Tuesday, June 28, 9 p.m. ET

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Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Associate Editor
Tuesday, June 28, 2005; 9:00 PM

President Bush addressed the nation Tuesday night about the continuing war in Iraq, portraying the war as an extension of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. But with the public support wavering in recent polls, Bush spoke in blunt terms about the trauma in Iraq and the desire to bring troops home.

Washington Post associate editor Robert G. Kaiser was online Tuesday, June 28 immediately following President Bush's speech to answer questions and provide instant analysis.


Laconia, N.H.: Do you think it is really possible for U.S. troops to restore civil order in Iraq at this point? Wouldn't some type of International peacekeeping be necessary? Also wouldn't it help if we were better at restoring the infrastructure instead of awarding U.S. companies?

Robert G. Kaiser: Good evening. This is a very good question with which to begin a discussion of the president's speech on Iraq. To me, as an old (journalistic) veteran of Vietnam, this is really the key issue. I'd put the question slightly more broadly than you have: can American troops and their allies and employees achieve the political changes in Iraq that would make this war an American success? Is political stability and an Iraqi democracy something we can achieve?

Of course I don't know the answer, but I confess I'm worried that the means available to us may not be able to achieve the ends we would hope for. This, I think, is what happened in Vietnam. In the end, our effort there could only be salvaged by Vietnamese--South Vietnamese who were willing and able to sustain an independent nation in the southern half of that country. We couldn't do it for them. And in the end, they couldn't do it for themselves.

Now we depend on Iraqis to form a viable new state that can prevail against what increasingly looks like an internationalized force. Today I don't think Iraqis themselves know if they can do this. We'll just have to wait and see.


Lancaster, Pa.: Hi Robert,

I personally would like to hear this administration acknowledge that they were poorly prepared for the aftermath of the initial invasion. I believe it was Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld who before the invasion predicted that it would take five days, five weeks, or five months but no longer. That statement contrasts sharply with what they're saying now -- which is up to 12 years.

Would it be political suicide for them to acknowledge errors?

Robert G. Kaiser: You know, I think it might be political salvation at this stage for the administration to admit what we all know - that this war didn't go the way our senior officials thought, and said, it would. There's a real disconnect now between public opinion (as measured, for example, in the latest Post-ABC Poll, to which I hope we can link here) and the assertions of the administration. That is a formula for continued political trouble for the president.

washingtonpost.com: Post-ABC News Poll , ( June 28 )


Falls Church, Va.: David Gergen said if Bush does not make some kind of mea culpa for what went wrong he'll lose support? Did Bush do that? Now what?

Robert G. Kaiser: No he didn't do that. He says he told us it would be hard going, and it has been. I think what happens next is more political trouble for Bush.

But maybe not right away. This was a speech to pull on the patriotic heartstrings. It will have a short-term effect. There will be lots of activity around this request to use July 4 to support the troops. His poll numbers are likely to go up a little in the next few days. The problem is in Iraq. Without good news from there, none of this is likely to matter much in a month or two.


Lakewood, Colo.: Why doesn't the Administration come clean and give us an idea of the amount of time they are planning to stay in Iraq? This "until we are no longer needed" is so open-ended. Rumsfeld has said the insurgency could last 12 years. Other sources (I can't remember who) said at least another five years. I think when Bush pussyfoots around and is vague, he is creating a credibility gap. I thought a democracy was when the leader trusted the people and didn't have to dissemble (disassemble?).

Robert G. Kaiser: To be fair, I don't think Bush or Rumsfeld has the slightest idea how long it may be necessary to stay in Iraq. How could they? How could anyone predict what is going to happen there, or when?


washingtonpost.com: Text of President Bush's speech , ( AP )

Robert G. Kaiser: Here's a link to the full text.


Cambridge, Mass.: The president sited the worthiness of volunteering for military service. In your opinion, is his pitch for enlisting likely to have any impact?

Robert G. Kaiser: I have no idea, but will be intrigued to see what happens. The Pentagon faces a genuine crisis now on enlistment. They are not getting the men and women they need. This is one of the many dangers created by the war in Iraq over which the administration has very limited control.


Fremont, Calif.: Will the press rise up at least now and point out to the president that the reason we went in was for "WMD" and not to spread "freedom and democracy?" Or, are journalists too afraid of bringing down the wrath of The Bush on themselves?

Robert G. Kaiser: Mama, heeeellllppp! How are we supposed to respond to questions like this? A responsible free press is supposed to "rise up"? What on earth would that mean? We are afraid of "bringing down the wrath"? What is the evidence for that? I have to say this kind of rhetorical flourish is extremely discouraging. But I am going to ignore it.


Upland, Calif.: We were told that the reason we went into Iraq was because they possessed WMDs. I got tired of seeing that acronym. Why are WMDs never discussed? Has the Bush Administration ever admitted that they were wrong about WMDs in Iraq?

Robert G. Kaiser: Yes of course.


Memphis, Tenn.: I gotta agree with Lancaster, Pa., and really just want, at this point, someone to stand up and take responsibility. At the same time, the pointless partisan bickering has got to stop. We're there and we're going to be there. We can't pull out with the country in chaos, can we?

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't see how we can pull out abruptly now. Thanks for the comment.


Gaithersburg, Md.: If the President says he won't set a timetable for withdrawal of troops from Iraq because that would affect the job, how can he say, without reservation, that he won't send more troops to Iraq? If the job, the insurgency or the support the Iraqi government and people need, requires more troops, does that mean we lessen the goals or only partially complete the job but still call it accomplished "at the right time?"

Robert G. Kaiser: My hunch is we have enough troops in Iraq to prevent this insurgency from every taking or holding a major city or piece of territory, so the problem you describe isn't a real one. The real difficulty is, we have no endgame in sight, no obvious way to "win."


Washington, D.C.: Does the White House have a one-size-fits-all speech? And since this is the same old speech that Bush has been peddling, don't you think that he at least could have it memorized by now?

Robert G. Kaiser: Without endorsing your somewhat nasty last thought, I would agree that this speech was awfully similar to previous efforts, and a reflection of the fact that there is really nothing new to say, at least until the president decides, if he ever does, that he has to acknowledge having made bigger mistakes than he is prepared to acknowledge today. Bush's inability to admit errors of any kind is a big problem for him, in my opinion. It threatens to create a barrier between him and ordinary Americans who remain a common-sense people who believe what they see with their own eyes.


Nashville, Tenn.: It seems that when things are going badly in the country that the press is a target for blame. Tonight the president said, "they take innocent lives to create chaos for the cameras" and in the recent hearings both senators such as Sen. Byrd and the generals took shots at the press. Any comments?

Robert G. Kaiser: This is exactly like Vietnam, where it was commonplace for the Johnson administration to blame us for their woes on the ground. It wasn't true then, and it isn't true now, that news reports are the problem. American casualties and a difficult war are the problems.


Sacramento, Calif. (again): Mr. Kaiser,

While I adamantly disagree with the war in Iraq, I have to agree with the President when he says that he can't set a definitive pullout date. How do you fight a war with a timeline? Do you think the American people want a timeline or do you think the recent poll numbers reflect the frustration with an Administration that has (deliberately or not) misled the American public for the reasons for the war and the effort it will take to win said war?

Robert G. Kaiser: The new Post-ABC poll, to which we link above, is evidence of the common sense of Americans, who do seem to realize that there are no easy alternatives now. I recommend that all readers look at the poll with some care. It is really fascinating.


San Diego, Calif.: Will the Washington Post call Bush on his repeated and thoroughly discredited attempts to link 9/11 and Iraq?

Robert G. Kaiser: Well, I will. To me the weakest aspect of this speech, intellectually, was the attempt to imply that we have been in one continuous war against the perpetrators of 9/11 since that date, and that what is happening in Iraq now is, like the original war in Afghanistan in 2001-2, a direct American response to the attack on this country. I do believe that the war in Iraq can only be understood in the context created by 9/11--that Bush saw toppling Saddam is a response to 9/11, if not retribution for its authors. But I fear he was wrong then, and is quite wrong now to suggest to the American public that we can prevent future terrorism against Americans by prevailing in Iraq now.

That doesn't mean it wouldn't be better to prevail in Iraq than to be forced to withdraw in humiliation. Withdrawal could be truly disastrous, I fear. But establishing a working independent Iraq is not going to solve our terrorism problem, I'm quite confident of that.


Los Angeles, Calif.: The administration keeps saying that the Iraqis will ultimately be responsible for their own security. The question I have yet to hear asked or answered is this... If the American military, which is the best equipped and trained in the world, cannot suppress the insurgency, how do they expect an hastily trained, ill-equipped and seemingly unmotivated Iraqi military accomplish that task?

Additionally, how do the Iraqi people feel about the fact that the U.S. created this situation and now wants to lay responsibility at their feet when they did not invite us in there.

Robert G. Kaiser: these are reasonable questions which I cannot answer.


New York, N.Y.: What do you expect will be the Democratic reaction to the president's speech?

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't know what to expect. The Democrats remain in a pickle on Iraq.


Cambridge, Mass.: What about the money allocated for infrastructure improvement and economic development? Doesn't the president need to account for our investment to demonstrate that progress is being made?

Robert G. Kaiser: You know, billions have been spent in mysterious ways in Iraq. I expect we'll be learning about just how for years to come.


San Francisco, Calif.: You made some interesting comments about the Johnson administration's blaming of the press during Vietnam. Do you feel the overall role of the media, and the pro-war commentators' attempts to portray the media as being in bed with the enemy, is any different now?

Robert G. Kaiser: Well, the world is very different now. The media universe is much louder, much more intense. The ideological division in the country is much sharper.

But from the earliest days of the Republic, officials and politicians in trouble have found it useful to blame the press, the media, for their woes. This truly is as American as apple pie. And it is usually pretty meaningless, I think.


Washington, D.C.: What is Bush campaigning against? Is anyone suggesting that we quit Iraq tomorrow or that we impeach Bush or impeach Rumsfeld? What was at stake other than the objective of popularizing a policy that has no alternative? So what happens if it fails?

Robert G. Kaiser: Very good comment in my opinion. At points in this speech I felt Bush's speechwriters were trying to convince us that we are in a struggle akin to the cold war or something like Korea or Vietnam. But of course this new "war" is very different than all previous contests.


Carrboro, N.C.: One thing is on my mind -- should we really believe that the generals on the ground don't want more troops?

I mean, it is possible they haven't asked, but I've seen enough comments from former military brass that seem to suggest that the consensus is to truly "win," we really need more boots on the ground.

Maybe they haven't asked, but is it really because they don't think more qualified, well-trained troops are needed? Is it because they know and fear the political fallout? Is it because they fear stretching the army even thinner?

The President has given the generals an open bully pulpit if they are willing to step into it. If they thought they should request more troops, would they feel comfortable asking? If the answer is not yes, God help our troops.

Robert G. Kaiser: I was interested in the remarks of Sen. Chuck Hagel to U.S. News&World Report. You can find them here.

Hagel, a Vietnam veteran himself, says we are losing the war, and that we needed far more troops than we ever deployed to Iraq.


Richmond, Va.: Re: Los Angeles, Calif., first question, could it be that our soldiers are emphasizing "force protection" over Fallujah-style fighting which means higher U.S. casualties?

Robert G. Kaiser: My sense is the real problem is, there are no Fallujah-like targets in Iraq now. The enemy is slippery, elusive, hard to find, and has the initiative. Not a good situation.


Las Vegas, Nev.: From the pre-speech press coverage, I had understood the President would outline a plan for the future in Iraq. I did not hear any of that in his speech. Should I have more carefully read the earlier press coverage, or did the President simply fail to deliver the promised plan for success that the White House had suggested was coming?

Robert G. Kaiser: Well, you'll have to judge the news reports, but I agree that we didn't learn anything new about a plan. The way ahead is "clear" the president said. Was it clear to you? It wasn't to me.


New Brunswick, N.J.: Robert,

Please elaborate on the Democrat's pickle? That seems like a dodgy thing to leave dangling out there...

Robert G. Kaiser: Do you need me to elaborate? Most Democrats supported the war from the outset; few Democrats have found the voice to criticize it directly since. Hagel is a much more eloquent war critic than any Democrat I am aware of, though he too voted to support it originally.


Mountain View, Calif.: Thanks for holding these chats.

I listened to the entire speech on the radio, and came away disappointed. As far as I could tell, almost all of this speech could have just as easily been given at any point in the last two years. There was no real acknowledgement of the current difficulties there, and because of that I felt that Bush simply isn't willing to level with us. Furthermore, the repeated references to 9/11 were tiresome if not downright misleading. I think after all the buildup, this was a big missed opportunity by the White House.

Robert G. Kaiser: I think I agree with you.


Near Tokyo, Japan: I watched the speech on The Washington Post Web site. While presidential addresses are often broadcast by NHK (the national network), today they are showing the Yankees vs. Orioles game instead. I know that the White House asked the networks to broadcast the speech live. Did they? It didn't sound as though GWB had anything really new to say.

Robert G. Kaiser: ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, PBS, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News Channel all carried the speech.


London, U.K.: The President's delivery seems very halting tonight. At the risk of trivializing the very important issues at stake, do you think these verbal stumbles detract from the effectiveness of his message?

Robert G. Kaiser: I never know.


Columbus, Ohio: Mr Kaiser, I am a Republican and voted for the President last November with great enthusiasm. However, I have to say that I am very disappointed with his lethargic performance since then. I have the strong impression that he has little or no idea of what he wants to do with his second term. My question is -- do you think that many Republican members of Congress share my concern?

Robert G. Kaiser: I think there is a lot of nervousness among Congressional Republicans now.


Richmond, Va.: I believe that for political purposes the White House has asked for minimal public sacrifice in the War on Terror and the Iraq War. They have been financed with deficit spending rather than war bonds or a direct war tax, and fought using people already enlisted in the services, National Guard, and Reserves, versus a draft as in other major wars.

From this perspective (with which you may not agree), do you see a shift the President's approach in this speech?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for the comment. I don't see any shift on this score tonight.


St. Louis, Mo.: Can someone explain to my why we haven't secured the borders yet? Is it because we don't have enough troops in Iraq?

Robert G. Kaiser: there are many long miles of borders, far more than the U.S. could secure with the forces on the ground today.


Seaview, Washington State: Good discussion. My sense several months ago (and I say this with much trepidation), that once we entered Iraq, we could never leave. I.e., that we will have to leave a presence for five decades plus and strong enough to hold up a government and/or provide a military footing. We could not leave in the sense that the rise of China, India, etc in the world economy would present a situation where no one could bear to live down the consequences of leaving aka Vietnam. The reasons could be anything for dominance in the world economy, military dominance or something as simple as oil. Has some semblance of this opinion surfaced?

Robert G. Kaiser: I'm not certain I understand the last half of your question, but I do see a big difference between accepting defeat in Vietnam, as we did in 1975, and withdrawing unsuccessfully from Iraq today. I don't think we can do that, because the consequences could be too grave. Iraq has huge oil reserves--so is potentially wealthy. It is strategically located at the heart of the vast oil pond of the Middle East on which the entire global economy depends. We simply cannot afford chaos in Iraq, or a failed state, or another rogue regime there. So yes, we may be in Iraq for many long years to come.


Washington, D.C.: How realistic do you think it is to expect the Iraqis to have a constitution by the deadline when it has taken then over a half a year just to form a provisional government?

Robert G. Kaiser: I wouldn't bet the farm on it. But then, I don't have a farm.


Silver Spring, Md.: What struck me the most about this speech, was the somber mood of the audience. In previous speeches before a military audience, the president was frequently interrupted by applause and whoops. I didn't hear much of that tonight. Perhaps the troops are having second thoughts about the value of this this war.

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for posting.


Richmond, Va.: Mr. Kaiser, particularly in the last few months it has seemed to me that we are failing in the basic duty of an occupier to protect civilians. What concern about this do you see at top levels of the Administration and Pentagon?

Robert G. Kaiser: If you follow closely Mr. Rumsfeld's public statements, I think you see an official who is in a kind of despair over his inability to stabilize the situation on the ground. Of course they are concerned. But that doesn't help much.


Washington, D.C.: In disagreement with "London, U.K." -- and speaking as one who never gives Bush an ounce of unearned credit -- I found his delivery unusually confident and secure. But I tend to attribute that to the kind of divorcement from reality that believes wars are won through marketing.

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for the comment. To repeat, I find my own reactions to the "performance" at events like these is nearly always way off the mark. I am a Tom Shales fan; I hope he is writing tonight about the speech. His reaction is useful, unlike mine.


Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks to all for enlivening this humid summer evening. A good batch of questions and comments. I hope to be back soon.


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