Bush's double talk on Iraq

A close reading of the president's latest speech
reveals even more of his disregard for the truth

By Fred Kaplan
Slate Magazine
A Division of The Washington Post

President George W. Bush delivered his latest statement on Iraq Thursday, April 10, and the main question at this point is whether he instructed the speechwriters to be mendacious or merely shallow.

It was a short speech, so let's take it from the top.

As a result of the surge, Bush said, "a major strategic shift has occurred. Fifteen months ago, America and the Iraqi government were on the defensive; today we have the initiative."

This isn't really true. Yes, "progress"—tactical progress—has been made. But U.S. and especially Iraqi forces are still, by and large, responding to crises when and where they occur. The recent (and unusual) attempt at taking the initiative—the offensive in Basra, which Bush last week called "a defining moment"—played out badly, as Gen. David Petraeus admitted at his Senate hearing on Tuesday. The operation revealed that the Iraqi army is nowhere close to being capable of leading a major fight, and it confirmed that the Iraqi police are nearly hopeless.

"Fifteen months ago," Bush said today, "extremists were sowing sectarian violence; today, many mainstream Sunni and Shia are actively confronting the extremists."

Here's where the mendacity comes in. Take a close look at those two sentences. They are not necessarily contrasts. Last year, extremists "were sowing violence." That doesn't mean they're not sowing violence now. Today, mainstream Muslims are "actively confronting the extremists." That doesn't mean they're defeating them. Nor does Bush define mainstream or extremist.

Militias of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq fought alongside Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's army against the rival Shiite militia of Muqtada Sadr. ISCI and Sadr both have close ties to Iran. ISCI is allied with Maliki; Sadr is much more popular among the Shiite population, especially in southern Iraq.

In this context, mainstream and extremist are loaded, if meaningless, terms. And how about our new friends in the Sunni Awakening? A year ago, they were "extremists" (because they were shooting at Americans). Now are they "mainstream" (because they're not)? Maybe they're mainstream to us, but not to many Shiites.

"Gen. Petraeus has reported," Bush said Thursday, "that security conditions have improved enough to withdraw all five surge brigades by the end of July."

I hope a few people on the speechwriting team blushed when they penned this passage. Those five surge brigades were going to pull out this July no matter what the situation in Iraq happened to be.

Their 15-month tours of deployment will be up by then; they will go home; the Army has no combat brigades ready to replace them. This was always the calculation. It's the product of arithmetic, not policy.

Accepting Petraeus' recommendation to assess conditions before making any further withdrawals, Bush said, "Some have suggested that this period of evaluation will be a 'pause.' That's misleading, because none of our operations in Iraq will be on hold."

No, that's misleading because nobody has suggested that this will be a "pause" in operations—only in further withdrawals. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who was in the audience Thursday (and who I hope blushed when he heard this line), has himself used the word pause.

"Prime Minister Maliki's government," Bush said Thursday, "has launched operations in Basra that make clear a free Iraq will no longer tolerate the lawlessness by Iranian-backed militias."

That's one interpretation—though if that's his story, it's too bad, because under those terms, the Basra militias have won. Maliki went into the offensive, demanding that militias surrender their arms. A few days later, he agreed to a cease-fire (negotiated with the assistance of the Iranians) that let the militias keep their weapons.

Another interpretation is that Maliki and ISCI went into Basra to destroy Sadr's base of support before the upcoming provincial elections. He failed on that score as well. And, as noted earlier, both ISCI and Sadr's Mahdi Army are "Iranian-backed."

"As Iraqis assume the primary role in providing security," Bush assured us, "American forces will increasingly focus on targeted raids against the terrorists and extremists."

The key word here is the first word in the sentence: as. As the Iraqis take on "the primary role," we'll reduce our role. The Iraqis are not close to doing this now. So we won't be shifting down for the foreseeable future, either.

On their way back to Iraq, Bush announced, Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker will visit Saudi Arabia, while senior U.S. diplomats will brief "the leaders in Jordan, the UAE, and Qatar, and Kuwait and Egypt."

That's good, but the elephants in the room are Iran and Syria—the border states whose involvement will be key to any settlement in Iraq. No Bush official is visiting those countries. (It might be a good idea to stop by in Turkey as well.) This means the consultations with the others will come to naught.

"Our work in Iraq," Bush said, "will still demand sacrifices from our whole nation, especially our military, for some time to come."

Clearly, the military is sacrificing, but someone tell me what sacrifices the rest of us are making. We're not assuming even a financial burden. The costs of the war are merely stoking the deficit. Our growing national debt is being carried by China's central bank. Granted, our children and, possibly, grandchildren will be hit with the interest payments.

"To ease the burden on our troops and their families," Bush said, "I've directed the Secretary of Defense to reduce deployment lengths from 15 months to 12 months for all active Army soldiers deploying" to Iraq or Afghanistan.

This is a welcome and much-anticipated move. But note the next sentence: "These changes will be effective for those deploying after August 1st." According to an Army spokesman, one brigade, from the First Armored Division, will be deployed to Iraq in May. Those soldiers—and all the others who are there now—will be there for 15 months.

"Recruiting and retention have remained strong during the surge," Bush said.

That depends on how you define strong. Senior Army officers are in a panic over the effect that this war is having on precisely this issue. Recruitment targets are being met—but only by drastically reducing standards. Retention statistics look fine—but only because of extravagant bonuses, and, even then, the Army is hemorrhaging talented captains and majors.

The president then disputed the idea that the war is costing too much. He noted that during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, the "defense budget rose as high as 13 percent of our total economy." During the Reagan years, it accounted for "about 6 percent of GDP." Now, it's down to "just over 4 percent … a modest fraction of our nation's wealth."

He has a point, but a fairly flimsy one. Defense used to account for a larger share of the economy, but so did taxes. The people were actually putting up the money for the defense budget. Now we're not. Social programs, especially during the 1940s and '50s, were puny compared with those of today. Which ones is the president suggesting we cut back to the levels of yesteryear? Finally, GDP itself is much, much larger, even measured in real terms. Whether the budget is too small, too large, or just right has nothing to do with what share of the GDP it consumes. Bush put his finger on the right issue when he added, "We should be able to agree that this is a burden worth bearing." In fact, this is exactly what we are not able to agree.

Also, he said, the cost of the war "pales when compared to the cost of another terrorist attack on our people."

But what does the war in Iraq have to do with a terrorist attack on the United States? Where is the link?

If we pull out of Iraq, the president warned, as he has many times before, al-Qaida "would claim a propaganda victory of colossal proportions, and they could gain safe havens in Iraq from which to attack the United States, our friends and our allies." At the same time, he said, "Iran would work to fill the vacuum in Iraq." All this "would diminish our nation's standing in the world, and lead to massive humanitarian casualties, and increase the threat of another terrorist attack on our homeland."

Let's parse these three claims.

First, it's true that al-Qaida could claim victory if we withdraw totally—but no major American politician is advocating that course. Even those Democrats who call for substantial troop reductions say enough should remain to go after al-Qaida in Iraq.

Second, if the Iranians do "fill the vacuum," wouldn't they start going after al-Qaida? (Iran is Shiite, al-Qaida Sunni.) And would they fill the vacuum? What would the other Sunnis do about that? What would Iraqi Shiites who bitterly fought Iran for eight years do? A more likely scenario is that Iraq might descend into anarchy if we pulled out totally and right away. But a) that's something else, and b) nobody is calling for a total, instant withdrawal.

Third, if Bush is worried about our standing in the world, humanitarian casualties, and the threat of a terrorist attack, he should realize that all those things are also damaged by our continued presence in Iraq and his adamant refusal to consider even a moderate change of course.

Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and the author of Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power. He can be reached at war_stories@hotmail.com.