Palestinians have elected a president who recognizes that confronting terror is essential to achieving a state where his people can live in dignity and at peace with Israel." He did not mention the election of a parliament whose leaders believe otherwise. (This is not to suggest that the Fatah president's views are worth nothing; but failing to acknowledge the Hamas-led parliament—which was also installed in power by free elections—glosses over the real complexities of the "popular will" in territories or countries without democratic institutions.)
On Iraq, Bush had some genuinely good news to tell, but he overstated it and distorted its implications. The past few months have witnessed a dramatic decline in casualties (civilian and military, Iraqi and American). The "surge"—which Bush ordered into effect nearly a year ago, in the face of much skepticism—is indisputably one cause of these trends. But it is just one cause, and the effects being celebrated, salutary as they are, are not the effects that were intended.
Certainly the additional 25,000 troops that the surge has brought to a few areas of Iraq—along with Gen. David Petraeus' more aggressive strategy of using them (putting troops out on the streets instead of retreating to the superbases)—has increased security in the areas they've been able to occupy.
However, much of the reduced violence is related to the "alliances of convenience" between U.S. forces and Sunni insurgents against the common enemy of al-Qaida in Iraq. These alliances were initiated by the Sunnis and antedate the surge. There is also the matter of Muqtada Sadr's moratorium on violence (which, in fairness, might be due in part to the surge). And there is the simple fact that U.S. forces are paying insurgency groups not to attack them (a wise use of money, until it runs out).
More to the point, Gen. Petraeus said at the beginning that there is no strictly military victory to be had in Iraq; that the point of the surge was to provide "breathing space" to Iraq's political leaders, so that, amid improved security in Baghdad, they might settle their sectarian disputes. This political settlement does not appear to be happening; the political objectives of the surge are not being met.
President Bush said the proof of our strategy's success is that "more than 20,000 of our troops are coming home." (The congressional crowd went wild with applause.) These are the 20,000 troops that were sent over as part of the surge. The simple fact is that, by the summer, the 15-month deployment tours of the last of these surge brigades will have run out. There are no brigades ready to replace them. So, they will come home—and this would have been the case, no matterwhat had happened in the past year. The surge has always been short-term; that's why they called it a surge.
As for the prospect of future withdrawals, Bush said, "Any further drawdown of U.S. troops will be based on conditions in Iraq and the recommendations of our commanders." He added, "Gen. Petraeus has warned that too fast a drawdown could result in the disintegration of the Iraqi security forces, al-Qaida in Iraq regaining lost ground, a marked increase in violence."
Don't bet on any more troops coming home for good before Christmas. And if a reduction from 160,000 to 140,000 puts the situation back on the precipice, below which further cuts trigger disaster, then the situation cannot be considered at all stable.
"America is a force for hope in the world because we are a compassionate people," he said toward the end of his address. We know this to be true, at least in principle. It will take another president to demonstrate it.