By Richard S. Dunham
The most important thing about President George W. Bush's June 28 speech to the nation on Iraq is not anything he said. Indeed, his melodiously crafted phrases were largely a repackaging of previous Presidential remarks. The most important thing was the fact that he felt the need to make the speech at all.
Bush's trip to Fort Bragg, N.C., to deliver the address, and White House arm-twisting to get the TV networks to preempt their prime-time lineup, was a sign of how much the White House has been put on the defensive about the war in Iraq just one year after returning sovereignty to the terrorism-plagued nation.
The decline in support for the war parallels a general decline in the President's popularity and for Administration policies overall, from economic stewardship to its handling of Social Security. A June 24-26 CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll found that just 40% of Americans back the President's handling of Iraq, down from 50% following his State of the Union address in early February and far below the 76% peak he hit when he declared "mission accomplished" in the spring of 2003. Only 36% of Americans say the U.S. and its allies are winning the war on terrorism, and by 53% to 46%, Bush's constituents say it was a mistake to send troops to Iraq.
Before the speech, just 37% say the President has a clear plan for handling the situation in Iraq -- by the far the lowest ever, and down 12 percentage points since January. Sixty-one of respondents say the President does not have a plan. That's why Bush felt it was imperative to try to turn things around.
His message: "In the past year, we have made significant progress." In case you missed it, he said it again. "The progress in the past year has been significant, and we have a clear path to move forward." Or this: "Our strategy...is working."
To counter public perceptions that the war isn't worth the cost in dollars and human lives, the President made a cogent rebuttal. "Amid all this violence, I know Americans ask the question: Is the sacrifice worth it? It is worth it, and it is vital to the future security of our country."
Bush repeated many of the paeans to Middle East democracy that he made so eloquently during his winter State of the Union speech. And he reminded allies and adversaries alike that Americans aren't quitters. "The terrorists do not understand America," Bush declared. "The American people do not falter under threat, and we will not allow our future to be determined by car bombers and assassins."
"ADVANCE OF FREEDOM."
The speech was clearly designed to shore up support for the war among his base rather than to reach out to war critics. The President unabashedly pulled out his political trump card -- September 11 -- and made six references to the terrorist attacks on the U.S. homeland. He relied anew on drawing a dichotomy between blood-thirsty terrorists and defenders of freedom and liberty.
"The terrorists can kill the innocent, but they cannot stop the advance of freedom," Bush proclaimed. It certainly worked well during his reelection campaign last year.
Without reciting any new details, he repeated favorite Administration success stories from post-war Iraq: the transfer of sovereignty, the January election, the training of Iraqi security forces. He asked Americans to wave the flag on the Fourth of July and to support the troops by checking out a Pentagon Web page called, not surprisingly, americasupportsyou.mil. Republicans quickly lined up behind the President. "We cannot allow the terrorists to shake our resolve," declared House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
Bush's 28-minute speech is unlikely to persuade any of his fiercest critics to reassess their views of the Administration's prewar rhetoric or post-invasion planning. The President never mentioned his original rationale for deposing Saddam Hussein: alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
His oblique attempt to once again link Iraqi terrorists to September 11 will infuriate liberals. And his staunch opposition to setting any deadlines for progress in Iraq -- or departure of the troops -- will frustrate his political enemies at home.
His support-the-troops rhetoric may have put Democrats on the defensive, but they remained critical of his lack of new details. "We cannot cut and run and leave chaos in our wake," said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), "but we cannot achieve our goal of a safe and stable Iraq until the President puts forward a comprehensive plan for success and a clear strategy for how we will achieve it."
TET ON THE TIGRIS?
What were they to expect, though? The President long ago realized that his critics would never be placated. Instead, he's trying to win back lost friends on the political right, to rebuild his 51% coalition, and to convince the troops that he -- if not the entire nation -- is on their side.
For a short time at least, he's likely to succeed. In the long run, however, it'll be the TV videos from Baghdad that convince most Americans whether the President is a modern-day Winston Churchill, resolutely leading the free world to victory over the evildoers -- or the second coming of LBJ, battered by an endless reprise of the Tet Offensive.
Dunham is Washington Outlook editor for BusinessWeek