Mission continued

Facing a public opinion quagmire, President Bush stuck to his guns on Iraq Tuesday night -- but offered no clear plan for winning.

Topics: Terrorism, Iraq, Middle East,

As the American public increasingly questions the war in Iraq, and with a growing chorus of critics calling for a clear exit strategy, President Bush stuck to his guns in a speech at Fort Bragg Tuesday night. He stayed with his core theme of fighting the terrorists for the sake of freedom, and asked Americans to stay the course in Iraq.

Bush said that the war there is difficult and dangerous, that he sees the images of violence and bloodshed and that every picture is horrifying and the suffering is real” — but the president failed to explain how he hopes to end that bloodshed, and at what point the enemy is overcome enough to declare victory and bring U.S. soldiers home.

There was little reference to the war’s length, now at two years and three months. Bush spoke respectfully of the more than 2,000 Iraqi security forces lost in the line of duty, though he did not mention by number the more than 1,700 American lives lost since the war’s onset, nor the far greater tally of U.S. injuries and Iraqi civilian fatalities.

Is the sacrifice worth it? President Bush asked the nation. Assuredly, he answered, It is worth it.

It was a speech made for television. Though President Bush stood before 750 soldiers at the North Carolina military base tonight, he spoke directly to the American people, hoping to rally an increasingly skeptical public as much as the elite troops in front of him. He asked Americans to see beyond the carnage in Iraq, to an abstract time in the future when Iraqis stand up so that U.S. soldiers can stand down.

We are hunting down the terrorists, the president said, looking out over row after row of green dress uniforms and red berets. We are helping Iraqis build a free nation that is an ally in the war on terror. We are advancing freedom in the broader Middle East.

Senator Russ Feingold wanted to know how America was going to win, and how victory would be defined. Watching from his home in Washington D.C., the Wisconsin Democrat and longtime critic of the commander in chief’s war strategy, was discouraged.

The speech in my mind was a complete failure by the president to give us any vision of how this mission was to be accomplished and how this mission can end, Feingold said exhaustedly, in a phone interview immediately following the speech. I wanted to hear the president more candidly acknowledge how difficult this insurgency is, and to some extent, how our choices have increased the terrorist threat in Iraq and around the world. And I wanted him to lay out some sense of the timeframe for our goals, some sense of how long the troops will be there.

But clearly Bush’s goal on Tuesday night was not to address his detractors; his primary mission was to halt the tumble in public support for the war. A soaring speech might have bought more time for his game plan in Iraq — unclear to the public though it may remain — as well as for his flagging domestic agenda. A president with approval ratings well below 50 percent is hardly in a position to cow maverick Republicans and dissenting Democrats.

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But a dramatic bounce in Bush’s poll numbers after the speech remains unlikely. The public does not believe that the 135,000 American troops are winning the war in Iraq, nor losing it. The question appears to be whether the public perceives a protracted stalemate: According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released the day of the president’s address, 24 percent of Americans believe the insurgency is strengthening, while 22 percent of Americans say the insurgency is getting weaker.

Strikingly, for the first time, 52 percent of respondents said the administration deliberately misled the U.S. public before the war. If there was any encouraging news for Bush in the latest poll, 52 percent of Americans agreed with the president that the war has “contributed” to U.S. long-term security, a five-point increase since early June.

It is the long-term that consumes Feingold. There just doesn’t seem to be any clear sense about what we are trying to do here, he said. Are we simply trying to stabilize the situation to allow the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government to put down an internal problem or are we going to be there indefinitely because we see this as a battleground for the international terrorists and continue to get us mired in this situation and play into the hands of al-Qaida?

The president’s speech gave no answer.

Setting an artificial timetable would send the wrong message to the Iraqis — who need to know that America will not leave before the job is done, Bush said, sticking to his prepared remarks almost word for word, and diligently reading the prompters. It would send the wrong message to our troops — who need to know that we are serious about completing the mission they are risking their lives to achieve. And it would send the wrong message to the enemy — who would know that all they have to do is to wait us out.

We will stay in Iraq as long as we are needed, Bush pledged, and not a day longer.

The military setting for Bush’s speech was no accident, of course, one year after the U.S.-led coalition handed over sovereignty to Iraqis. Bush has always been most comfortable amid the baritone grunts of support from U.S. soldiers, as they respond to his persistent optimism, his halftime-style speeches. Yet his tone and message seemed in odd contrast. His voice was somber throughout, while his message was determinedly upbeat.

Feingold, like many concerned Americans, wanted more than a than a rousing speech.

When you don’t know where you are in the game, one of the biggest reasons is that nobody has a sense of how long things will take, he said. And so the president used the same old tired clichis in order to avoid the real question, which is, why isn’t there a clear plan for the administration? And what would be wrong with [offering] a sense of in what timeframe he thinks it can be accomplished?

Feingold plans to offer a Senate resolution prior to the August recess that calls for President Bush to put forward a timetable for military withdrawal. Adding to the pressure on Bush, five House members, two of which are Republicans, have already proposed that Congress require the president to begin withdrawing U.S. soldiers by October 2006.

Tuesday’s speech came on a day when an influential Shiite Muslim member of parliament, Dhari Ali Fayadh, was killed in Iraq. But President Bush remained adamant with his time-tested message.

We are fighting against men with blind hatred, and armed with lethal weapons, who are capable of any atrocity, Bush said. They wear no uniform; they respect no laws of warfare or morality. They take innocent lives to create chaos for the cameras. They are trying to shake our will in Iraq — just as they tried to shake our will on September 11, 2001.

In invoking the attacks of September 11 several times, in alluding to Osama bin Laden as much as Saddam Hussein, President Bush continued to focus on equating the war in Iraq with the war on terrorism. While Bush’s critics acknowledge that terrorists are in Iraq today, and that it could turn into a pre-September 11 Afghanistan, Feingold emphasized that they see it as a conflict of the president’s own making.

There is no clarity about the policy, there is a terrible lack of candor, Feingold said. The continued pretension that this situation is better than it really is, really causes people to doubt.

But Tuesday night Bush would have none of it. If the public has doubts, he seemingly does not. We will stay in the fight until the fight is won, the president pledged, earning the one sustained applause of the address. And though Bush did not detail how Americans will know when the United States has won in Iraq, he seemed to be aware that time could become as great a threat to the cause, and to U.S. military strength, as the insurgency itself.

To those watching tonight who are considering a military career, there is no higher calling than service in our Armed Forces, he said near the end of his speech, in what seemed a clear nod to the military’s rising recruitment problems. While insurgents in Iraq appear able to replenish their numbers, there is growing worry about whether the Pentagon can maintain overall troop levels, as fewer recruits sign up.

Every generation has produced patriots willing to serve a cause greater than themselves, Bush said. Yet as the war goes on, the question now is whether enough Americans will continue to believe that there remains a cause worth fighting for in Iraq.

David Paul Kuhn is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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