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The Commander in Speech

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, September 10, 2008

"The president," Bob Woodward writes in his new book, "talked irritably of how he believed there was an 'elite' class in America that thought he could do nothing right."

The disdain of the elite class must be painful for the president, who rose from the humble origins of Andover, Yale, Kennebunkport and the Texas Rangers owner's box. But he can take solace in the knowledge that his problem isn't with the elites; it's with pretty much the entire country.

As Woodward points out in "The War Within," when the administration started planning the Iraq "surge" in August 2006, a Gallup poll showed that 56 percent of the country thought the Iraq war was a mistake, and President Bush's approval rating was 37 percent. Two years later, even Barack Obama says the troop increase has succeeded beyond anybody's "wildest dreams." And what says the latest Gallup poll? Fifty-eight percent of Americans think the Iraq war was a mistake. Bush's approval rating is down to 33 percent.

For Bush, the solution was obvious: Give another chest-thumping victory speech.

And so the White House assembled a few hundred military officers -- people required to rise and salute when the president speaks -- at Fort McNair in Southwest Washington yesterday to hear the president give the latest version of a Mission Accomplished speech. The audience from the National Defense University sat quietly and obediently in their green, olive, white and blue uniforms, as Bush spoke of a "moment of success in the war on terror."

Under the surge, he said, "American forces systematically dismantled al-Qaeda control" in Anbar province. Across Iraq, "civilian deaths are down, sectarian killings are down, suicide bombings are down, and normal life is returning."

"While the enemy in Iraq is dangerous, we have seized the offensive," Bush announced.

It was a return to the Bush bravado of old. In his book, Woodward noted that Bush had retreated from words such as "winning" and "victory." But at Fort McNair yesterday, Bush was again talking about Iraqi forces capable of "winning the fight" and troops coming home from Iraq "in victory."

The president was crowing -- but was anybody listening?

Bush got to his payoff line -- "the Joint Chiefs of Staff have recommended that we move forward with additional force reductions, and I agree" -- but only one guy near the back of the room clapped. He stopped quickly when he realized nobody was joining him.

There was a time, not long ago, when such a major presidential speech (a reduction of 8,000 troops in Iraq and the promise of more) would draw 15 television cameras; yesterday there appeared to be only four, including Japan's NHK. The hosts set aside 24 seats for reporters, but there appeared to be only three reporters in the press section. Only two members of Congress -- both backbench House Republicans -- showed up for the talk. And Marine Lt. Gen. Frances Wilson, the university president, was comically brief in her introduction. She opened by saying she was "honored to welcome our commander in chief," then immediately closed by adding "without any further ado, the president of the United States."

"Thank you, General, for your kind and short introduction," Bush replied.

Bush's failure to win credit for the surge probably comes from his own past skirmishes with the truth. After years of triumphant boasts that turned out to be false, the president now has a legitimate achievement to boast about -- but his credibility is shot.

He was at work on historical revision again yesterday, thanking the Coalition of the Willing for sending more than 140,000 troops to Iraq. "Thanks to their determined work and the growing capability of Iraqi forces, many of our partners in Iraq are now in a position to return on success as well," he said with a smile.

What he didn't mention is that, as of last week, there were only 7,330 foreign troops helping U.S. forces in Iraq; the number of troops apparently dropped so low this week that, for the first time, the State Department omitted the tally entirely in its weekly Iraq status report.

Bush's credibility took another beating this week in the Woodward book, which quotes Gen. George Casey, the former top U.S. commander in Iraq, telling a colleague that Bush reflected the "radical wing of the Republican Party that kept saying, 'Kill the bastards! Kill the bastards! And you'll succeed.' " Woodward writes that Adm. Michael Mullen, then chief of naval operations, warned before the troop increase in Iraq that it would detract from "so many other issues and challenges," including Afghanistan.

That warning seemed prescient at Fort McNair yesterday, as Bush, moments after announcing troop reductions in Iraq, ordered troop increases in Afghanistan. He positioned it as a product of the surge's success: "As al-Qaeda faces increased pressure in Iraq, the terrorists are stepping up their efforts on the front where this struggle first began."

In reality, the growing violence in Afghanistan came about largely because the United States was distracted in Iraq. But never mind all that. The officers in the audience did what they were required to do: They snapped to their feet for the commander in chief, who walked off the stage to a Sousa march.

"All clear!" an army officer in the front called out when Bush had left the room. The president was gone, and the officers were free to return to reality.

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