Politics & Policy

Addressing the Address

On the president on Iraq.

Editor’s note: The following are reactions to President George W. Bush’s Thursday night address to the nation on Iraq and General Petraeus’s report.

Victor Davis Hanson

Everyone expected a September do-or-die showdown over our presence in Iraq; but the good news from the surge and the absolutely insane, suicidal Democratic attacks against the best in our military have given the president another six months. He knows that the sudden reprieve is late and limited — given the military’s manpower exhaustion and the public weariness over the human and material costs of staying.

So he wants to act fast of the heels of the successful statesmanship of Petraeus and Crocker, and take advantage of their window of opportunity.

He didn’t even mention Saddam by name; that war is over and won. What faces the United States now is a new war against radical Islam that continues to foment sectarian strife to destroy the young democracy and recreate another Afghan-like haven.

In response, the president offers a new American security commitment, like that once extended to Korea, that promises both Iraq and us long-term strategic opportunities arising from the tactical successes of the surge — and sweetened by future periodic American military withdrawals.

The policy sounds like Vietnamization, but this time backed by permanent American guarantees — supposedly by bipartisan consent — to evolve into something like South Korea rather than abandonment with helicopters on the Saigon embassy roof, and hundreds of thousands butchered and exiled.

Critics will say the speech is unnecessary given the stellar testimony of Petraeus and Crocker. They would have liked instead some explanation of what went wrong the last four years, and how those perceived mistakes were corrected to allow the present success. And by now most will be against whatever George Bush is for.

Perhaps. But all that matters now is whether critics have a better plan — get out now and downsize in the region? The answer is no.

Senator Reid’s response — training Iraqis, more diplomacy, steady withdrawals — didn’t sound much different from Bush’s plan. And that’s the opposition’s problem; there really is no alternative to the present course other than simple defeat and flight. The public may well come to that defeatist position in time, but it is not there yet, and so neither for all their talk apparently are the Democrats.

Where are we? A frantic half-year race lies ahead to stabilize the country and curtail radically American losses. Soon the election-cycle really kicks in and there will have to be more accomplished than the present improvement to keep Republicans from bailing. Gen. Petraeus cannot keep testifying and President Bush can’t keep giving periodic reports; news from Iraq instead will adjudicate. We are on the cusp of 1973-4 — a one-time chance, after a long ordeal, to win a critical victory, but at precisely the time the public is weary and the opposition most shrill.

So the country looks to Iraq and our maverick General Sherman outside Atlanta, where the battlefield, as it always does in war, will sort out the politics and determine our future.

– Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson fellow in military history and classics at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. This September he is teaching at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, as the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History.

Kimberly Kagan

President Bush outlined Thursday night his strategy for moving forward in Iraq. He identified America’s vital national interests in Iraq, progress and challenges to date, and his expectations for the future. He emphasized that his decisions reflected the importance of success in Iraq for America’s security, and his unwillingness to compromise the possibility of success.

As the president explained, America has vital national interests in Iraq. First and foremost, the U.S. is fighting al Qaeda in Iraq. The president described the great progress that has been made in that fight not only in Anbar, but in Baghdad, Diyala, and elsewhere. He explained the relationship between the “surge” strategy and success in Anbar, and the need to continue to support local Iraqis who wish to turn against al Qaeda.

Second, the U.S. is fighting to prevent Iran from destabilizing Iraq completely and pursuing its aims of regional hegemony. The president described the progress American forces have made in breaking up Iranian-backed Shia death squads and dramatically reducing the sectarian violence they have been perpetrating.

The president also addressed the difficulty Iraq’s leaders have had in making the necessary political compromises to secure the gains that have been made. This issue has become the predominant talking-point of opponents of the war, who claim that failures in the central Iraqi government to date justify abandoning the effort to succeed in Iraq. The president might have gone farther to explain this key issue to the American people. At the end of the day, the United States is not in Iraq for the benefit of the Iraqis. American forces are not fighting to allow Iraqi leaders to make hard choices. The U.S. is engaged in Iraq in pursuit of its own interests in fighting terrorism and resisting Iranian destabilization and hegemony. Reconciliation agreements within the Iraqi parliament are part of what is required to secure those interests over the long term, but they are not now and never have been the reason for the presence of American combat forces in Iraq.

The president also announced that successes on the ground permit the reduction in the number of American forces back to pre-surge levels by July 2008. He emphasized that this reduction would be based on continued success. The announcement of this timeline was perhaps unwise. War is difficult to predict, and no one should be confident about the estimates for required forces nine months from now. But the logic behind the president’s decision has gone unnoticed. It is generally assumed that the reduction of American forces in Iraq will be dependent upon the Iraqi government’s accomplishment of political benchmarks. That incorrect assumption is the main reason why those benchmarks have received such emphasis. But, as General Petraeus and the president have explained, it is actually the security situation on the ground that determines how many soldiers are needed. And as we have seen, it is possible for that situation to improve dramatically even without the accomplishment of particular political benchmarks.

Senator Jack Reed gave the Democratic response, and the contrast with Bush’s speech was striking to those who paid careful attention. Bush addressed the situation in Iraq with detail and nuance. He described varying situations on the ground in different, specific regions of the country, spoke of particular movements and individuals, and showed a grasp of the complexity and reality of the struggle. Reed spoke only in generalizations. He did not refer to any specific events, places, or individuals in Iraq. He spoke generally of a “Democratic plan” for withdrawal that sounded remarkably like the Baker-Hamilton plan, originally presented at the end of 2006 in a completely different operational context. The vagueness of his discussion of the situation and of his proposals contrasted starkly with the specificity even of Bush’s speech, to say nothing of the incredible complexity and detail evinced in the testimony of General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. That contrast highlights once more what is really the key question of the upcoming political debate over Iraq: Whom do the American people want to run this war, Congress or the people who know something about it?

Kimberly Kagan is president of the Institute for the Study of War.

Mario Loyola

In his speech, the president once again talked strategy not politics. He explained why protecting the population of Iraq was the key both to military success and political progress; he explained how a strong and effective Iraqi state is coming together slowly, link by link; and he committed the nation to a long-term security relationship with Iraq that will survive his presidency by decades. He laid out a vision of how these efforts protect America — and are vital to the security of our children.

Meanwhile Democrats continued to talk politics not strategy, arguing that Iraq’s unity is purely Iraq’s problem. But it isn’t. Iraq’s failure to achieve political reconciliation raises the specter of a failing state in Iraq. And if you think a failing state in faraway Afghanistan was bad, stop and think what could come out of a failing state right in the middle of the Middle East!

It’s not just the Iraqis who need to achieve political reconciliation. We need them to achieve it too. We need Iraq to reach full governing capacity as a state. We need a fully capable Iraq to cooperate with us in the war on terror. To threaten them with withdrawal if they fail to produce what we need is like threatening your enemy with surrender if they don’t submit.

And then there is the question of basic decency. Part of the reason the president gave this speech now — and part of the reason he went to Anbar a week ago — was to reassure those Iraqis who have cast their lot with us as friends and allies that we won’t abandon them in their struggle against the common terrorist enemy. They need to hear that now.

While the Democrats fight off the far-left enemy whose farcical extremism and lack of decency threaten to discredit war’s opponents generally, the president continues to lead a struggle for peace and security in the Middle East that is altogether more vital, rational, and dignified. That is what came across most of all in Thursday night’s speech.

– Mario Loyola is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He recently returned from Iraq.

Clifford D. May

I know a lot of you thought: Petraeus and Crocker are doing fine, why does Bush need to butt in and let the antiwar cabal make this about him, rather than about them?

But Thursday night Bush said something important — and he had to say it himself: Success in Iraq now means the U.S. defeats al Qaeda there (in what al Qaeda sees as the most important theater in its global struggle against us), frustrates Tehran’s hegemonic ambitions, and establishes a long-term relationship — political, economic and military — with the government and peoples of Iraq.

No serious argument can be made that the U.S. national interest would be better served by the alternative: retreating from Iraq in exhaustion and disgrace; letting Iraq become an al Qaeda base and/or an Iranian colony. Yet the war’s opponents will attempt to make that case by saying al Qaeda in Iraq has nothing to do with al Qaeda Beyond Iraq; the mullahs of Tehran just want their legitimate grievances addressed; and, besides, Bush lost the battle for Iraq long ago.

A stable Iraqi government that cooperates with the U.S. in the war against Islamist/terrorist states and movements would be less than the shining city on a hill that Bush intended to midwife back in 2003. But such an Iraq would be as good an ally — maybe better — than any other we currently have in the Muslim world. Surely, achieving that is preferable to a humiliating defeat – the outcome that MoveOn.org and its associates fervently seek.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.

Michael Yon

During this week’s congressional hearings on progress in Iraq, General David Petraeus sat side-by-side with Ambassador Ryan Crocker and delivered some of the most candid-yet-informed talk I have heard about the war since it began. Despite that some elected officials raised questions about the veracity of the report, or sought to advance alternative policy adjustments in response it, I didn’t have to take their words on faith or support their recommendations on ideological grounds or for political agendas. I’ve been on the ground in Iraq long enough, and have seen enough of the country, to know that everything said by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker was an accurate reflection of my own direct experience. Things are different in Iraq. And they are better.

The indicators were going in the wrong direction, and sharply, for most of 2006. I have been a vocal critic of the bad policy decisions and clumsy executions that combined to put us in a virtual freefall in Iraq. Chief among these was a near constant failure on the part of policymakers, elected or appointed, to listen to the recommendations of military and diplomatic officials on the ground. Putting ideology before reality and political survival before national security got us into dire straits. Petraeus and Crocker offered sober, seasoned, and narrow way forward out of the mire. My only question watching the hearings, and listening to the president’s address Thursday night, was whether Congress and the administration had learned from their many mistakes. From Bush’s speech, it’s clear the president had heard and listened to his two top officials in Iraq. Petraeus and Crocker told the truth, as did the president.

– Michael Yon is an independent reporter, frequently from Iraq, whose work is reader-supported. To make the investment in his future work, contribute here.

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