Thursday, January 11, 2007

Bush's talk: we can and will, if we can and will

[NOTE: The full text of Bush's speech can be found here.]

Bush's speech last night was a tight and subdued performance in terms of rhetoric and delivery. But, what else is new? Although a Churchillian sweep and grandeur would be awfully nice, it's not going to be forthcoming, not from this guy. That's not my main concern.

In content, it sounded okay to me. But what do I know? I'm just an evil bloodthirsty Bush-worshipping neocon warmonger, out to kill as many Iraqis and members of the US armed forces as humanly possible.

Seriously, folks (and no, the third sentence of the above paragraph of mine was not serious, although some would take issue with me on that), what Bush has proposed seems more than a simple "surge." Those who hate and distrust him will consider his speech mere words, just more of the same old same old. And it's true, speeches are always "mere words;" the only thing that matters is action and results.

But those of us (myself included) who believe that although Bush and his generals have made errors, such errors are not only common in all wars, but especially unavoidable in a counterinsurgency/assymetrical-warfare/nation-building situation such as that in Iraq, and will give the plan the benefit of the doubt and let it play out.

Because, make no mistake about it, it is exceptionally important that the situation in Iraq be stabilized. As Bush said, if we withdraw:

Radical Islamic extremists would grow in strength and...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.

There are some interesting possibilities hidden in the speech as almost throwaway lines. One is this:

[Previously t]here were not enough Iraqi and American troops to secure neighborhoods that had been cleared of terrorists and insurgents. And there were too many restrictions on the troops we did have. Our military commanders reviewed the new Iraqi plan to ensure that it addressed these mistakes.

Without actually using the phrase "rules of engagment," it sounds as though these restrictive and controversial rules have been--or are about to be--expanded and changed. This is huge, if it happens.

What's different about the counter-insurgency methods? According to Bush, now we will have enough forces to stay and hold after clearing neighborhoods; before we could not. (After the speech, I watched Major-General Bob Scales explain details of force ratios, and why this plan has a decent chance of succeeding where previous ones failed.) There was also a suggestion by Bush that troop levels will be increased across the board, not just in Iraq.

For me, one of the strongest parts of the speech was this:

This new strategy will not yield an immediate end to suicide bombings, assassinations, or IED attacks. Our enemies in Iraq will make every effort to ensure that our television screens are filled with images of death and suffering.

Sadly, he is correct there. The strength of our enemy is that it has realized our deep susceptibility to casualties and media reports of bloodshed. We are a compassionate society, not a hardened one, and such sensitivity is ordinarily a good thing. But in this war against an enemy that cares not one whit about such bloodshed and even feeds on it, these emotions on the part of Western society are cynically exploited and turned against us. Our compassion has become (to borrow a phrase from Churchill) our "soft underbelly," the very best way to attack us.

Bush asks for patience and resolve on the part of the nation. I doubt he'll get it, especially from those Democrats bound and determined to oppose him and withdraw ASAP. Consequences of such an abandonment? They don't need no steenking consequences.

After the speech, I was watching a Fox News interview with Newt Gingrich, not one of my favorites for his role as Speaker in the 90s. But I liked this: when asked "What part should polls play in military strategy decisions?" Newt answered (correctly, I believe), "None," and cited appropriate historical references (Lincoln, for example). He then went on to say that, when the people are fed a steady diet of despair, they respond to what they've heard; and that, if this approach brings victory, a year from now the polls will be quite different.

Bush's speech was sobering and comprehensive: he acknowledged mistakes, made it clear how important success is, described details and strategy, was realistic about the long hard fight ahead, attempted to define success, and declared limits on what we'll give Iraq if they don't cooperate. But, as Bill Kristol said in an interview later (paraphrasing here): the plan is more important than the speech, and the implementation of the plan is more important than the plan.

As for me, I deeply wish Bush had done this before. What took him so long? Why did it require the Republican loss of the election to motivate him to hatch a new plan? That's one of Bush's biggest flaws. Call it loyalty, call it stubbornness, call it whatever you want--he waited too long. I hope the wait has not been fatal to victory; it certainly has hampered and delayed it.

One of Lincoln's strengths was that he was able to change a strategy that was not succeeding. His grasp of military matters was apparently unusual for a civilian. Like all wars, the Civil War differed in some respects from those that had gone before it, and innovations were required to meet new challenges. But it was still essentially a conventional war, with armies arrayed on battlefields, and territory lost and won.

The current war, featuring assymetrical warfare against this particular enemy, seems as though it may be more profoundly different than what's gone before in the long sweep of history, although in some ways it does resemble other long-drawn-out conflicts such as Vietnam and Algeria (especially in the terrorist tactics of the enemy). Those who expect an easy or textbook victory will be disappointed and angry, ready to pull out and abandon Iraq as good riddance to bad business. As Bush said:

It can be tempting to think that America can put aside the burdens of freedom... Now America is engaged in a new struggle that will set the course for a new century.

And then he added:

We can and we will prevail.

We will, if we have the will to do so.

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