President Bush Addresses The Nation On War In Iraq
Logan Mock-bunting  /  Getty Images
In his nationally televised speech Tuesday night, President Bush tried to bolster support for an increasingly unpopular conflict in Iraq that has killed more than 1,740 U.S. troops.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/29/2005 1:47:47 PM ET 2005-06-29T17:47:47

WASHINGTON — To win the war on terror, President Bush keeps saying, Americans must sacrifice. After his speech on Iraq, congressional Republicans probably know which Americans he’s talking about: them! If current polling trends continue, the GOP could come under withering fire in next year’s congressional elections. But they shouldn’t expect Bush to yank the troops from Mesopotamia for his party’s sake. His implicit advice to the GOP: Strap on the body armor, remind voters that jihadists are evil and label the Democrats appeasers who would rather call a lawyer or a shrink than call in air strikes.

Every time I think the president has exhausted the possibilities of stark rhetoric, I am wrong: Like a preacher with Bible in hand, he keeps coming up with knew formulations of the struggle between good and evil. Strategically, we’re in a giant global game of Texas Hold ‘Em, and Bush, despite a hand that doesn’t look that strong, keeps shoving more chips into the pot. Now the war in Iraq has been elevated to the level of the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and the 20th century struggles against Nazism and Soviet Communism.

Does grim sell?
It’s appropriate, I guess, that Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” hit the theaters on the same night that the president stood at the podium at Fort Bragg, N.C. Bush was grim; he talked about the need to “complete the mission,” but strongly implied that this one mission, even if successfully completed, won’t end a generation-long Manichaean struggle against the forces of darkness.

So this is not a war but a condition, and it is not clear whether — if ever — we will be cancer-free.

Does grim sell? The American people have concluded that we were sold a bill of goods on the original rationale for the war: The weapons of mass destruction Saddam Hussein was about to loose on the world. Turns out, he didn’t have any. Now we need to “complete the mission” there because Iraq will be a failed state if we don’t.

On the surface, this is an easy argument to make fun of. If Iraq risks becoming a failed state, critics say, it’s because we blew it to smithereens in the process of removing Saddam & Co. Our justification for staying now is that we went there to begin with.

What's the alternative?
But, as I read the polls, voters are willing to accept the notion that we have no choice but to plow ahead—that, indeed, we can’t afford to fail in Iraq. Critics can point out that the jihadists wouldn’t be in Iraq had we not invaded; voters may in fact see logic in Bush’s contention that it is useful to have drawn the terrorists into an apocalyptic battle there. Critics can point to the gruesome footage on TV screens nightly — the “chaos for the cameras,” as Bush put it — but I am told by people who are there or who have been there recently, among them Gen. Barry McCaffrey, that the Iraqi army and civil society are in rather better shape, and making more progress, than we see.

And what alternative are the Democrats really proposing? What would they have us do? Even the Germans don’t want us to leave Iraq, though they won’t pay much to help us stay. Does anyone think that announcing a timetable for withdrawal really is a good idea? Is Osama bin Laden going to see that as a peace gesture? Are the suicide bombers likely to stop strapping on their vests?

Careful with the rhetoric
So grim may sell. But the president needs to be careful. In a war fought for and in the name of freedom, he doesn’t want to mimic, however inadvertently and superficially, the theatrical style of the tyrant we went to war to dethrone.

And there was something eerily, even disturbingly, evocative about the president’s speech at Fort Bragg. Here was a wartime leader depicting a nation under siege — his own — in what looked to be an airless, windowless place, speaking to a silent but supportive cast of beret-wearing military officers. Seeking to steel them for the struggles ahead, in which the very existence of the nation was at stake, he recalled the country’s great victories of the past. He called for new recruits to join the army, and on citizens to express their patriotism by creating public displays. He vowed he would never to give in — which brought thunderous applause from his loyal if perhaps a bit nervous officers. As he rallied his own corps, he seemed to imply that anyone who questioned the course he had set was exhibiting traitorous weakness.

We have to remake the Middle East, not turn into it.

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