A Big Speech -- For Bush, and for Us
Posted by Derek Chollet
A few weeks ago we were calling for a serious discussion about what do to next in Iraq, and for progressives to, ahem, MoveOn from the sole obsession with what happened three years ago and the Downing Street memo, etc. Well, we wanted a debate, and thanks to the American people -- whose concerns have been expressed during the past few weeks in poll after poll – we got one. That’s why the White House had to scramble to get the President on the airwaves tonight. This will be right up there with January’s State of the Union as one of the most important speeches of Bush’s second term so far.
Obviously the President’s performance this evening will shape the contours of what comes next (just as an aside, I think it is absolutely appalling that the networks are balking at giving him the airtime – we are at war, and they worry about interrupting some episode of Survivor or Dancing with the Stars?). He’ll likely make a strong presentation for how difficult things are and call for toughness and patience in the days ahead – and saying so in front of hundreds of cheering troops from Ft. Bragg, it will make for a powerful image. Remember, it may seem amazing to those of us who do nothing more than sit behind desks all day, but morale among the troops in Iraq is quite high. My guess is that we’ll hear a lot less “last throes” happy talk, but also get a more toned-down version of what Rove said last week in New York: basically the going is tough and it’s time for the tough to get going -- and we’re tough, they’re not.
As for the progressive response in this debate, by and large I think it has been extremely smart and effective. Biden’s speech last week was a tour de force --outlining a strong critique as well as showing that there can be an effective, and bipartisan, way forward -- and so far Democrats on the Hill (mainly in the Senate caucus) have resisted the temptation to call for anything resembling a pullout.
But my concern is that what we won’t hear from Bush tonight – a timetable for turning things over to the Iraqis (in fact, we’ll hear the opposite, a full-throated argument for why this is a bad idea) – will only increase the pressure within progressive circles and their among leaders to outline a real alternative to Bush, and let’s face it, the only thing that does not look like just tweaks on his policy is a timetable for withdrawal.
Pressure for this has been burbling for awhile, especially among the activist crowd and even in policy circles. We see this idea embedded in John Kerry’s otherwise fine oped in the New York Times today. Buried in the middle of the piece, he writes:
“The administration must immediately draw up a detailed plan with clear milestones and deadlines for the transfer of military and police responsibilities to Iraqis after the December elections. The plan should be shared with Congress. The guideposts should take into account political and security needs and objectives and be linked to specific tasks and accomplishments. If Iraqis adopt a constitution and hold elections as planned, support for the insurgency should fall and Iraqi security forces should be able to take on more responsibility. It will also set the stage for American forces to begin to come home.”
Bush is not going to do that tonight. Now there’s a lot of nuance and caveats in what Kerry writes, and the general thrust of it is sensible: the more capable the Iraqis become, the less we need to be there. But I fear that what progressives will rally around is the first sentence only – to set a timetable for withdrawal. There is already work being done among some serious folks in our leading think tanks to outline a plan to do just that.
On policy grounds, I am genuinely torn about this idea, but on political grounds I have a clear conclusion. It seems to me that whatever these efforts to establish a timetable come up with, all their nuance and serious thinking will get lost in translation, and what the public will hear (and what the Republicans will promote) is one simple headline: “Democrats Outline Plan to Withdraw from Iraq.”
Is that what we want? We have to think long and hard about this one.