Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Bush must engage Americans on Iraq

(Originally published 9/15/07)

Following Gen. David Petraeus’ progress report to Congress on the troop surge in Iraq, President Bush delivered a prime-time address to Americans from the Oval Office Thursday and announced plans to bring 5,700 troops home by Christmas and decrease to 10 from 15 the number of brigades in Iraq by next summer.

The president said that "return on success" would guide his decisions regarding troop levels; the surge has improved security and diminished "ethno-sectarian violence" there, Petraeus told Congress this week.

Although Democrats denounced the plan as "unacceptable," most observers agree that Bush has bought himself more time on Iraq.

But one has to wonder whether Bush would need this full-court public relations press had he been more aggressive in communicating with the country about Iraq throughout the war.

One of the president’s personality traits is his veritable indifference to public opinion as it relates to the creation and execution of his policies, both foreign and domestic. Bush’s belief system ultimately guides his decisions. Supporters call this principle, even in the face of harsh and often personal opposition; opponents call it obtuse stubbornness, even in the face of contrary and irrefutable evidence.

From a broad perspective, it is reassuring that a president will stand firm in the face of opposition. But for this president, it can be argued it has harmed the war effort. Bush has remained reticent to critics of his Iraq policy, even while ordinary Americans have become frustrated with the war as they’ve watched brave soldiers continue to come home in flag-draped coffins.

There have been successes in Iraq. Regime change was accomplished; former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was captured and was tried, convicted and executed, in an Iraqi court and under Iraqi law. A democratic state was established in place of Saddam’s Ba’ath regime. A constitution was written. Free elections were held. Parliament was seated. And Americans identify these things with the establishment of a new democracy.

But beyond this, Americans have no clear understanding of what is left to be done. Don’t believe it? Ask yourself: What is your idea of the mission in Iraq right now?

There are almost as many answers out there as there are people.

Some say troops remain to help stabilize Iraq’s government. Others say they are keeping terrorists out of America, a sort of fight-them-there-or-fight-them-here mentality. And still others believe that those reasons are simply a distraction from the real reason for our presence in Iraq: preparation for a permanent American establishment there that could be used as a base for any future military action in the region (Iran, anyone?).

Though not in as many words, Bush acknowledged Thursday that he has no plans to completely withdraw American troops from Iraq, even before the end of next year. A successful Iraq, he said, would require an "enduring relationship" with the United States that includes "security engagement" beyond the end of his presidency.

Petraeus will deliver another progress report to Congress in March, and the Iraq war now appears to depend on what happens there until then. But just as crucial will be how well the administration demonstrates for Americans our soldiers’ continued mission – and how well that mission is being achieved.

Unless Bush speaks plainly, strongly and frequently about what is left to be accomplished in Iraq, Americans will be left with the realization that there isn’t anything else to be accomplished in Iraq.

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