Mr. Bush's Challenge
Tuesday, May 25, 2004; Page A16
WITH DOUBTS growing about his Iraq policy, President Bush faces one of the most important tests of his presidency in the coming weeks. His speech last night at the Army War College laid out the agenda: handing power to a sovereign Iraqi government by June 30; winning U.N. Security Council endorsement for the continued presence of U.S. and other foreign troops; improving security and neutralizing extremist groups so that reconstruction can proceed; and, finally, preparing for the election of a representative Iraqi government by early next year.
Each of those steps is daunting, but another challenge was implicit in the president's appearance last night and in White House plans for a series of such addresses: Mr. Bush must convince an increasingly skeptical American public and Congress that the goals are achievable and the sacrifices worth making. Last night's speech was, at least, a beginning and a commendable show of determination; but it's not clear that the president's rhetoric, or the steps he is planning, are vigorous enough to turn the situation around.
The bad news from Iraq has induced not just appropriate concern but a sense of panic in some quarters of Washington. A host of voices, some of them in Congress, now declare the war irretrievably lost and demand that America cut its losses and withdraw its troops, and soon. We believe Mr. Bush is right to reject that counsel and stick to the goal, as he said last night, of creating in Iraq "a free, representative government that serves its people and fights on their behalf." But it's not enough for Mr. Bush to restate the broader stakes in the war on terrorism, as he did last night, or to express his faith in Iraqis' desire for democracy. It is misleading to focus only on the problems of Islamic and Baathist terrorism when the United States also faces in Iraq complex challenges of ethnic divisions and growing anti-American nationalism -- challenges for which the country and, it seems, the administration were not prepared.
Mr. Bush would be more persuasive if he would acknowledge more honestly what has gone wrong in the past year and how it can be corrected. That is true of the evident failure to deploy sufficient numbers of troops, recruit more international support or nurture genuine Iraqi political leaders, and it applies to the abuses of Iraqi prisoners by American guards and interrogators, which Mr. Bush continues to describe as the isolated acts of individuals, despite abundant evidence of a systemic failure. The president promised last night to build a new prison in Iraq and then seek Iraqi approval to tear down the notorious Abu Ghraib complex -- but for U.S. credibility to be repaired with Iraqis and U.S. allies, Mr. Bush must also renounce the policies that led to the abuses. He repeated that he would send more troops if U.S. commanders asked for them. But he is the commander in chief; he can and should make that urgent and necessary decision himself.
Mr. Bush also needs a strategy for transforming the troubled pattern of U.S. relations with key allies. Yesterday the administration introduced the draft of the Security Council resolution that is crucial to its political and security plans, only to encounter objections from the same governments in Europe that have opposed the Iraq mission all along. Mr. Bush often speaks about overcoming these divisions but shrinks from the steps that might accomplish that, such as working personally to forge a consensus with European leaders on a common approach to Iraq. Bolder action and more honest words from the president might not change the situation in Iraq overnight, but it might, at least, persuade more Americans that he can lead the country to a success.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
A Foreign Policy, Falling Apart (The Washington Post, May 23, 2004)
An Alliance of Democracies (The Washington Post, May 23, 2004)
Crush the Insurgents in Iraq (The Washington Post, May 23, 2004)
Reveal the Rules (The Washington Post, May 23, 2004)
A Corrupted Culture (The Washington Post, May 20, 2004)
The Security Dilemma (The Washington Post, May 19, 2004)