Bush Leaves Iraq Questions Unanswered

President Bush delivers the last of a series of speeches on Iraq in Washington, Dec. 14, 2005.

President Bush delivers the last of a series of speeches on Iraq in Washington, Dec. 14, 2005. Reuters hide caption

itoggle caption Reuters

To listen this week to the fourth and final installment in President Bush's series of speeches on the Iraq war was to experience waves of deja vu.

Closing your eyes you could easily imagine yourself hearing his previous speech, delivered two days earlier in Philadelphia. Many of the sentences — indeed, whole paragraphs — were the same.

With a bit more effort, you could go back two weeks to the speech the president gave at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, inaugurating the series. It too, contained substantially the same language.

The cumulative impression was that the president and his writers had produced not four speeches but a single speech that was presented four times, with minor variations in theme and sequence.

Yet what was truly haunting about these presentations was not their similarity to each other but their echoes of the rhetoric of 2002. Again and again, the president returned to the circumstances of that October, when he persuaded Congress to approve an open-ended authorization for the use of force against Iraq.

At the time, the main thrust of Mr. Bush's argument was that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and might well plot with al Qaeda or other terrorists to use such weapons against U.S. targets. "We can't wait for the smoking gun, that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud," the president said in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. That was potent stuff, and Congress and the country went along.

Now, the president acknowledges that much of the WMD intelligence was wrong. He said so again this week. But he immediately adds that Saddam's intention to develop such weapons, coupled with his access to oil money that might be diverted to that purpose, made him an imminent threat. A threat so great that "to wait for it to fully materialize" might mean "we had waited too long."

Given the chance to decide it all again, knowing what we all know now, the president said he would invade again. By saying this, the president hopes to refocus the national concern about this war. He hopes to turn the war debate to the terms and stakes of three years ago.

All this took place, of course, in the atmosphere created by the terror attacks of Sept. 11, which took place just 13 months before Congress gave Mr. Bush carte blanche in Iraq. No coincidence then that this week, once again, President Bush began his Iraq speech with an explicit reference to Sept. 11 and made further references to it later in his text.

The president's effort to turn back the clock on all this is finding a measure of success. His counteroffensive has coincided with a turnaround in his job approval ratings. He has climbed back to 40 percent approval (or above) in some independent polls. This may reflect economic news, but it probably means he has reclaimed the approval of some conservatives disappointed by his lack of rebuttal in recent months as the voices of war critics grew louder. It could also mean he is making headway with those more deeply discouraged or disillusioned with the conduct of the war itself.

But can the president go much beyond this with the strategy he has pursued to date?

The course of lectures he has been offering is highly remedial, retracing the past as though his audience had somehow missed or misremembered it. To regain the dynamic confidence of the nation, the president needs to move beyond the life and times of Saddam.

Americans no longer want to hear about the Iraq of 2002. They want to know what to expect from the Iraq of 2006 and from the government and army we are training. Just what does it mean for the Iraqis to "stand up" so we can "stand down"? Will we leave faster if we like the government that forms in the next weeks and months, or will we leave faster if we don't? The administration raises a legitimate concern when it says all-out civil war could result if we withdraw. What are the administration's contingency plans in case such fighting breaks out while we are still there?

These are some of the questions that might have been addressed in the second, third and fourth speeches of the president's series, had the White House chosen to produce more than one.



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