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Democracy Arsenal on Bush on Iraq: What We Ought to Be Listening For

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Along with 4 colleagues I have a blog called www.democracyarsenal.org that's devoted to U.S. foreign policy - taking apart American policies, serving up our own alternatives, and trying to make sense of unsettling events around the world. We've been called smart, groundbreaking, original, wonky, and emails come in every day that let us know that our audience spans from Capitol Hill to the deepest red states. We welcome all of you to join the fray over there, and are honored to have been asked by Arianna to cross-post here.

Tonight President Bush will launch a PR offensive to rebuild public support for the war in Iraq with a primetime speech. As misleading as I have found most of the Administration's efforts to influence public opinion, (think WMD, Social Security, etc.) I actually think this is important. That's because, given the choices, achieving a stable Iraq in the next couple of years, if it's possible, would be a better outcome than withdrawing now, seeing that country descend to chaos, and having America's credibility as a military force undercut.

But to succeed, the war will need higher levels of public support. But any PR bounce achieved through a whitewash of the facts will be short-lived and will ultimately boomerang. As discussed on Belgravia Dispatch and as Ivo Daalder points out at America Abroad, a major reason that support for the war is eroding is precisely because people feel misled about why we got in, how it's going, and how we're gonna get out.

What to Listen for Tonight:

1. Willingness to Face Reality about Conditions on the Ground. Will Bush admit how tough things are right now in Iraq, or does he continue to pretend he knows something that the global media, our commanders on the ground, and the cold hard stats on casualties don't?

2. Honest Appraisal of the Iraqi Security Forces. If Bush argues that this is a short-term push before we turn things over to a rebuilt Iraqi security apparatus that will itself defeat the insurgency and let us go home, he is dreaming. The numbers so far make this a Pollyanna scenario, at least for the next few years.

3. A Characterization of the Insurgency. One difficulty in sustaining support for the war is the opacity of the insurgents. Are these hardened terrorists who loathe America? Nationalists who want political power? Ordinary citizens frustrated by the occupation? Foreign provocateurs? All of the above? Is the insurgency in its last throes or likely to last for years (Rumsfeld has said both in recent weeks)?

4. A Rejection of Partisanship. Karl Rove's craven attempt to divert attention from dwindling support for the botched Iraqi operation revealed just how panicked conservatives are. That kind of desperation will not make for sound leadership on Iraq or anything else.

5. A Commitment to Stronger Support for U.S. Troops. Bush needs to address how he is going to ensure that members of the armed services do not get shortchanged on the length and frequency of their deployments or the benefits they receive.

6. A Plan to Buttress Flagging Military Recruitment Efforts. Staying, much less strengthening, the course in Iraq depends on being able to continue to recruit enough troops. This has become a huge problem. It also affects the military's long-term effectiveness, and its real and perceived ability to handle another crisis (never mind problems like forest fires).

7. A Plan for Victory. Bush has to explain how we get from here (mounting attacks, a vigorous insurgency, too few boots on the ground and no prospect for more) to an Iraq that's stable (never mind democratic) enough to allow the Americans go home. Will we attract foreign troops? Put more Americans on the ground (and if so who and how)? Expedite the training effort somehow?

8. An Honest Assessment of Why Iraq Matters. The notion that we are fighting terrorists in Iraq to avoid fighting them at home was spurious when Bush first said it. Now, given the value of the American invasion and occupation as a recruitment tool for terrorists, that claim has lost all credibility. If Bush repeats this meaningless mantra, his message will fall flat. Even worse would be to revert, as Bush has in recent days, to the assertion of a link between Saddam and 9/11 -- a claim so thoroughly discredited that even Bush himself disavowed it. Bush needs to explain why Iraq now matters on its own terms.

For grading on how Bush measures up, check out our live-blogging tonight on www.democracyarsenal.org