Last night President Bush gave a speech in rebuttal to critics and sinking poll numbers that have been scourging his administration since his re-election in November. Yesterday was the first anniversary of the United States handing sovereignty over to the Iraqi interim government. I’m sure the speech had been planned long ago to coincide with this milestone, but the nature of the text has undoubtedly been altered by recent events.
Public perception of the war has been coalescing quite dramatically into one of uneasiness, and there is a sense that no progress is being made. Last night’s speech was not necessarily a pep rally. The White House realized there was no longer any cause for large banners or flight suits. When President Bush walked onto the stage to address the soldiers and airmen gathered at Fort Bragg, there was silence, as the service members stood at attention. In a flash, the seriousness of the frank lecture our president was about to give to the American people was evident. However, the rhetoric was every bit as vacuous as it has been for the past three years, ever since the administration first began publicly laying out its case for invading Iraq.
Many times throughout his speech, President Bush raised the memory of September 11th. He incessantly lumped the global war on terror that began on that day with the war we started in Iraq. In his own words:
“After September 11th, I made a commitment to the American people: This nation will not wait to be attacked again. We will defend our freedom. We will take the fight to the enemy.
“Iraq is the latest battlefield in this war. Many terrorists who kill innocent men, women and children on the streets of Baghdad are followers of the same murderous ideology that took the lives of our citizens in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania. There is only one course of action against them: to defeat them abroad before they attack us at home.”
President Bush is correct is his assertion in that there are many terrorists helping to wage the insurgency in Iraq. He is also correct in his administration’s policy of taking the fight to the terrorists. As a matter of fact, after September 11th, we did take the fight to the terrorists in Afghanistan. There are few who would dispute the logic of this move. However, the president continues to insist, falsely, that Iraq was a stronghold of international terrorism before our invasion. Iraq was a totalitarian regime headed by a horrific dictator, but there was little connection between the government of Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, our deadliest terrorist enemy. Terrorists now roam Iraq as a direct result of our invasion, not because Saddam was harboring them. If there had been no invasion, Saddam Hussein would still hold the reins of power in Iraq, unfortunately, but Iraq would be devoid of any serious terror threat, as it had always been.
In October 2002, when President Bush made his impassioned speech from Cincinnati arguing for war against Iraq, The National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq was circulating the halls of power in Washington. The estimate contradicted White House assertions that Iraq had extensive contact with Al Qaeda. It certainly left no room for any operational contact. In addition, the September 11th commission reported no “collaborative relationship” between Iraq and Al Qaeda.
All this aside, the Iraq/Al Qaeda connection at one time was only a backdrop for the case for war. Almost lost today from any statement from the Bush administration is mention of the Iraqi government stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. This was the initial, powerful argument the administration used, and like all the others, it was quickly discredited. As such, it seems now taboo to speak about.
President Bush was very calculating yesterday. He refused to consider for a second that Iraq is a front of the war on terror of our own creation. To say so would be tacit admission to the American people and to the world that the war is not worth fighting. If the only reason to continue this war is not to lose, then there is no reason to fight, and the president knows this. It is not enough to try to convince the American people that they must see to it that Iraq has a stable and inclusive democracy. Ordinary Americans see no tangible benefit to such an outcome. So the president used the spectre of fear — a cudgel he has wielded with accomplished skill since the administration’s top strategists realized before the election that rousing strong, negative emotions among the American people were their only route to victory.
It is nothing short of tragic that at this late date, the Bush administration refuses to come clean about its past mistakes in this war, and our grim prospects for victory.