With all the partisan bickering over President Bush's comments Tuesday night that suggested a link between the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States and Saddam Hussein's Iraq, you would think that the end of the U.S. occupation of that country is in sight and that the president has a clearly defined exit strategy. But such thinking has little to do with reality -- which is why the preoccupation over the past couple of days with the 9/11-Iraq connection is so disconcerting.
The fact of the matter is that while Bush's televised speech went a long way toward reassuring the American people that he is totally committed to seeing Iraq become a democracy, it fell short in helping Americans get a clear picture of how long it will take to accomplish that goal.
The U.S.-led war in Iraq, which was launched in March 2003, and the subsequent occupation have resulted inmore than 1,700 Americans being killed and more than 12,000 wounded. At least 12,000 Iraqis have been killed in the last 18 months. With polls showing public support for the war in decline, and with reports from Baghdad and other major cities indicating stepped-up attacks by insurgents -- despite what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld contends -- the president's address was necessary.
But as we noted in an editorial last week, Bush needed to explain what he means when he insists, "We will complete this mission."
Not only did he fail to do that, but some of his comments created an even greater sense of uncertainty.
Stand up, stand down
For instance, Bush said, "We will stay in Iraq as long as we are needed and not a day longer. Our strategy can be summed up this way: As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down." Needed by whom? The Iraqi government? The Iraqi people? Coalition partners? And what the does the word needed mean as used by Bush in the context of war? Needed to ensure the establishment of a democratic government aligned with the United States?
As for the Iraqis standing up, does he mean that we will be seeing American soldiers being brought home as Iraqis complete their military training? Does the administration have any idea how long it will take for a sufficient number of Iraqis to be trained as soldiers?
With regard to the overall war on global terrorism, the president left open the possibility of future military excursions when he said, "We fight today because terrorists want to attack our country and kill our citizens, and Iraq is where they are making their stand. So we will fight them there, we will fight them across the world, and we will stay in the fight until the fight is won."
If Bush believes that the war in Iraq is justified on the grounds that terrorists in Iraq are of the same ilk as the terrorists involved in the 9/11 attacks, does that mean the next target for invasion is Saudi Arabia, where most of the 9/11 terrorists came from and where members of the ruling royal family continue to financially support terrorist groups such as Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaida?
Bin Laden, a member of a wealthy Saudi family, has claimed responsibility for the Sept. 11 attacks.
If the president's speech was designed to let the American people know that he is not getting cold feet in light of the failure to quickly democratize Iraq, it was a success. On the other hand, if Bush hoped to give the American people a clearer picture of what is going on there, he failed.