The president’s not quite prime time address last night at the Army War College had four vital audiences – the American people, the international community, the Iraqi people and the U.S. military. But the president could not or did not tell any of his audiences what they needed and deserved to hear.
At a critical moment for the future of Iraq (and his presidency) – a mere 38 days before the transition, the president stuck to generalities because he could not provide the details. He spoke of an interim Iraqi government with “full sovereignty” but could only hint at who will govern Iraq, how they will govern, how the United States will convince the Iraqi people that it is a legitimate government and the transition’s implications for the security situation.
But more telling is what he chose not to tell each of his audiences.
The American people deserved candor, but heard a recycled rationale for the invasion and a five-point plan with no mid-course corrections other than blowing up the Abu Ghraib prison. The president acknowledged that his strategy was a “massive undertaking” but failed to tell the American people how much staying the course in Iraq will cost, and how long it will take. And these omissions from a president whose supporters and advisors predicted that the military campaign in Iraq would be a cakewalk, U.S. troops would be welcomed as liberators, and the operation would be relatively cost free.
For its part, the international community needed to hear from the president that the United States was genuinely willing to share the responsibility, burden and potential in Iraq. Having been told by the administration that the United Nations was irrelevant, weapons inspections a waste of time and international involvement a constraint, the president acknowledged “past disagreements” – an interesting gloss on previous arguments that the United Nations is irrelevant, weapons inspections a waste of time, and international involvement a constraint – but did not suggest how he would overcome them and attract broader international participation.
While the draft U.N. Security Council resolution that the United States and Britain introduced yesterday is a step in the right direction, it is a step that is both very late and too vague. In fact, it portrays an Iraqi government that is sovereign in name only. Critical details, including the government’s influence over U.S. security forces and even its own Iraqi forces, are left to future negotiation. With U.S. credibility at an all-time low, the international community needs so much more than “trust us, we’ll get it right.” They need a guarantee from the United States that their support is welcomed and that their voices will be heard and heeded.
For the Iraqi people, the president’s speech needed to get to the heart of their dilemma: having been told that the American-led invasion would free them from tyranny and torture, and bring democracy and prosperity, today they find themselves not feeling liberated, but humiliated by an occupation force that can’t protect them. They are better off without Saddam, but the United States is increasingly viewed as an unacceptable burden. In fact, according to two recent Iraqi polls, 88 percent of Iraqis view the United States as occupiers rather than liberators, and 57 percent want the United States to leave immediately. And the president’s words, much like his belated apologies on Arab television about the abuses by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib, remain hollow unless backed by strong action. More than hearing from the president that he had plans for the political and economic reconstruction of Iraq, the Iraqi people are still waiting to see the fruits of regime change – real security, better living conditions and more jobs.
Finally – and ironically in light of the White House choice to stage the speech at the Army War College where the military studies the very lessons of warfare that President Bush ignored – the U.S. military deserved a specific plan and a real strategy. They heard well-deserved praise for the determination and resilience the troops have demonstrated under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. What they deserved to hear was an admission by the commander in chief that he underestimated how difficult Iraq would be and should have listened to Army leaders, including former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, who said that we needed more troops to secure the country than conquer it. The president tacitly acknowledged that Shinseki was right – noting that we have 23,000 more troops in Iraq than he had hoped – but failed to acknowledge any error in deploying inadequate numbers of troops to deal with the post-conflict stability and reconstruction challenges that undermine our mission today.
Ironically, only a month before the invasion, an Army War College study assessed the risk of an invasion without adequate post-conflict planning. “The risk of the United States winning the war and losing the peace is real and serious. Rehabilitating Iraq will consequently be an important challenge that threatens to be a long and painful process, but merely ‘toughing it out’ is not a solution. The longer the occupation continues, the greater the potential that it will disrupt society rather than rehabilitate it�??Thinking about the war now and the occupation later is not an acceptable solution.”
It is impossible in one speech to overcome a year’s worth of flawed assumptions, poor planning and critical miscalculations. And that’s especially true when you’re a president who (as he so ably demonstrated at his last press conference) is incapable of admitting that perhaps he’s made a mistake or two along the way.
Yet this president – already so deep in a hole that he has members of his own party clamoring for action – showed no sign that he’s ready to put his shovel down. He once again termed Iraq “the central front in the war on terror” without noting that this is the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy. The U.S. occupation of Iraq, as almost every expert agrees, has intensified the threat posed to the United States by global terror networks. Meanwhile, President Bush suggests that brutal terrorist actions in Iraq were “not caused by any action of ours,” without pointing out that Iraq has become a magnet for foreign elements post-Saddam that have found a target rich environment at the expense of American soldiers and civilians.
P.J. Crowley is a senior fellow and director for national defense and homeland security at the Center for American Progress. He is a retired Air Force colonel and served in senior positions at the White House and Department of Defense during the Clinton administration.