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Retreating on the Offensive

Thursday, February 2, 2006

THE MOST important foreign policy theme in President Bush's State of the Union speech Tuesday night was his warning that the United States cannot afford to retreat from the aggressive defense of its interests abroad. The hardships of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have strengthened isolationist sentiment in this country, as well as those who claim that it is futile for the United States to combat Islamic extremism by promoting democracy in and beyond the Middle East. "In a time of testing, we cannot find security by abandoning our commitments and retreating within our borders," Mr. Bush said. We strongly agree -- which is why we are troubled by what the president said, or didn't say, in much of the rest of his address, and by actions that do not match the rhetoric.

Mr. Bush contended that the United States remains "on the offensive in Iraq, with a clear plan for victory." But his speech devoted only one sentence to the crucial negotiations to form a new Iraqi government and revise the constitution. Though those talks could determine whether Iraq dissolves into civil war or inches toward political stability, Mr. Bush seems to have delegated them to the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, who works without the international contact group or foreign ministers' meetings devoted to the new Palestinian government. Somehow, too, Mr. Bush's "offensive" overlaps with plans for an aggressive drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq, from 165,000 in December to fewer than 100,000 by the end of this year. U.S. funding for reconstruction is set to run out by the end of this year, though vital rebuilding of oil production and power generation facilities has not been accomplished. Mr. Bush said: "The road of victory is the road that will take our troops home." But unless more is done to stabilize Iraq in the coming months, the troops that come home this year will have lost.

Afghanistan presents a similar paradox. Terrorist activity, including suicide bombings, has been increasing at an alarming pace in recent months; casualties in fighting last year were the highest since 2001. Yet Mr. Bush plans to withdraw 2,500 of the 16,500 American troops deployed there this year and turn over security in one of Afghanistan's most unstable provinces to NATO. The NATO troops won't have the same war-fighting mandate, or abilities, as the departing U.S. units; if a hotly contested vote in the Dutch parliament goes the wrong way today, they may not arrive at all. How is this downgrading of the U.S. commitment, and security in southern Afghanistan, consistent with the imperative to "remain on the offensive?" The president didn't explain.

The most striking change in Mr. Bush's message, and apparent ambitions, concerns the spread of nuclear weapons to rogue states. Four years ago the world was abuzz over the president's identification of an "axis of evil" composed of Iraq, Iran and North Korea, and his determination that they not acquire deadly weapons. Today Iran and North Korea pose greater threats than they did in 2002; yet Mr. Bush failed to mention North Korea's nuclear weapons in his speech, while assigning responsibility for stopping Iran's bomb program to "the nations of the world." We're all for multilateralism, and for the construction of U.S.-led coalitions against rogue regimes; we acknowledge that there's no obvious answer to either challenge. Yet it's impossible not to worry that in a time of testing -- and as midterm elections approach -- Mr. Bush is decrying retreat while quietly packing his bags.

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