President Bush's speech, delivered from the White House tonight, was billed as a presentation about troop levels and American next steps in Iraq. But the list of what needs to be done next—more troops here, more funds there—detailed by the president with all the brio of someone explaining their preferred housekeeping regimen was, if consequential, also filler.
The speech was about establishing Iraq as the lynchpin in a fatal battle between terrorism and freedom. The appearance of ideological struggle appears with passionate relentlessness in nearly every line of the speech, from its very first sentence: "Tonight in Iraq, the Armed Forces of the United States are engaged in a struggle that will determine the direction of the global war on terror—and our safety here at home."
Terrorists are the reason given for why Iraq has fallen apart, or not emerged into democratic rule, and they are also the reason given for why the U.S. must continue its presence there. Although the President breezily claims some responsibility for mistakes made, his real censure is reserved for the"Al Qaeda terrororists and "Sunni insurgents," who sabotaged the steps toward democracy that Iraq's first parliamentary elections signaled.
These terrorist and extremist elements further disrupted emerging stability, according to Bush, when they provoked Iraq's Shiite population. In the president's words: "Their strategy worked. Radical Shia elements, some supported by Iran formed death squads. And the result was a vicious cycle of sectarian violence that continues today."
The President's logic here is tangled. The speech is full of statements like these; neither true nor completely untrue. Iraqi insurgents (more than Al Qaeda, at least in Baghdad) did upset post-election Iraq. But the U.S. failure to be able to provide electricity, water or basic stability after hostilities ended helped fuel an insurgency that had popular, as well as extremist, elements. Understanding this is not a matter of bashing the U.S. for the fun of it, nor about simply being right. The U.S. can't frame future actions if it will not accept what has happened and the role the U.S. played in the last three years.
In the story Bush tells of Iraq in this speech, American actions and presence play no role in having helped create the current quagmire. In his description, the United States is obligated, morally, to play the referee on a rough regional schoolyard where all of America's archenemies are at fisticuffs at once.
As for why the U.S. must stay in Iraq, the justification is also framed in terms of the war on terror:
The consequences of failure are clear: Radical Islamic extremists would grow in strength and gain new recruits. They would be in a better position to topple moderate governments, create chaos in the region, and use oil revenues to fund their ambitions. Iran would be emboldened in its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Our enemies would have a safe haven from which to plan and launch attacks on the American people. On September the 11th, 2001, we saw what a refuge for extremists on the other side of the world could bring to the streets of our own cities. For the safety of our people, America must succeed in Iraq.
I admit to being appalled when I read this part of Bush's speech, because it's so irresponsible. There are small grains of truth in what he says, but out of them are spun a sort of nightmarish fairy tale strung together with language designed to make us afraid, and shakily girded by poor understanding of the region he would have the U.S. transform.
Iran may be developing nuclear weapons. But there's no logical string that leads directly from any particular kind of engagement in Iraq and Iran's nuclear ambitions. There is no evidence that a collapsed Iraq would by itself provide the decisive "launching pad" that would lead to a terrorist attack on American soil. There is no evidence that any American presence in Iraq will forestall Islamist extremism, nor that leaving or engaging differently would by itself lead to an increase.
And invoking September 11 in this context is to my mind completely unbefitting a national leader: it is disrespectful to invoke the victims' memory only to create fear, instead of thoughtful and informed consideration of the many, interacting causes, creating instability and the climate for extremism In the Middle East.
Most of the press coverage of this speech is going to discuss the plans to increase troop levels in Iraq, whether Bush's assessment of Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki is well-placed, and whether there is actually a plan at all. But we should also pay attention to the overarching vision of the U.S. in a decisive ideological struggle against terrorism. We can decide if we want our foreign policy shaped by a bilateral struggle laid out in absolute moral terms, assess how Iraq fits in, look for the facts and weed out faulty logic where it appears.
For more views on what Bush's speech meant: