President’s speech buys him time, but costs him political capital

President George W. Bush probably bought himself a little more time with his speech Tuesday night at Fort Bragg, but unless conditions on Iraq improve substantially and fairly soon he may only have blunted criticism temporarily. The call to set a timetable to begin the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq will be less loud, less pervasive for a while, but it will return.
The president was appropriately somber (the troops in the audience were said to have been coached not to cheer), which was an implicit acknowledgment that postwar efforts haven’t gone as well as he had hoped. He did outline some points of progress, such as training Iraqis in security and police work, and described the changing character of the U.S. military role as Iraqi security forces widen their responsibilities.
But he didn’t tell Americans explicitly enough how we will know when things are going well enough that the coalition troops who have been on the front lines of this battle for so long can start coming home. Is it when the constitution is written? The next elections held? Or when Iraqi security forces reach a certain level of training?
We would like to know the milestones that demonstrate success, and the ones that signal progress, and the ones that could trigger a re-evaluation of troop strength. As it stands now, the goals are vague enough that the U.S. can continue to stay in Iraq indefinitely.
The president’s speech also did not address and is unlikely to improve the problem of declining administration credibility on the Iraq situation. At a time when 56 percent of Americans disapprove of his handling of Iraq, he could have employed more candor. According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, only 22 percent believe the insurgency is getting weaker, as Vice President Dick Cheney recently asserted.
Wars are unpredictable and chaotic. Mistakes are made, from the top levels of strategic planning to the private in the field. Everybody knows that. The American people are mature enough to deal with the possibility that the administration underestimated the amount of opposition U.S. occupation troops would face — and would think better of the president for admitting it. His stark assessment would lend credibility to the assertion that leaders now have a handle on the insurgents and what to do about them, and can succeed.
There actually are markers that Americans should stay attuned to for indications of progress. A recent Brookings Institution study found that the number of insurgent (or terrorist) attacks in Iraq was 10 a day in May 2003, 52 a day in June 2004, and 70 a day last month. Some 25 Iraqi civilians were killed by warfare in May 2003, while 350 were killed in June 2004, and 600 in May of 2005.
When those numbers start to decline rather than increase, and when there is evidence of Iraqis turning in insurgents in larger numbers, Iraq will start looking more like a success to Americans. Those markers are more important than numbers of Iraqis trained or constitutional assemblies held.
Bush bought some time in his catch-up to create a successful postwar policy. We’ll see if things turn around enough to make a flawed policy look successful and more importantly, become successful.