PRESIDENT BUSH MADE SOME remarkable statements about Iraq at a news conference Thursday evening with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, his comrade-in-arms in the toppling of Saddam Hussein and fellow victim of public disenchantment with the war. Abandoning his usual bravado, Bush acknowledged Americans’ impatience with a conflict that has dragged on for three years and cost more than 2,400 U.S. lives, conceding that “when you see innocent people die day in and day out, it affects the mentality of our country.” He admitted that mistakes were made after the invasion and that the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib had blackened the image of the U.S. He even apologized for his own reckless rhetoric, like the famous taunt of “bring ‘em on.”
What the president did not do was connect the dots between the disaffection he described and the need to hasten the disengagement of U.S. forces from Iraq. We hope his actions in the next several months reckon with that reality even if his words didn’t.
We aren’t talking about a firm deadline for withdrawal, which we continue to believe would be a tactical mistake that might embolden Iraqi insurgents -- or Shiite elements within the government who’d like to settle scores with the Sunni minority that was privileged under Hussein. But Bush needn’t set a date for an American exit to make it clear that he wants it to occur sooner rather than later.
Instead, he used Thursday’s news conference to dispute “speculation in the press” that the Pentagon plans to reduce U.S. forces in Iraq from 131,000 to 100,000. Troop levels, he said (and we’ve heard this before), would depend on recommendations of commanders in the field. He defined the mission of those troops as helping to create “a country that can sustain itself, defend itself and govern itself.”
The president did say that “we’re making progress on all fronts,” and he called the formation of a diverse government in Baghdad “a new beginning for Iraq and a new beginning for the relationship between Iraq and our coalition.”
Never mind that the government took too long to come together and that feuding factions still haven’t settled on a defense or an interior minister. Bush seemed more interested in urging Americans to be patient than in exhorting Iraqi politicians to get their act together. “With our help,” he said, “Iraq will be a powerful force for good in a troubled region and a steadfast ally in the war on terror.”
That is an ambitious agenda -- too ambitious for most Americans if it implies that large numbers of U.S. troops must remain in Iraq for the foreseeable future as guarantors of Bush’s idealistic vision. Most Americans wish Iraqi democracy well, but they wonder whether the price of that experiment must be the continued loss of American lives -- not to mention the loss of innocence symbolized by Abu Ghraib and reports that a band of Marines in western Iraq killed Iraqi civilians without provocation.
With congressional elections looming, the Bush administration would be wise not to leave the impression with voters -- or candidates -- that the alternatives in Iraq are limited to a precipitous withdrawal or an open-ended role for the United States as the nursemaid of Iraqi democracy, prosperity and security. Given that false choice, voters might prefer to get out now.
The silver lining in the Bush-Blair news conference was that both leaders, even as they vowed to stay the course, urged nations that opposed the invasion of Iraq to join in that country’s reconstruction. Blair said that “it is our duty, but it is also the duty of the whole of the international community, to get behind this government and support it.” Bush pledged to “engage other nations around the world to ensure that constitutional democracy in Iraq succeeds and the terrorists are defeated.”
If an outside military presence is necessary to keep watch over the flowering of Iraqi democracy, it should be bigger and broader than the “coalition of the willing” that Bush and Blair assembled in going to war. Bush’s confession of errors could make it easier for the United States and Britain to induce others to share that burden.