Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Bush Speech

Marc responds to Bush's speech.

Like him, I'll say right off where I stand. I came around early to supporting this war, for no one simple reason but because it was a combination of rare opportunities to right old wrongs and least-crappy alternatives to existing messes. And, in part, in Hail Mary hope that it would turn out a smashing success.

It's been grim work, but I can't look back in history and think of a war that hasn't been. It has become the kind of fight I didn't want it to be. It has echoes of Algeria and even, yes, Vietnam. But the Western nation-state armies sooner or later are going to have to learn how to win this kind of anti-insurgent battle. The alternative is to concede that superior firepower is musclebound weakness and honorable fighting is a sure road to defeat. And this might as well be the time and place we learn how to win it.

My first reaction to Bush's speech was that it was an adequate rallying cry, and he ought to speak so more often. But then he didn't need to rally me, because I'm not wobbling. The fight we're in is the kind you cannot change your mind about in mid-combat. You can't quit after getting your hands on your enemy's throat and not expect your headchopping, Quran-waving enemy to then clobber you from behind as you walk away.

And when it comes to selling his case to the unconvinced, I think Bush could have done better. I want him to do better, I need him to do better, though I've long since given up really expecting it to happen. This is nothing like the risks a soldier takes, but I actually have risked my job and career to publicly support the U.S. overthrow of Saddam and the establishment of a free and democratic Iraq. I've been threatened in writing with being fired by people who have the authority to do it, while anti-war protesters in my workplace have been encouaged and praised for their outspoken positions. No extra credit points for guessing this is a mainstream media company. So I do have my small stake in seeing this case made convincingly.

The military backdrop of the speech ultimately does not work to Bush's advantage. Joe at The Moderate Voice has some thoughts about that. I don't think all of them are equally strong (how many people watching last night remember an LBJ speech?). But I agree Bush should have spoken from the White House, alone, from his position of executive authority and responsibility. To pose among the troops looks almost like going into the bunker.

A more serious problem I have is that the speech -- and a lot of the rhetoric from war supporters within and outside the administration these days -- is in danger of running at cross-purposes.

We can be building up a strong and stable Iraq. Or we can be setting up a permanent battlefield there to draw in jihadis (the "flypaper effect") and fight them there because it's better than fighting them there.

But not both. If we are deliberately attempting seriously to do both, we're making a mistake. If we're giving those as alternate answers in alternate network talk show interviews, we're shabby.

Not that there's anything inherently wrong with having multiple reasons for going to war, as we did here. If you think about any decisions you make that involve more than two options, you'll probably find they're a matrix point of different motivations and practicalities. But you can't have them treading on each other's toes.

A certain number of Americans will stand solidly behind American men and women as long as they are in harm's way. A certain percent will cheer a Republican/conservative/Christian president no matter what.

And a certain number will oppose both, no matter what. Fine. What we're talking about is in between. They're willing to support the troops, but according to the polls they're smelling a flim-flam. It seems to me the anti-war opposition's three year effort of flinging everything at the White House in a bid to puncture public support for this war has finally found a few points that stick. In addition to weariness with the lack of reported progress in Iraq, there's thickening suspicions about "fixed" pre-war intelligence. American people don't like to be played for suckers. Bush didn't really address that last night, and I think it's a root of his troubles.

The Iraq-9/11 connection is an example. Tigerhawk recently quoted this passage from Thomas Friedman:

U.S. officials believed at the time that al Qaeda was planning another strike, larger than the 9/11 strikes. The United States could not stop al Qaeda on the strength of its own intelligence; it needed the cooperation of intelligence services in the Muslim world. These services were reluctant to cooperate because their view of the United States -- after having watched 20 years of weak responses in warfare -- was that it was unable to absorb the risks and casualties of war. Leaders in crucial parts of the Muslim world feared al Qaeda more than the United States. Since a covert strike against al Qaeda was not possible, the United States had no good options. Bush chose the best of a bad lot. He hoped for a change in Arab perception of the United States, from hatred and contempt to hatred and fear. He also wanted to occupy the most strategic territory in the Middle East, bringing pressure to bear on the Saudis.

Most Americans, I think felt a great deal of that intuitively. Yet many in the administration sold "Saddam is connected to 9/11" as a literal statement. Dick Cheney is just an unfortunate choice for vice president at this time. I can't see what good he's doing this administration.

The petulant insistence, coming from the Democratic leaders today, that Bush never should mention "9/11" when he speaks about the War in Iraq can be scorned and exposed for the arrogance it is.

But at the same time, the president should give us some explanation of the connection that he sees, in Friedman's terms or some other, or at least an admission that this connection is a not-so-obvious one and that reasonable people can look at the headlines and miss it. It would do Bush immense good, I think, to let the American people know he thinks it's worth his trouble to explain it to them. As it is, as he spoke last night, he could be implying that anyone who questions whether Iraq was the right next move in 2003 is as good as appeasing the murderers of 9/11.

Bush also could have said something like the forceful statement Tigerhawk himself wrote earlier this month:

That there may have been no material connection between Saddam Hussein's government and September 11 hardly means that the war in Iraq has nothing to do with September 11. While there were definitely important reasons independent of September 11 to take Saddam down -- it was American policy to bring about the fall of his government even before George W. Bush came into office -- the invasion itself was directly related to our war on al Qaeda and its cognates.

First, we needed to re-establish out credibility in the Arab world, which credibility was squandered by virtually every president since Jimmy Carter. This could only happen by bringing the war into the heart of the Arab world and taking casualties killing jihadists. We are doing that every day.

Second, we needed to put ourselves in a position to coerce the regimes most important to the war on Islamist jihad, including particularly Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia joined the fight only when it realized that we did not need its bases or its geography once we occupied Iraq. Third, we simply could not run the risk that an undeterrable and power crazy tyrant like Saddam Hussein might make common cause with al Qaeda.

One might well argue that these purposes for the war are inadequate, but there are many people outside the administration who have no particular partisan ax to grind -- me, for example -- who think they carry the day. For the [New York] Times to declare as a fact that the Iraq war has "nothing to do with September 11" is transportingly dishonest.

Same with the "too few troops" argument. OK, I accept Bush's explanation for why no more troops now. But why no more at the beginning? Was that a mistake? Increasingly it seems to be so. Then why not say it might have been? It would convince a lot of people their president is being on the level with them. Sure Reid and Pelosi would howl about mistakes made, but that only would show they're locked in to March 2003 and have no idea where we should be in March 2006, or how to get there, and they don't want to talk about it.

Same with the WMD claims. The Bush-hating people I work with didn't watch his speech, of course. One of them said, "he never admits he was wrong," and implied that would be the only thing that would make it worth watching. It's a big deal with that faction. But they're out of his reach.

I don't want or expect to see a humble contrition and a plea for forgiveness. But I think Bush could help himself with an honest, "well, dang, Saddam sure had us fooled for a long time. And here's why. And here's what we did find," and just generally remind people Saddam was hell-bent on getting the big killer toys and the sanctions system that kept them out of his mitts was breaking down. It was a matter of time.

Again, the opposition would howl that mistakes were made. So what? How would that be different than now?