In last night’s Oval Office speech President Bush offered his vision of a “return on success” in Iraq. The President sought to make it a dramatic moment, and may have succeeded. Momentum created by the testimony earlier this week of Gen. David Petraeus and Amb. Ryan Crocker created the moment the president wanted to seize.
The President focused on three themes: progress in Iraq (especially in al-Anbar province), his plan to reduce troop numbers in Iraq before the end of the year, and the plan to continue involvement in Iraq beyond his presidency.
Bush began saying, “In the life of all free nations, there come moments that decide the direction of a country and reveal the character of its people. We are now at such a moment.”
The longest single section of the President’s speech was used to describe successes in Anbar Province (site of Ramadi and Fallujah, places notorious as exceptionally hostile and deadly for American forces), including the alliance between local people and our soldiers in joint opposition to Al Qaeda forces.
“Today, a city where al Qaeda once planted its flag is beginning to return to normal. Anbar citizens who once feared beheading for talking to an American or Iraqi soldier now come forward to tell us where the terrorists are hiding….And with the help of our Provincial Reconstruction Teams, new jobs are being created and local governments are meeting again. These developments do not often make the headlines, but they do make a difference.”
The slim line between success and death was apparent when the President acknowledged that earlier the same day, one of the leaders of the local Sunnis instrumental in defeating Al Qaeda in Anbar was killed by an IED.
The President acknowledged that the Iraqi government “has not met its own legislative benchmarks” but spent more time discussing some progress the government has made, such as sharing oil revenues and working to reintegrate former Baathists into the military.
Bush also repeated a key point made repeatedly by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker in their testimony early in the week: the way to change Iraqi national politics is one neighborhood or one province at a time.
The President then said that because of the success of the surge and of our troops “performing brilliantly”, he felt able to accept the recommendations of General Petraeus to begin modest reductions in troop numbers. Initially, this covers 2,200 Marines leaving Anbar within about two weeks, and another 3,500 Army soldiers by the end of the year. The larger troop reduction, “from 20 combat brigades to 15”, representing about another 20,000 troops, would come by next July.
Additionally, beginning late this year, “our mission in Iraq will evolve”, meaning that Iraqi troops will lead more missions and our soldiers fewer, allowing greater US focus on counterterrorism and training of Iraqis.
While the first major troop drawdown will not be completed before July 2008, the President is instructing General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker to give another report to Congress in March 6.
In the last major part of the speech, President Bush addressed other audiences, prefacing the comments by trying to breach partisan lines, suggesting “The way forward I have described tonight makes it possible, for the first time in years, for people who have been on opposite sides of this difficult debate to come together” and describing what he believes are or should be common beliefs even among those who disagree on tactics. The lynchpin of these beliefs is that “the success of a free Iraq is critical to the security of the United States.”
After noting that he would like Americans to come together on the issue, the President made what may have been the most important, albeit subtle, and likely controversial statement in the speech, saying that Iraqi leaders “understand that their success will require U.S. political, economic, and security engagement that extends beyond my Presidency. These Iraqi leaders have asked for an enduring relationship with America.” In other words, the President is suggesting a very long term involvement in Iraq, though not necessarily one which includes large numbers of US troops.
The President thanked Congress for funding the troops and asked for support for General Petraeus’ recommendations. Interestingly, the total number of words he specifically addressed to Congress was the shortest part of the speech, and he never used the words “Republican” or “Democrat.”
Bush told the Iraqi people to “demand that your leaders make the tough choices needed to achieve reconciliation”. Conspicuously absent was any direct statement of encouragement or support to the Iraqi government itself; instead the President offered the Iraqis a promise that “America does not abandon our friends, and we will not abandon you.”
To the countries which border Iraq and “who seek peace”, presumably Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Turkey (and explicitly not Syria or Iran), the President pointed out that “The violent extremists who target Iraq are also targeting you”, using that as the basis to argue for those governments doing everything they can to support a stable and strong government in Iraq to prevent that country from becoming a terrorist haven.
And to the rest of the world, Bush said that “a free Iraq matters”.
The evening’s address ended with the President noting that “It is never too late to deal a blow to al Qaeda. It is never too late to advance freedom. And it is never too late to support our troops in a fight they can win.”
All in all, despite the objections of the Democrats as registered in their rebuttal the speech, combined with this week’s testimony by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker likely bought the President until their March report to hope that recent apparent successes in Iraq can be repeated in other areas of the country, with the hope that the province-by-province improvements will cause positive change in Baghdad and for the national government.