Bush’s Iraq Speech Should Help Sustain Support for Policy
President Bush should have just said it on Tuesday night: “American troops will be in Iraq for years to come. We will draw down as Iraqi forces build up, but we cannot leave until Iraq is secure, and that day is still far away.”
Polls indicate that the American public is fully ready for that tough message, which Bush arguably implied but didn’t forthrightly state.
The polls show that voters don’t think the United States should have become involved in Iraq in the first place. But they believe that, now that we’re there, we shouldn’t abandon the mission.
A Gallup poll last weekend found that 53 percent of respondents believe it was a mistake for the United States to invade Iraq, up from 46 percent five months ago.
At the same time, 58 percent said that U.S. troops had to stay — a number that jumped to 70 percent after Bush’s speech at Fort Bragg, N.C. The percentage calling for setting a timetable for withdrawal dropped from 42 percent to 35 percent.
The Gallup results track closely with those in a Washington Post/ABC News poll that showed that 53 percent of U.S. adults believe that the war was not worth fighting, but that 60 percent believe that U.S. troop levels need to be kept at present levels or increased. Only 38 percent said they should be reduced.
The Post/ABC poll also showed that 53 percent of respondents believe that U.S. troops will have to remain for “a few years” or “five years or longer.”
And, despite the fact that 62 percent believe that the United States is “bogged down” in Iraq, 53 percent said they were overall “optimistic” about the future of that country.
All this is good news — a reversal of the gloom prevailing in Washington just last week, when Members of Congress and top U.S. generals were wondering aloud whether the U.S. public had the tenacity to stick with the Iraq mission.
At the same time, the Post/ABC poll should serve as a warning to the Bush administration that it needs to be candid with the public. Fifty-two percent believe that the administration “intentionally misled” the country before the war, especially about weapons of mass destruction.
Bush can’t be expected to flat-out repudiate Vice President Cheney’s statement that the Iraqi insurgency is in its “last throes,” but the administration needs to be straightforward about the difficulties ahead.
In his speech, Bush did acknowledge that progress in rebuilding Iraq and training its security forces has been “uneven” and that while “we have made progress … we have a lot more work to do.”
On the other hand, he overstated the amount of international aid being sent to Iraq and the level of international military participation.
Sen. Joseph Biden (Del.), one Democrat who clearly wants Bush and the United States to succeed in Iraq, also makes a good case that the administration is overstating the combat-readiness of Iraqi security forces and is suppressing opinion in the U.S. military that our own troop levels need to be increased.
On the issue of how long U.S. troops need to be in Iraq, Bush said that “America will not leave before the job is done” and that “we are working for the day when Iraq can defend itself and we can leave.”
Some Democrats are demanding that Bush set down a timetable for withdrawal, which he rightly argued would only encourage the insurgents to wait us out.
Now, some other Democrats have changed the tune and are demanding that he set “benchmarks” for progress. One suspects that they want Bush to give them ammunition to criticize him if performance in Iraq falls short.
Instead of yielding to such demands, Bush could have stated what seems obvious: that U.S. troops likely will be needed for “years.” And the administration should be issuing, and publicizing, accessible metrics showing progress (or lack of it) on security training, foreign aid and reconstruction.
Overall, as a report to the nation on what is happening in Iraq, Bush’s speech performed the useful purpose of countering the incessant media images of death and destruction with reminders of political and military progress — and of insurgent failure.
As he said, the insurgents have no positive program for Iraq and no true popular following. Their program is one of pure terror. Meanwhile, an interim government has been elected, a constitution is being written, no civil war has broken out and recalcitrant Sunnis are being brought into the political process.
In response to Democratic demands, Bush did lay out a strategy — not an exit strategy, but a strategy — that is part political, part military. The political part definitely has a timetable leading to a permanent elected government next year.
The most controversial part of Bush’s speech was his continued linkage of the war in Iraq with the war on terror, which Democrats insist is fiction, if not a nefarious ploy.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), for example, said that there never was a connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean charged that Bush was trying to “garner support for his failed policies by pandering to fear, rather than inspiring us with a plan for hope.”
Bush obviously believes that the two wars are one, but he has never been able to convincingly articulate the original connection. Since the U.S. invasion, however, Islamic militants have been pouring into Iraq, making it an unmistakable front in the war on terror.
It’s a fair question whether, as former Army Gen. Wesley Clark put it on Fox News after Bush’s speech, Bush hasn’t created a rallying point for terrorists and a training ground in Iraq, much as the Soviet Union did in Afghanistan, and whether hardened terrorists won’t fan out to do damage around the world.
Bush’s unwavering answer is that if U.S. policy prevails in Iraq and if the United States succeeds in spreading democracy elsewhere in the Middle East, then Islamic terrorism will be defeated and the United States will be more secure.
For sure, terrorism at the moment is more or less confined to Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States has not been hit since 2001.
At the moment, if the polls are right, a majority of Americans do believe that the war in Iraq is a part of the war on terrorism and that it has contributed to U.S. security. It means that Bush has the support he needs to play out his strategy. That’s good: His is the only strategy for winning that we have.