In the buildup to the Iraq campaign, President Bush seemed comfortable in the role of Will Kane. Kane, the town marshal, in High Noon practically begs the townsfolk to help him face down the murderous Miller gang arriving on the noon train. Abandoned not only by the townsmen but his deputies as well, Kane fights alone and wins. But when his duty done, he throws down his badge and drives away. Mr. Bush can’t drive away from Baghdad, and won’t refute his vision of a new Middle East, comprised of Israel and Arab nations that aren’t the farmers and bankers of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism. On Sunday night, he left Will Kane behind. He’s made it clear that we are in Iraq — and wherever else terrorism hides — to win this fight.
Mr. Bush’s speech answered some of the mounting criticism from the Hill and abroad. His last major speech was delivered on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln when, months ago, he declared that major combat operations in Iraq were over. Ever since then, and especially in the past few weeks, we have seen increasing violence in Iraq, the media reminding us constantly of each attack and the daily casualty counts. Mr. Bush’s critics said the continued violence gave the to his speech aboard the Lincoln. Now, just four days before the anniversary of 9/11, al Qaeda has threatened a new Iraqi front in the terrorist war against America. The costs of this war — in blood and treasure — are rising daily, and are becoming central to the criticisms of Mr. Bush’s policy. Not since the days of Hubert Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson have we heard the “guns vs. butter” arguments the Dems are now testing in the political wind.
The costs of the war and reconstruction — now pegged at about $1 billion a week — have, unbelievably, spurred some Dems to revive another of their favorites plays from the Vietnam playbook. Democrats are already whining about the cost of the war making prescription-drug entitlements unaffordable. Soon, other entitlements will be tossed up as bogus sacrifices to the cost of the war. Dems won’t cut their precious entitlements, and they don’t dare reject the president’s supplemental war budget of $87 billion. No, critics such as Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.) demand that the president “level” with the American people, and tell America what the “exit strategy” is, and how long we will be committed to Iraq. Levin will be disappointed. The president said we will “do what is necessary and spend what is necessary” to complete the job we have begun. Mr. Bush realizes that defeat lies in the impatience and lack of resolve of timetables and “exit strategies.” He isn’t falling into that trap. We will leave when we are done, said Mr. Bush. And not a moment sooner.
The terrorists’ strategic goal in Iraq, he said, was to drive us out as we had been driven out of Beirut and Somalia. He pointed out that we face this global war against terror because in the past, in places such as that, the civilized world didn’t make a “sustained and serious response” to terrorist attacks. By failing to respond we led the terrorists to believe that the West was vulnerable, and would retreat whenever it was wounded. And he said that since 9/11, the world had changed, and so did our resolve.
Mr. Bush posed the very stark choice the world faces. He said, “The Middle East will either become a place of progress and peace, or it will be an exporter of violence and terror that takes more lives in America and in other free nations. The triumph of democracy and tolerance in Iraq, in Afghanistan and beyond would be a grave setback for international terrorism.” Mr. Bush was determined and compelling in making this part of his speech. This message should reverberate in Damascus and Tehran as much as it does in New York and Paris. We will shoulder this burden, Mr. Bush made clear, with or without help. And without apology or a bon jour to the crowd, he challenged our allies to help.
He has already sent Colin Powell to he U.N. — and to two groups of “donor” nations — seeking both troops and funds for these efforts. And he is also sending Mr. Powell back to the U.N. to get the Security Council resolution some nations have asked for before they will send troops to Iraq. Our commanders say that they want another division of troops to help relieve the burden on Coalition troops. Mr. Bush said that U.N. members will have the opportunity and responsibility to assist in rebuilding Iraq. It’s awful and obvious — <a href=”http://www.nationalreview.com/babbin/babbin090403.asp”>as I wrote on NRO last week</a> — that Mr. Powell is off on a fool’s errand. The U.N. won’t pass a resolution to help for any price less than our granting political control to the U.N. over the formation of the new Iraqi government. We can’t agree to that, so Mr. Bush’s urgings will fall — again — on the deaf ears of those who think it more important to restrain America than it is to fight terrorism.
The Sunday speech was powerful, but will silence the president’s critics for no longer than it took to transcribe it. It is infantile and irresponsible to demand to know when a war will end, or how much it will cost, but they will continue to make that demand. If we remember nothing else from this speech, we should remember this one point: Mr. Bush said we are fighting the terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan so we don’t have to fight them on the streets of America. That we need to fight, and there rather than here, is something every American can understand. Well, at least every American who isn’t running for the Democratic nomination next year.
— NRO Contributor Jed Babbin was a deputy undersecretary of defense in the first Bush administration, and is now an MSNBC military analyst. He is the author of the novel Legacy of Valor.