Everybody knows George W. Bush is determined to win the war in Iraq. What came through in a meeting with conservative journalists in the Oval Office Wednesday afternoon, though, was the president’s frustration in not being able to find more meaningful ways to measure progress in the war, and in not being able to make the case more effectively to the American people that progress is, in fact, being made.
But beyond that loomed an even larger concern: In today’s Iraq, the president conceded, it is the enemy, and not the United States, that is defining what victory means.
The frustration in the room stemmed not so much from internal divisions and paralysis in the Iraqi government, or lagging indicators like oil and energy production. Rather, it came from the fact that American forces simply do not seem to be winning the war — on anyone’s terms — and that most Americans are disinclined to leave the troops in Iraq without some clear movement toward victory.
“The American people were solidly behind this when you went in and you toppled the Taliban, when you go in and you topple Saddam,” columnist Mark Steyn said to the president. “But when it just seems to be a kind of thankless, semi-colonial, policing, defensive operation, with no end — I mean, where is the offense in this?”
“We are on the offense,” Bush answered. U.S. forces are taking it to the enemy every day. But he explained that the administration had made a decision that in some ways has hobbled its ability to show just how much it is on the offense. “We have made a conscious effort not to be a body-count team,” Bush said, in a clear reference to the tabulations of enemy killed that became a hallmark of the Vietnam War. And that, in turn, “gives you the impression that [U.S. troops] are just there — kind of moving around, directing traffic, and somebody takes a shot at them and they’re down.”
Bush took pains to stress that is not the case. “Al Qaeda has got special operations teams on them every day,” he said. “The death-squad leaders — well, we had two operations today that created a little news. These boys are after them. Given actionable intelligence, they’re moving hard, and they’re pressing hard. And I don’t want to give you numbers. It’s frustrating, however, because you’re right, it’s the perception that this military power full of decent people is just getting picked off and nothing’s happening. And I share the same frustration you share.”
Most of all, though, Bush said he realizes that the American people share that frustration, too. “People, most of them, are out there saying, ‘What are you doing? Get after ‘em,’“ Bush said.
He’s heard it himself. “I’m from Texas,” Bush continued. “My buddies are saying, are you doing enough, not are you doing too little. They want to know, are we winning. They want to know, this mighty country, are we doing what it takes to win?”
It would be fair to say that no one fully knew the answer to that question. At times during the conversation, the president seemed vexed — not beaten, not downcast, but vexed — by conditions in Iraq. Bush didn’t say so, but from his words it seemed hard to deny that in some significant measure the insurgents and the sectarian killers are in control in the country, and that the fate of the American mission is in their hands. “The frustration is that the definition of success has now gotten to be, how many innocent people are dying?” the president said. “And if there’s a lot dying, it means the enemy is winning.” He paused. “That doesn’t mean they’re winning.”
But what does it mean? NRO and CNBC’s Larry Kudlow asked, “How can you measure winning? The last couple of years, there just don’t seem to be any signals or signs that we’re winning.”
“This is the significant disadvantage we have in this war because the enemy gets to define victory by killing people,” Bush answered. In World War II, Bush said, progress, while hard to gain, was easier to describe. One could point to ships sunk, and battles won. “We don’t get to say that — a thousand of the enemy killed, or whatever the number was,” Bush said. “It’s happening. You just don’t know it.”
So if the U.S. chooses not to reveal how many of the enemy it has killed — and if, in any event, that death toll is not stopping the sectarian violence — then how does one assess what is going on? “I’ve thought long and hard about this, because it is precisely what is frustrating most people,” Bush said. “A lot of people are just saying, ‘You’re not doing enough to win. We’re not winning, you’re not doing enough to win, and I’m frustrated, I want it over with, with victory.’ And I’m trying to figure out a matrix that says things are getting better. I think that one way to measure is less violence than before, I guess…”
But that, of course, leads back to the president’s statement that the enemy gets to define victory by killing people. If the sectarian forces are able to keep up the killing, then they will determine who wins in Iraq.
The latest plan to retake the offensive on defining victory is the so-called benchmark. “The idea is to develop with the Iraqi government a series of benchmarks — oil, federalism, constitutional reform, there’s like 20 different things — and have that developed in a way that they’re comfortable with and we’re comfortable with,” Bush said. Progress toward those goals would give the administration new ways to point toward overall progress in Iraq.
Beyond that, the president seemed to be considering a plan to refine the country’s governmental structure in a way that would accommodate the Shiite, Sunni, and Kurd populations without dividing the country. “We’ve had a lot of people out there saying, split up the country,” Bush said. “That’s not going to work. But there are ways to achieve a more balanced federalism from what some people think is going to happen to them. There could be more — like Texas, we always want less federal, more state. And that’s the way — this balance can be achieved through negotiations. That’s what they’re trying to do.”
But in the end, there is still that frustration with a level of violence that U.S. forces don’t seem able to control. The consequences tear at Bush every day, but he remains convinced that the war will ultimately succeed. “If we can’t win, I’ll pull us out,” the president said. “If I didn’t think it was noble and just and we can win, we’re gone. I can’t — I’m not going to keep those kids in there and have to deal with their loved ones. I can’t cover it up when I meet with a family who’s lost a child. I cry, I weep, I hug. And I’ve got to be able to look them in the eye and say, we’re going to win. I have to be able to do that. And I’m not a good faker.”
“And so what I’m telling you is — we’ll win this.”
— Byron York, NR’s White House correspondent, is the author of the book The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President — and Why They’ll Try Even Harder Next Time.