President Bush's speech at the U.S. Army War College last Monday eloquently summarized the administration's intentions concerning Iraq. But anyone expecting a significant change in course, let alone acknowledgment of past policy misjudgments, must have been sadly disappointed.
In at least one respect, it was a speech Bush should have delivered more than a year ago. From the outset, the war has been plagued by competing justifications. Monday night that ended. In a single sentence, Bush drove a stake through any lingering suspicion that invading Iraq ultimately was about weapons of mass destruction, oil, or even Saddam Hussein.
Instead, the president declared, "The rise of a free and self-governing Iraq will deny terrorists a base of operation, discredit their narrow ideology and give momentum to reformers across the region. This will be a decisive blow to terrorism at the heart of its power and a victory for the security of America and the civilized world."
Short of promising explicitly to make the Middle East safe for democracy, it would be hard to articulate a more Wilsonian objective. Moreover, there is every reason to believe that Bush meant exactly what he said. For the president himself, not just for his neocon subordinates, Iraq has assumed transcendent strategic importance. Anyone who thinks that Monday night's speech was nothing more than election-year sloganeering by a president slipping in the polls is fooling himself.
Nevertheless, one can easily take issue with every element of the president's argument: that an Iraq allowed to choose its own way would truly be free, as we understand the term; that it would more reliably deny terrorists sanctuary than did Saddam's repressive but self-protective tyranny; or that either result would necessarily strengthen rather than endanger Islamic reformers.
If current events in Fallujah (where U.S. forces have let former Republican Guard officers take charge) are any guide, there is little evidence that freedom will automatically follow once the restraining hand of coalition military power is removed. On the contrary, the more realistic question appears to be whether Saddam's heirs will be religious zealots or local strongmen.
Similarly, it's clear that Iraq today is host to many more terrorists than ever darkened Saddam's much more ruthlessly policed precincts. The country seems to have become a terrorist Mecca (no pun intended). Far from discrediting al Qaeda's ambition to rid the Islamic world of Western influence, the war seems only to have reinforced it.
As for giving aid and comfort to Middle East reformers, it's hard to see how any Saudi or Syrian moderate looking for U.S. support could be encouraged by an occupation so badly botched both politically and militarily that it stands poised to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Each of Bush's expectations represents a triumph of hope over evidence, not least because his speech did nothing whatever to diminish the continuing mismatch between his expansive political objectives and the inadequate means with which he has sought to achieve them. Although described more didactically than we have heard before, the "five steps" outlined by the president simply reframe current policy. Each thus remains hostage to the acquiescence of Iraqi leaders -- religious, secular and tribal -- whose support of the coalition, never more than superficial, has steadily eroded. It is as if the Allies in 1945, having defeated Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, had thereafter delegated the task of refabricating both societies to the people whose tacit support of those regimes had allowed them to arise in the first place.
That same disconnection from reality extends to Bush's description of the insurgents. "Coalition forces and the Iraqi people have the same enemies," he insisted, "the terrorists, illegal militia and Saddam loyalists who stand between the Iraqi people and their future as a free nation."
But for the addition of "illegal militia" (illegal, presumably, in contrast to the militia of ex-Baathists to whom we surrendered control of Fallujah), this is the same refrain we've heard for a year, since Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld first characterized armed Iraqi resistance as typical postwar "untidiness." The untidiness in question has steadily expanded in scale, sophistication and intensity -- yet seems to have made little impression on the administration.
Hence it is scarcely surprising that Monday night's speech made no promise of additional ground forces for Iraq beyond the repeated assurance that if commanders request more troops, more will be sent. Based on past evidence, however, it would be a bold commander who requested them. (The dressing down of Gen. Eric K. Shinseki for suggesting a larger force before the war started made a lasting impression.) Instead, the speech promised a force of 260,000 Iraqi soldiers and police. How they would be produced, and with what guarantee that their attentions would be reliably directed against the insurgents rather than used on their behalf, Bush did not say.
As for military operations in the meantime, the president was similarly firm in every direction: "As challenges arise in Fallujah, Najaf and elsewhere, the tactics of our military will be flexible. Commanders on the ground will pay close attention to local conditions. And we will do all that is necessary -- by measured force or overwhelming force -- to achieve a stable Iraq."
Since May 2003, however, we have done very little that is overwhelming. Given the administration's stubborn refusal from the outset of the war to commit ground forces in sufficient numbers, or the freedom to do what history suggests is required to pacify a defeated but unreconciled population of 25 million, the president's promise continues to ring hollow. Had we been willing to do more in the first place, and to commit the military resources required, Monday night's speech might not have been necessary.
Overall, the speech reflected a plan at war with itself as much as with the enemy. Expecting it to achieve the enduring strategic objectives to which the president has committed us requires believing that the Iraqis celebrating their "victory" after the Marines' withdrawal from Fallujah were just venting high spirits, and that increasing criticism of the coalition even by cooperating Iraqi leaders is merely political posturing.
In short, with Bush, it requires ignoring the prevailing evidence.
On the other hand, as an exit strategy, the president's program offers undeniable attractions. If coalition forces can keep the lid on the insurgency by cutting deals like the one in Najaf last week with followers of Moqtada Sadr, and avoid further self-inflicted wounds such as Abu Ghraib, the administration may eventually be able to extricate itself and us under the fig leaf of Iraqi self-determination.
Coalition military forces may well be asked to leave anyway the moment an interim government is in place. That would provide Bush the excuse of bowing to democratic sentiment in Iraq rather than appearing to be simply bailing out. Certainly it is hard to imagine that any freely elected Iraqi government would tolerate the presence of U.S. forces one day longer than it absolutely must. Either way, that at least would end the hemorrhage of American lives and relieve the increasingly intolerable strain on over-stretched military forces.
It may be that no better can be expected at this point. Given how far the insurgency has escalated, attempting to defeat it outright at this point would require reverting to military operations on a scale and at a level of intensity that the administration clearly is unwilling to contemplate. Even if it were willing, moreover, our coalition partners almost certainly aren't.
Departing after a face-saving interval with a less than clear-cut success certainly wouldn't be unprecedented, although this time around, the strategic fallout is likely to be more lasting. But if Bush really expects a more decisive result than that from the plan he outlined Monday evening, he may once again be betting too heavily on hope alone.