Another week, another Bush speech trying to talk his way out of the disaster he’s created in Iraq.
This latest installment was in many ways a rehash of the previous one, filled with talk about “rejectionists and Saddamists and terrorists”, how “if we’re not fighting and destroying the enemy in Iraq… they would be plotting and killing our citizens”, how “we’ll accept nothing less than complete victory”, and, of course, the obligatory 9/11 reference.
Instead of lauding the progress being made by Iraqi security forces, this time the president focused on the “encouraging progress” being made on the economic and reconstruction fronts -- which, according to the president, has been great. But not that great.
“In places like Mosul and Najaf, residents are seeing tangible progress,” he said. Progress that is being “replicated across much of Iraq”. At the same time, he admitted “sustaining electric power remains a major challenge”, “there’s a shortage of clean water”, and “there are still kidnappings, and militias and armed gangs are exerting more influence than they should”. I guess it depends on what your definition of “progress” is. Mine doesn’t tend to include worse water, electricity, and health services than before the war.
As a sign of the progress being made, Bush quoted Sen. Joe Lieberman’s claim that there are “literally millions more cell phones in Iraq hands than before”. All the easier to report the roughly 50 attacks per day.
The biggest difference with this speech was the setting. After a long run of foreign policy speeches delivered to handpicked audiences at military bases, the president ventured out today and spoke in front of 300 members of the Council on Foreign Relations gathered not at the home of the Council in New York but at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington.
In his speech, the president lauded the Council as “one of America’s oldest and most admired foreign policy organizations”. Sounds like the perfect place for an informed and compelling exchange of ideas on the war.
The only problem is, the president wouldn’t allow questions from the members of this “most admired” group. I asked Lisa Shields, the Council’s vice-president for communications, why not and she diplomatically assured me that the Council “certainly requested that the president take questions, but the White House declined.”
It’s outrageous. The post-speech Q & A is a Council tradition. Alberto Gonzalez took questions when he recently spoke in front of the group. So did undersecretary of defense for policy Eric Edelman. Even Ahmed Chalabi took questions -- although not from me -- when he addressed the Council.
But not President Bush.
In introducing the president today, Council president Richard Haass, a former State Department official under Bush, said that his group was dedicated to “disseminating ideas so that policymakers, journalists, students and citizens can better understand the foreign policy choices facing the United States”.
It was a very interesting choice of words given that Haass has said, “Iraq was at core a war of choice, and extraordinarily expensive by every measure - human life, impact on our military, dollars, diplomatically”, and that “To this day I still don’t know why we went to war in Iraq”.
How much better our understanding of Iraq might have been if Haass had been able to raise the question of the war in Iraq as a war of choice, since there is nothing more immoral for a leader than waging an unnecessary war.
The failure in Iraq has not just been the failure of the White House and of Congressional oversight. It has also been the failure of the entire foreign policy establishment -- which didn’t ask the hard questions that needed to be asked before the war, and which is now allowing the president to continue to wage his PR war without questions.
This willingness to be silenced is a black mark on the Council and begs the question: If this isn’t the time to demand answers from the president, when will it be?