It wasn't a speech for Americans who believe we've already lost Iraq. Or Americans who somehow know we can never establish a stable representative government able to provide security for all Iraqis. Or especially Americans who wouldn't want success if it were possible because it might undermine their anti-war views.
No, President Bush's speech last week was for those who believe victory—establishing an Iraq with a stable representative government and without sectarian violence—is still possible and desirable. The only real debate for defeatists is whether to pull out now or later from a war they think, but will not always say publicly, is lost. Last Wednesday night, however, Bush wasn't talking to them in making a case for what is seemingly our one last chance for victory in Iraq.
Does the multi-pronged policy he unveiled in his address deserve the support of those who think victory is still possible and desirable? Let's put it this way: It beats the alternative, the dark post-defeat world that Bush set forth in grim terms. It also beats the alternatives, the military, diplomatic and political strategies that are laughable when they're not a transparent fig leaf for retreat.
Moreover, Bush made two plausible and critical points that argue for his new last-chance strategy.
The first was that his new approach is markedly different than what we've tried in the past to quell the violence. "Our past efforts to secure Baghdad failed for two principal reasons," he said. "There were not enough Iraqi and American troops to secure neighborhoods that had been cleared of terrorists and insurgents. And there were too many restrictions on the troops we did have."
Along with 21,500 additional troops to secure Baghdad, the way our soldiers operate will change. This is a full-bore counterinsurgency strategy. Unlike in the past, our forces will be in Baghdad neighborhoods on a round-the-clock basis to clear, hold and build. New rules of engagement will allow them to pursue everyone they need to pursue. No more handcuffs. Every bad actor—Shiite militias and the Mahdi army—will be fair game.
The second thing Bush made clear was that this was put-up or shut-up time for Iraq's government. "I have made it clear to the prime minister and Iraq's other leaders that America's commitment is not open-ended," he said. "If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people—and it will lose the support of the Iraqi people. Now is the time to act. The prime minister understands this."
In short, the clock's ticking, and measurable results on the ground, not promises, will matter. If Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki doesn't understand the stern public message Bush delivered Wednesday night—imagine what's been said in private—he'll never understand.
Bush also suggested that al-Maliki has had a Come-to-Muhammad moment, and his government is now ready to do its part to crush Sunni and Shiite violence with an even hand.
Given the past, skepticism about al-Maliki's ability to deliver is warranted. But Bush is relying on more than the triumph of hope over experience. This time—this one last time—Iraqis will have to meet specific benchmarks. We'll know within a few months if the Iraqi government is ready to keep its part of the bargain. If it doesn't, Bush and al-Maliki won't get to decide a new strategy; war hawks will decide it for them, and it will be a U.S. pullout.
Again, giving the al-Maliki government one last try beats the alternative(s).
The unadorned address was bracing in its bluntness—about the mistakes and the failures of both the U.S. and Iraqi governments, and about the consequences of a U.S. defeat and its sober warning to the Iraqis.
Many Bush critics have said for some time that Bush needed to admit mistakes and put more troops on the ground in Iraq. Well, he did that last week. The guess here, however, is that many Democrats who asked for mea culpas and more troops won't take "yes" for an answer, simply because the "yes" comes from Bush. Could it be that criticizing Bush—not winning the actual war or having their advice taken—is really their only Iraq war policy?
David Reinhard is the associate editor of The Oregonian in Portland, Oregon.