President Bush’s speech at the Naval Academy on Wednesday was disappointing on several levels. First, of course, was that it was long on chest-thumping bravado and short on actual strategy, let alone details.
Even more disappointing is that it suggests the president seems to see “staying the course” and being seen as unwavering as more important than finding a way to start reducing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq.
There had been signs that the administration was dropping such hints. Last weekend White House press secretary Scott McConnell suggested that an op-ed piece by Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden that talked of drawing down troops next year was similar to the administration’s own plans. Top military people have let it be known that barring some unspeakable disaster they expect to see the number of U.S. troops in Iraq decline substantially in 2006.
Yet the president told Naval Academy students, “in the years ahead, you’ll join them in the fight.” Although he was referring to the global struggle against terrorism, he spoke almost exclusively about Iraq, and offered no hint of a timetable for the beginning of U.S. withdrawal. Indeed, he specifically rejected “an artificial deadline.”
Perhaps more troubling, for an “in-depth” look at one aspect of the war, the training of Iraqi security forces, he didn’t outline specific goals for training such forces, nor did he say what achieving those goals would mean in terms of reducing the U.S. troop commitment. He simply offered anecdotal evidence that there are more trained Iraqi police and military personnel than there were a year ago, and they were taking more responsibility.
To be sure, in dividing the insurgency — or whatever Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld wants to call it this week — into three factions (“rejectionists, Saddamists and terrorists”), the president showed some understanding that the situation is more complex than he has acknowledged in the past. Unfortunately the situation on the ground is even more complex than that.
The president’s discussion of Iraqi security forces seemed to assume they are all selflessly devoted to the emerging nation of Iraq. But the unitary nation-state is something of an abstract concept in Iraq. The United States should acknowledge that some of the forces being trained and armed by the United States are more tribal or ethnic militias, sometimes used to settle old scores of which the United States is only dimly aware, if at all, than unitary national security forces.
The 35-page “strategy” document released Wednesday is, as Cato Institute vice president for defense and international affairs Ted Carpenter put it, “long on goals and short on strategies to achieve those goals.”
We understand that in a fluid situation it can be unwise to be tied to strict timetables or preset tactics. But the president will have to do better than this at defining progress and success if he wants to restore flagging public support for this ill-advised war.