The president said at the outset of his press conference this morning that his opening statement would be longer than usual; in fact, it was a 16-minute speech, the sort of thing the networks might not have covered live two weeks before an election if the White House had said in advance that it would be what it was. That said, unlike so many of Bush's public pronouncements on Iraq, this one actually amounted to news, at least insofar as it showed off a president willing to acknowledge the costs of war.
This wasn't exactly a Jimmy Carter "malaise" moment, but it was George W. Bush doing what he doesn't do often: admitting that the United States never found WMD in Iraq, admitting that there have been a lot of discouraging developments in Iraq, admitting that some Iraqi security forces have performed below expectations, admitting that a lot of American soldiers have been killed in the war. Bush went so far as to mention's October's U.S. death toll -- 93 so far -- and to acknowledge that this month has been the deadliest in Iraq since November 2004. He said that the American people aren't satisfied with the war in Iraq, and that he isn't satisfied with the way the war has gone, either.
What Bush didn't do: chart a significantly different path for the future. When the president finally got around to taking questions, NBC's David Gregory asked him why he was abandoning his "stay the course" rhetoric and why U.S. officials were suddenly talking about "timetables" and "benchmarks" for the Iraqi government. The president suggested that the benchmarks he has in mind now aren't really all that benchmark-y. "What we're asking [Iraq] to do is, 'When do you think you can get this done?'" Bush said.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has already given his answer: We'll get things done when we're ready to get things done, and "no one has the right to impose a timetable" on the Iraqi government's progress. Bush was asked about Maliki's comments this morning. He said Maliki is right if he meant that "benchmarks can't be imposed on Iraq by an outside force." "This is a sovereign government," Bush said, "but we're working closely with the government to say here's ... what we expect to happen next."
Of course, a lot of the things that the Bush administration thought would "happen next" in Iraq never happened at all. U.S. troops weren't greeted as liberators. The war didn't end in a matter of weeks. Oil revenues haven't been paying for Iraq's reconstruction. Bush acknowledged this morning that he thought last year that he'd be able to draw down U.S. troop levels in Iraq this year. It didn't happen, and there's now talk of increasing troop levels instead.
Should anyone be held accountable for all the expectations that haven't been met? Bush doesn't seem to think so. He said that Americans shouldn't "look at every success of the enemy as a mistake on our part, a cause for an investigation or cause for our troops to come home." Donald Rumsfeld? He's a smart guy who's doing a hard job. The generals? They're "doing the job that I asked them to do." The president himself? Bush said that the "ultimate accountability" rests with him, but then suggested that the time for such talk has come and gone. "That's what the 2004 campaign was about," he said.
So what happens next? Bush wasn't so clear about that, either. He said that he'll listen to the recommendations of James Baker's Iraq Study Group. He said that he'll send more troops to Iraq if Gen. George Casey says he needs them. He said that the United States will continue to adapt and adjust -- no "staying the course" here! -- as conditions warrant. He said that he's sure that "this generation" will rise to the challenge of defeating terrorists, and that the United States will in fact win, some day.
Bush said he was giving his speech -- he used that word, "speech" -- because he thinks he owes the American people an "explanation" on Iraq and a "candid assessment of the way forward." If that was the benchmark for this morning's press conference, the president pretty plainly failed to meet it.