Just in case anyone was reaching for the remote, President George W. Bush hit his keynote as early as he could while still being polite. After thanking the troops at Fort Bragg, N.C., on Tuesday night, the first two lines of his speech were blindingly simple. "The troops here and across the world are fighting a global war on terror," he said. "The war reached our shores on September the 11th, 2001."
In other words: forget about the Downing Street memos and Colin Powell's now discredited speech at the United Nations. This is one war, against one enemy, making Iraq simply a continuation of the hunt for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. Or, as Bush put it, "Iraq is the latest battlefield in this war." He might as well have stood in front of a picture of the Twin Towers.
It's easy to see why this approach is so attractive to the White House. The president's response to 9/11 remains a potent memory in public opinion. So potent that it still drives the only positive numbers in the president's performance ratings. Bush has disapproval ratings of more than 50 percent on the economy, energy and health care, according to the latest Gallup poll. On Iraq, 58 percent disapprove of his handling of the war. But on terrorism, the president has maintained the support of the people: 55 percent approve of his performance.
There are only three major problems with Bush's latest attempt to tie Iraq to 9/11. One is political, another personal, yet another is practical.
Bush's political problem is that Americans may like the memory of his response to 9/11, but the fear of Al Qaeda has faded dramatically. When Gallup asked about the chances of a terrorist attack in the Unite States over the next several weeks, 63 percent said it was either not too likely or not at all likely. Just 35 percent said an attack was either somewhat or very likely. Those numbers make it far harder to convince Americans that Iraq is a vital line of defense against terrorists who would otherwise be killing civilians in New York. That's why the president cited the commander of Fort Bragg as saying: "We either deal with terrorism and this extremism abroad, or we deal with it when it comes to us."
The personal problem is one of credibility and confusion. By the fall of 2003, senior administration officials called the first signs of violence the work of "dead-enders." In a news conference in October 2003, Bush himself said the suicide bombers were "Baathists and foreign terrorists." The following year, as public support for the war dropped sharply, Bush delivered another prime-time address to point to the way forward at the Army War College--the model for Tuesday's speech, according to his aides. There he described the enemy in the same way. "These elements of Saddam's repressive regime and secret police have reorganized, rearmed and adopted sophisticated terrorist tactics," he explained before adding: "They've linked up with foreign fighters and terrorists."
That picture of the enemy was reversed on Tuesday. Now the president says the enemy consists of foreign fighters who have linked up with a few Saddam loyalists. "Our military reports that we have killed or captured hundreds of foreign fighters in Iraq who have come from Saudi Arabia and Syria, Iran, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, Libya and others," he said. "They are making common cause with criminal elements, Iraqi insurgents, and remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime who want to restore the old order." For good measure, Bush even quoted bin Laden--a rare reference to the evildoer--who has labeled the hostilities in Iraq as World War III. At best, Americans might be confused by the identity of the enemy in Iraq. At worst, they might find it hard to believe it's bin Laden and Al Qaeda.
Then there's the practical problem. If foreign fighters are finding it easy to enter Iraq and attack U.S. forces, what's to stop them leaving just as easily? And if there's such a big pool of them outside Iraq, what's to stop some of them traveling to Washington instead of Baghdad? There's very little that's reassuring about the image of Iraq as Afghanistan--not least because bin Laden (and his Iraqi ally Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi) remains at large. Perhaps the most striking line of Bush's speech at Fort Bragg was the dire warning that Iraq could still become what it never was under the tyranny of Saddam Hussein: a center of operations for Al Qaeda. "To complete the mission," he said, "we will prevent Al Qaeda and other foreign terrorists from turning Iraq into what Afghanistan was under the Taliban, a safe haven from which they could launch attacks on America and our friends."
The current phase of Bush's pitch on Iraq finds an uncomfortable historical echo. While Bush didn't talk about light at the end of the tunnel, his positive spin is not so different from the Johnson administration's PR campaign in late 1967, when officials wanted to shift the talk away from battles and death in Vietnam. Speaking before this week's speech, the president's aides said the address would point to the way forward for the American people, outlining a strategy for success (not, they insisted, an exit strategy). "Our strategy can be summed up this way," Bush said of the training program in Iraq, "as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down." Without giving numbers about how few Iraqis are truly capable of fighting the insurgents, he painted a rosy picture of the future: "As Iraqis see that their military can protect them, more will step forward with vital intelligence to help defeat the enemies of a free Iraq."
Today there are good reasons to think there is considerable progress, at least politically, in Iraq. But the danger for President Bush is that his optimism fails to prepare the public for the lengthy battle ahead and for the continuing bloodshed of the nightly news.
Bush's speech is unlikely to quiet growing concerns among members of Congress about the administration's strategy on Iraq. While Democrats have long criticized the war, what concerns the White House is the growing number of Republicans who supported the war but now are publicly questioning the administration's handling of Iraq. The latest Republican to speak out: Ted Stevens of Alaska, one of the president's most important allies in the Senate.
Last week, Stevens told a group of Alaska reporters that he didn't support a general deadline of withdrawing troops from Iraq, but he had "major concerns" with the length of time National Guard troops and reservists have been deployed in Iraq. Stevens said there are "rising sentiments" among members of Congress on the issue and cited worries among family members and employers, who are required to keep jobs open for the troops.
"It's necessary that we have some greater specificity as far as how long people will be called up, when they're called up, when they'll be back home and the processes of their deployment," Stevens said, according to a partial transcript posted by KTUU, an Anchorage TV station. "If it's not properly understood, [those feelings] could jeopardize the president's successfully concluding our operations in Afghanistan and Iraq."
The comments come on the heels of a White House luncheon last week for the 55 GOP senators, during which Stevens and John Warner of Virginia pressed Bush "to make a better case" about why the United States remains in Iraq and to "not let people think things are going better than they are." Stevens specifically advised Bush to "articulate this is not another Vietnam."
A spokeswoman for the Alaska senator told NEWSWEEK that Stevens "is very concerned about how the public is being informed about the war"--an issue Stevens echoed in his comments last week to the Alaska press corps. "We need to make more public our plans and concepts," Stevens told the Alaska reporters. "We have to find a way to keep people informed so not only people in the Senate but their constituents understand what we're doing and how we're proceeding with regard to training Iraqis to defend themselves and also our plans for securing additional support for their activities from other nations throughout that region, the Iraqi region."