Everything was meant to signal change. The long internal debates with advisers. The meetings with outside experts. The talk of a new way forward.
Even the setting was intended to put the president in a fresh light. The old Bush was a man of action on the deck of an aircraft carrier or at his desk in the Oval Office. The new Bush: a thoughtful realist speaking to the nation from his library, with the wisdom of all those books behind him.
But if you listened closely to President Bush on Wednesday night, the much-anticipated speech didn’t change the central mission much. It’s clear, hold and build—only this time with money behind it, but not that much money, and not enough new troops to really make a difference. And, Bush signaled loud and clear, it’s really the Iraqis’ problem now.
Yes, the president accepted a degree of responsibility for the failures that have characterized the war in Iraq. “Where mistakes have been made,” he said, “the responsibility rests with me.” But he didn’t go into much detail about what those mistakes were. The basic strategy had been right all along, Bush seemed to be saying. The tactics just needed a little tweaking.
The president said he had taken care to vet the plan with his uniformed military leadership. He said they had assured him that the new plan would avoid the old mistakes of too few troops and too many restrictions on their operations. “Our military commanders reviewed the new Iraqi plan to ensure that it addressed these mistakes,” he said. “They report that it does. They also report that this plan can work.” Those lines could provide useful political cover if the security situation on the ground does not improve—and rebut Democrats who say he hasn’t been listening to his commanders.
Other than that, Bush’s vaunted new strategy really amounts to a checklist for Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. And it’s one hell of a list. Bush detailed the role, structure and location of Iraqi commanders and their deputies. He spoke about Iraqi brigades, patrols and checkpoints. He delivered a mini-State of the Union Message about the Iraqi government’s economic policies and its plans for provincial elections. Bush reduced the U.S. role to that of loyal watchdog to the Iraqi government. “America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced,” he said. "If there is change in Iraq, it will have to come almost entirely from the government in Baghdad."
White House officials have spoken privately about their repeated disappointments with Maliki. But they say that after much pushing and prodding, they are sure he will deliver this time. During their long videoconference last week, Bush pushed Maliki on those benchmarks. “It was a very direct conversation,” said one senior Bush aide, who declined to be named while discussing confidential talks with a foreign leader. “They talked in the way of two people whose success is tied to each other.”
Yet there was little discussion in the speech, or behind the scenes with the Iraqis, of what might happen if they failed to deliver once again. Bush’s aides say that talking about consequences—or threatening withdrawal—will weaken the Iraqi government and embolden insurgents and militias. President Bush simply said that he warned the Iraqi prime minister that the U.S. mission was not “open ended.”
“If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people,” he said, “and it will lose the support of the Iraqi people.” It was a curiously impersonal construction. He never suggested the Iraqi leader might lose the support of George W. Bush. And he never mentioned that the polls show a clear majority of Americans opposing his policy of sending more troops to Iraq.
For hawks hoping for a real surge, the speech was a serious disappointment. Twenty thousand new troops isn’t enough to stabilize Baghdad’s chaotic streets, they say. And they argue you can’t train new Iraqi troops if you need to focus full-time on just putting out the fire. But Bush evidently believes otherwise. “We will help the Iraqis build a larger and better-equipped army, and we will accelerate the training of Iraqi forces,” the president said, “which remains the essential U.S. security mission in Iraq.”
By the last third of the speech, Bush seemed to gain in confidence and purpose. Small wonder: he was reverting to his favorite themes. He spoke at length about Al Qaeda in Anbar province, portraying the region as a new version of his other, less controversial war in Afghanistan.
And he engaged in some good old-fashioned gunboat diplomacy with Iran and Syria. He ordered a carrier strike group to the region, and Patriot defense systems to regional allies. Those measures have nothing to do with the violence in Iraq and everything to do with Iran’s missile capabilities, nuclear programs and support for Iraqi militias.
For a real sign of change, you might have expected the president to reach out to his Democratic critics who have just taken control of Congress. Instead, he explained how he had consulted with them and found their arguments for withdrawal to be disastrously bone-headed. “We carefully considered these proposals,” he said. “And we concluded that to step back now would force a collapse of the Iraqi government, tear the country apart, and result in mass killings on an unimaginable scale.”
To those who disagreed with him, he had a simple challenge. “All involved have a responsibility to explain how the path they propose would be more likely to succeed,” he said.
Only one member of Congress earned a personal shout-out: the newly independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, a staunch supporter of Bush’s stand on Iraq. At Lieberman’s suggestion, Bush said, he is launching a bipartisan working group to find common ground on Iraq and the broader war on terror. But given that a growing list of Republicans has come out against the president’s strategy, that could be a pretty small group.