President Bush’s depiction of Iraqi security forces as “helping to turn the tide” is difficult to square with persistent setbacks in handing control of the country back to its own people.
His suggestion that Americans are solidly behind the mission also understates opposition at home, and his hard sell on the rising quality of Iraqi forces overlooks complexities on the ground.
Bush on Wednesday declared the Iraqi army and police forces are “increasingly taking the lead in the fight against the terrorists,” even as recruits patrol Iraq’s most violent cities barely three months after learning how to use weapons and police forces struggle to get officers to come to work.
The president, in a major speech on Iraq war aims and in an accompanying strategy paper, acknowledged all has not gone as planned, speaking several times of a need for “adjustments” along the way.
Still, the White House paper cited a number of positive statistics on the recovery of the Iraq economy, asserting “our restore, reform, build strategy is achieving results.”
A more sober view
The International Monetary Fund, in its latest World Economic Outlook, in September, issued a more sobering view.
“The new government faces daunting medium-term challenges, including advancing the reconstruction of the country’s infrastructure, reducing macroeconomic instability and developing the institutions that can support a market-based economy,” the survey stated.
The IMF staff cited a “volatile security situation” as one of the biggest challenges and said only “slow progress” had been made in restoring Iraq oil production to prewar levels.
Bush, making his remarks at the U.S. Naval Academy, spoke as if the debate about Iraq were limited to Washington and only politicians were questioning the mission.
“When you’re risking your life to accomplish a mission, the last thing you want to hear is that mission being questioned in our nation’s capital,” he told cadets. “I want you to know that, while there may be a lot of heated rhetoric in Washington, D.C., one thing is not in dispute: The American people stand behind you.”
Bush’s public standing and support for the war have declined. In an AP-Ipsos poll taken in November, 62 percent said they disapproved of his Iraq policy, and his overall job approval rating dropped to 37 percent, the lowest level of his presidency.
The battle to build Iraq's military
The president spoke of “an increased focus on leadership training” to build a core of midlevel and higher ranking officers needed to guide and lead an Iraqi force that can operate on its own.
It takes years to develop a strong officer corps, and the process has been a particular struggle in Iraq. The deficiency was highlighted recently when Iraqis put out a call for more former officers from Saddam Hussein’s army to rejoin the armed forces. Bush did caution it would take “time and patience” to train enough Iraqi forces to carry the fight.
“As the Iraqi forces grow in number, they’re helping to keep a better hold on the cities taken from the enemy,” he said.
Indeed, large Shiite cities in the south now are largely controlled by Iraqi forces. But throughout central and northern Iraq, cities that are either Sunni Arab or ethnically or religiously mixed have proved more difficult to stabilize.
In Samarra, only 100 of the 700 police on the city payroll are showing up for work most days, even as U.S. soldiers prepare this week to turn over control of the inner city to Iraqi forces. The Americans tried twice before to do that in the city of 200,000 but failed when insurgents moved against police.
As he did before the invasion, Bush tied Iraq to terrorism, to make the case that a stable Iraq would make for a safer America.
He declared, “The terrorists have made it clear that Iraq is the central front in their war against humanity. And so we must recognize Iraq as the central front in the war on terror.”
Iraq was not, however, the terrorists’ chosen battlefield until Saddam was defeated and extremists poured across unsecured borders.