Editorial: Bush's speech/Simply more of the same
May 25, 2004
Let's be clear at the outset: President Bush's much-anticipated speech Monday night at the Army War College in Pennsylvania wasn't about Iraq. It was about the general election on Nov. 2 and Bush's frantic desire to stop his inexorable slide in public opinion polls, the latest of which has his approval rating at a dismal 41 percent. A Bush aide said as much Sunday, telling the New York Times that the Monday night speech was designed to dispel "this idea that we don't know what we're doing" in Iraq.
Did Bush succeed? Not by a long shot. It's arrogant of a president to believe speeches can dispel the skepticism borne of three years of lies and incompetence on the ground. Lies about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Incompetence in sizing the American troop strength that would be required to pacify Iraq following the inevitably quick opening combat. Incompetence in failing to plan well for dealing with an occupied Iraq. Incompetence in ceding control of American foreign policy to a small cabal of self-delusional neoconservatives who threw traditional American pragmatism -- conservative pragmatism -- overboard in favor of grandiose plans for remaking the Middle East into a peaceful, democratic region in one fell swoop.
Bush's speech was spectacular for its refusal to retreat from that wholly discredited vision. Throughout his speech, he continued his effort to wrap the war in Iraq in the war on terror. At this late date, just five weeks from the return of some sovereignty to Iraq, Bush refuses to acknowledge what is plain: The war in Iraq had no relationship to the war on terror; it was a distraction from the essential war on Al-Qaida and other terrorists who wish America harm. At one point, Bush referred to Iraq as the "central front" in the war on terror. If it is, that is so only because the United States invaded, and it will cease to be so once the United States leaves.
Bush expressed great belief in the Iraqi people; if they are given the choice, he said, they will choose freedom. Precisely, which is why today the overwhelming majority of Iraqis want the United States out of their country; if it could be arranged today, they would embrace the American departure.
Bush spoke also of returning full sovereignty to the Iraqi people on June 30. He spoke of five steps necessary to make that sovereignty meaningful, but none of it is new; all of it has been known for months. The only new element in the plan he outlined was the proposal to raze Abu Ghraib prison, where American soldiers brutally abused Iraqi prisoners. Even then, Bush could not bring himself to acknowledge the full scope of what transpired. He continued to cling to the politically expedient fiction that the abuses were the work of a few bad apples. In fact, evidence grows daily that this abuse scandal was a consequence of actions up and down the line of American command.
Bush didn't retreat one iota from the line he has followed since before this war started. He acknowledged no error, admitted no lapse in judgment. His five-step "plan" is more a hope than a plan. If everything goes just right; if the U.N. Security Council members play the docile role assigned them and bail the United States out; if the Iraqi factions avoid infighting; if this and if that, then possibly the United States can eventually leave Iraq.
You would think by now that Bush would have learned: Believing in something, hoping for something does not make it so. Incredible hubris led the United States into Iraq and into a maelstrom of unanticipated consequences -- but unanticipated only by the crowd around Bush; the warnings were there for those who wanted to listen, warnings that came most especially from the traditional, pragmatic conservatives who don't look kindly on risky foreign adventures.
Now Bush looks hopefully ahead to a neat solution. It's quite unlikely. As Anthony Zinni, a respected former commander of Central Command and special Middle East envoy for this administration, said Sunday night on CBS' "60 Minutes,"They've screwed up." Indeed, the Bush team has screwed up from the get-go in Iraq, and no amount of feel-good spin will change that.