By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 15, 2005
As President Bush wrapped up a series of speeches on the war yesterday, he once again gave a clear answer to when U.S. troops would come home from Iraq: "We will not leave until victory has been achieved."
And he also gave this clear answer to when U.S. troops would come home from Iraq: "As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down."
What he did not do was reconcile those two ideas. Will U.S. soldiers withdraw from Iraq only after the insurgency has been vanquished? Or will they withdraw when Iraqi security forces become adequately trained to take over the battle themselves? Or somewhere in between?
For Bush, the four speeches delivered over the past two weeks represented a determined effort to reshape the angry debate at home over the war, presenting a more sober picture of the situation while highlighting the progress he sees exemplified in today's election of a new, full-fledged Iraqi parliament. At the same time, according to analysts, he carefully calibrated his rhetoric to give him maximum flexibility in determining ultimately just what will constitute victory.
The vow to "settle for nothing less than complete victory" satisfies Bush's desire to project Churchillian resolve, a strategy in keeping with White House theory that public support for a war depends on whether Americans believe they will win. The "stand up, stand down" formulation, by contrast, is intended to signal that the United States will not remain forever enmeshed in a bloody overseas conflict fueled by sectarian enmity.
The twin messages stem from a conclusion by White House advisers that they needed to counter the growing calls to begin pulling out of Iraq, or at least set a timetable for doing so. As Bush has noted, war against an amorphous enemy does not end in a surrender "on the deck of the USS Missouri," as with Japan in 1945. And so deciding the terms of victory becomes as much a political equation as a military one.
"Victory will be achieved," he said yesterday, "by meeting certain clear objectives -- when the terrorists and Saddamists can no longer threaten Iraq's democracy, when the Iraqi security forces can protect their own people, and when Iraq is not a safe haven for terrorists to plot attacks against our country."
The 35-page "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" released as Bush began his speaking tour outlined three tracks to victory: political, security and economic. On the security track, the document stated that the objective is "to develop the Iraqis' capacity" to wage a campaign "to defeat the terrorists and neutralize the insurgency" -- suggesting separate standards of victory against foreign Islamic radicals and homegrown Iraqi insurgents, without defining the difference between "defeat" and "neutralize."
"If I were in his shoes, I would be trying to do the same," said Mara Rudman, a deputy national security adviser under President Bill Clinton and now a Middle East scholar at the Center for American Progress. "He is struggling to make sure this is defined as a win whenever he gets out, so he's trying to keep the definition of victory to be something he can meet."
The strategic ambiguity also reflects hard experience inside a White House that has repeatedly miscalculated Iraqi resistance to the United States. After predictions that U.S. troops would be greeted as liberators, Bush's "Mission Accomplished" aircraft-carrier speech and Vice President Cheney's assertion in June that the insurgency was in its "last throes," Bush advisers have learned to stay away from forecasting imminent victory.
"Having been burned with estimates before . . . we are being very, very careful not to give specific month or even year horizons that we could be stuck with," said a senior administration official who was not authorized to speak on the record. "It's not as if we have a secret ersatz timetable and we just won't say what it is."
Asked about the distinction between complete victory and standing down as Iraqis stand up, the official acknowledged, "It's been a confusing concept." Reality may seem more muddled than rhetoric. Even as Iraqi security forces take the lead in battling insurgents, he said, the United States will still need to provide tactical air support and other help.
Bush is not the only one trying not to be pinned down. Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has urged his party against laying down particular proposals on Iraq. Instead, he sent a letter to Bush yesterday signed by 41 Senate Democrats calling on the president to make 2006 "a period of significant transition" leading to troop withdrawals without giving specifics.
The liberal antiwar group MoveOn.org harbors no such reticence. The group said its members handed "Out in '06" petitions bearing 400,000 signatures to the district offices of 244 members of Congress yesterday calling for an exit plan to leave Iraq entirely by the end of next year.
As part of its new communications strategy, the White House has tried to impose new terminology to cast those resisting U.S. forces in a more sinister light. After Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said he no longer liked the word "insurgents," the word was struck from Bush speeches. And the president has begun using "Saddamists" to refer to supporters of ousted president Saddam Hussein, a word he that used only once in public until two weeks ago but now appears in every speech.
Bush's speaking tour over the past two weeks has also attempted to reposition the president as more realistic about the war. Even as he maintained that victory, however it is defined, is inevitable, he acknowledged setbacks in detail, often agreeing with critics about points where the effort has gone wrong.
In yesterday's speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, he conceded that he went to war with mistaken assumptions about Iraq's weapons programs. "It is true that much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong," he said. "As president, I'm responsible for the decision to go into Iraq." But he added, "Given Saddam's history and the lessons of September the 11th, my decision to remove Saddam Hussein was the right decision."
The less rosy language has won plaudits from skeptical analysts and politicians. "There was a sense the president was on another planet," said Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "What the president has done in the last week or so is be much more frank about challenges without diluting his optimism. . . . It puts him back in the debate."