Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Presidential leadership

Commentary by David Reinhard


By DAVID REINHARD

David Reinhard

We're almost five years into the war on Islamic terror and three and a half into the Iraq war. That's not a criticism, just a set of hard facts. Here's another set: Over the last month, we've witnessed a war between Israel and Hezbollah terrorists backed by Iran and Syria and, now, a cease-fire that has all parties claiming victory. The Brits have foiled a plot to blow up airliners headed to the United States. Finally, there's the ramped-up violence in Iraq.

Now, here's the criticism: All this has taken place—is taking place, day-by-day, hour-by-hour in a 24-hour news cycle—and President Bush fails to communicate with the American people in a manner equal to this moment in history.

No, this isn't another chattering-class shot at Bush's shortcomings as an off-the-cuff speaker. Nor is it to suggest Bush has gone silent over the last weeks. He certainly has not. He's had something to say—often something pointed and important—about these developments. But more is required of a wartime president than short remarks at photo-ops, throat-clearing reactions to breaking news, opening statements or answers at news conferences and even Saturday radio addresses or daytime speeches.

That's especially true when that war is, as Bush told Congress right after 9/11, "a long struggle" and "unlike any other we have ever seen."

Yes, a little Winston Churchill rhetoric would be good to rally a public that's weary and sour after five years, but other aspects of the British prime minister's wartime speeches would be even more welcome—the prime minister's detailed reporting and often painful candor on the conduct of war.

If this war is as crucial and far-reaching as Bush believes—and it is—he cannot continue communicating with the public on a business-as-usual, even on-the-fly, basis. He should begin with a series of prime-time "fireside" chats from the Oval Office over the month of September. Pull down the maps. Get as specific as possible. Acknowledge the successes and failures. Delineate the choices he believes the United States must make. Address critics' best arguments and the public's general concerns. Follow each progress report with a beyond-the-Beltway town meeting devoted to that week's topic, and make sure questions from critics are welcomed, even encouraged.

A sober review of what we've done to secure the homeland could be one week's topic. What have been our successes? Where are we still vulnerable and why? What action has been taken on 9/11 Commission recommendations? Talk about the administration's more controversial moves; explain how they've been helpful. Review the bidding after five years. Most Americans don't keep up on all this stuff.

Next up would be Iraq: The public needs to hear why Bush continues to believe it is one theater in the larger war on terror. What have we learned since the fall of Saddam Hussein? What should Americans make of the increased sectarian violence? What steps are the U.S. and Iraqi governments taking to end it? What evidence do we have that Syria and Iran have something to do with the upsurge in bloodshed, and what are we going to do about it? Again, admit the failures. Explain why Iraq is not distracting us from the war on terror or even creating more terrorists.

It's been less than five years since coalition forces made short work of the Taliban in Afghanistan, yet violence and military action there continue. Are the Taliban making a comeback? And what about Osama bin Laden? What are we doing to bring the 9/11 architect to justice? Would his capture or killing matter in the war on terror? Or would it be little more than a symbolic triumph, important as that might be? How much damage have we done to the terror operation responsible for slaughtering 3,000 innocents five years ago? How has al-Qaida responded—how is the threat different today—and how are we adjusting?

It's unclear whether a series of fireside chats would help or hurt the president politically. Who cares? The politics of this are really beside the point. Or should be. Bush believes we're in a war on Islamic terrorism with multiple fronts. Some people don't, but Bush does. As such, it's his duty to provide a sustained and sober accounting of the war, come what may. On the fifth anniversary of that war, it's "altogether fitting and proper," to borrow a phrase from another wartime president, to provide such an accounting.




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