Whenever a president in crisis or near crisis goes on television or stands before Congress to deliver a State of the Union address that is destined to be all but forgotten in a matter of days or weeks, commentators almost reflexively and usually inaccurately describe the pending performance as “the most important of his presidency.”
Well, they’re describing this week’s George W. Bush speech that way, and this time they’re dead right.
The future of his presidency and his ability to take the steps he believes essential to fulfilling his obligation to protect and defend the people who have twice elected him will be on the line. Bush will have to convince a skeptical nation that the Iraq war makes sense from the standpoint of this nation’s vital security interests; that those young Americans who have died or will die before this war ends have been placed in harm’s way for sound reasons; and that the sacrifices they are making will in some way enhance the safety of this country.
In other words, when he’s finished, people are going to have to turn to each other and say that terrible as it may be, the Iraq war is worth fighting: that our enemies must be stopped there now because it will be far costlier to fight and stop them somewhere else later. Citizens will have to believe Bush is being straight and to conclude from his words that he, his advisers and the U.S. military can beat our enemies on the ground in Iraq without having to contend with suicide bombers and snipers for years or, as he has hinted in the past, for decades.
This will be no easy task — even if Bush does have such a plan — because he has little credibility left on Iraq itself. The American public has heard too many different and conflicting reasons for our initial invasion. They no longer know whether blood is being shed there as part of the so-called “war on terror,” because the late Saddam Hussein was a thug whose people we somehow had to liberate, or because the United States is responsible for bringing “democracy” to the region.
Sure, the average voter is glad Hussein is gone and would be delighted if the Iraqi people opted for democracy, but the man on the street can’t see any reason why Americans should suffer to make Iraq safe for Iraqis. They’re far more interested in hearing how the sacrifices Americans are making there are making the world safer for Americans. And that’s something they haven’t been hearing.
The bottom line is that few Americans can really say who or what we’re fighting in Iraq and it just doesn’t matter all that much what the outcome is when we’re simply being ground up as part of a civil, religious or sectarian war, the outcome of which might be important to Iraq and even her neighbors, but doesn’t matter all that much to us.
The president this week has to connect the dots for a skeptical public. He has to convince them that success in the Middle East will matter and that the cost of failure may be unacceptably high. If he manages that, he’ll be half way home.
Then he has to explain why shipping even more Americans into war is going to make a difference. The way in which the so-called surge has been fairly or unfairly portrayed almost forces one to ask why dumping more young men and women into a disastrous mess will do anything but make it worse. He has to not only convince the public that he has a plan, but that it makes sense and might even work because right now most Americans don’t think anyone in the White House or anywhere else has anything that could even pass for a plan.
As commander-in-chief, Bush can and will commit more troops as he has been saying he will. The Democrats on the Hill will yell and scream about him doing it, but they won’t make any real effort to stop him because they know that if he ups the ante in Iraq and fails, he and the party he leads are in more trouble than they’ll be able to handle. Moreover, if Bush happens to be right about the consequences of a failure in Iraq, the Democrats don’t want their fingerprints on that failure.
In staking his future on committing still more troops in an incredibly unpopular war, President Bush is a little like the poker player who finds himself losing gradually and decides to stake everything on the next card he draws by going “all in.” If the right card comes up, he’ll go home a winner, but if it doesn’t it’s all over.
George W. Bush better hope he draws the card he’s going to need to win, because he is “all in.”
Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental-affairs firm (www.carmengrouplobbying.com).