Bush on Iraq: "I made my choice"

The Army makes plans to maintain current troop levels through 2010.

Published October 11, 2006 4:58PM (EDT)

The president spent a lot of time this morning talking about "the stakes" of the war in Iraq. He said that he understands "the stakes," that the American people have got to understand "the stakes," that "the stakes' couldn't be any higher, and that he'd be talking about "the stakes" more as he campaigns for Republicans this month.

What are "the stakes"? The president talked about that a lot, too. If a "young democracy" doesn't succeed in Iraq, he said, the terrorists will establish a "safe haven" for "launching attacks on the United States." They'll use Iraq's oil reserves to fund their "radical ambitions" and to "inflict economic damage on the West." Maybe they'll get access to a nuclear weapon. Maybe they'll follow us out of Iraq and fight us here at home.

"You begin to see an environment that would cause some later on in history to say, 'How come they couldn't see the problem. What happened to them in the year 2006? Why weren't they able see the problems now and deal with them before it came too late?'"

Those are good questions. We'd like to hear the president's answers.

If the war in Iraq is the central front in the "ideological struggle" of the 21st century, as the president said again today, why isn't the Bush administration doing more now to make sure that the United States wins? We've got about 140,000 troops in Iraq now, a number that has fluctuated a little but not by any real order of magnitude since the war began more than three years ago. The White House objects -- well, sometimes -- when people accuse the Bush administration of simply "staying the course" on Iraq. But the Army's chief of staff said today that the Army has plans to maintain current U.S. troop levels in Iraq through 2010 -- longer than anyone in the administration has acknowledged thus far. Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker said it's easier to plan for the worst and hope for the best rather than the other way around. He said he needs to "have enough ammo in the magazine that I can continue to shoot as long as they want us to shoot."

The president said today that he and his generals are constantly adjusting their tactics to keep pace with reality on the ground. But it's clear that Bush has no intention of thinking further about the wisdom, or the lack thereof, of prosecuting the war in Iraq. It's also clear that the "adjustments" he might make come within a pretty narrow range of possibilities -- at least until the midterm elections have come and gone. Some have said that the United States should dramatically increase its troop presence in Iraq. Some have called for a phased or immediate withdrawal. There are all sorts of options in between. As James Baker said over the weekend, "There are alternatives between the stated alternatives, the ones that are out there in the political debate, of 'stay the course' and 'cut and run.'"

Can the president see that? Is he willing to consider all of the options that "the stakes" would seem to require? Bush talked about Baker's words today, but it's not at all clear that he understood them. "Somebody said he said, "Well, you know, 'cut and run isn't working.' That's not our policy. Our policy is to help this country succeed."

Nobody thinks that Bush's policy amounts to "cut and run," of course. And the president insisted today that calling his policy "stay the course" is only about a "quarter" right. But if the president is envisioning any sort of major change in the course he has set -- something more than simply shuffling troops around Iraq -- he wasn't letting on today. What about sending a lot more troops? What about increasing the size of the Army? What about instituting a draft? What about encouraging more Americans -- maybe even the ones in his own family -- to step up to serve? What about raising taxes to pay for the men and the women and the machines necessary to win in Iraq and Afghanistan and to create some kind of credible threat that could keep Iran and North Korea in check?

Are "the stakes" high enough to warrant those kinds of measures? And if they aren't, how can they possibly be high enough to justify the deaths of 41 U.S. troops this month and God knows how many more between now and the end of 2010?

The president didn't talk about any of that today, and nobody really asked him. Maybe there's just no point. "The calling of this country in this century is whether or not we will help the forces of moderation prevail," Bush said. "That's the fundamental question facing the United States of America, beyond my presidency, and you can tell I made my choice."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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