Monday, September 17, 2007

Angry Nation

A nation listened with folded arms

A testy exchange between President Bush and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reported in The New York Times captures a national mood.

In advance of his speech to the nation Thursday night, Bush met with Democratic leaders to explain how he was reducing troop strength in Iraq. Pelosi interrupted to say he was doing no such thing. A temporarily inflated number being dropped back to old troop levels yielded a phony reduction.

The president is no longer the best salesman for his own administration, which is why Gen. David Petraeus was drafted. He worked Capitol Hill and every other venue with a microphone before the chief executive spoke from the Oval Office.

The general and Ambassador Ryan Crocker provided cover for a speech that telegraphed no real change at all.

More and more, the president sounds like he has decided to play out the clock. After American troop levels surged to 160,000 over the past nine months, the number will be reduced to 130,000 by next summer. Petraeus was already committed to bringing several brigades home to meet a promise to limit tours of duty to 15 months.

Weary and wary Americans listening to their president are parsing out the rhetoric and vocabulary of presidential reports. Notice how the word victory is replaced by success, which is not defined.

The nation's doubts and questions are getting sharper. If the troop surge accounted for positive changes, why is the president proposing to reduce those levels? How will things change with the surge ending? As the White House hails success in Anbar province, how is the central government in Baghdad helping to assure political and military stability?

The assassination of a key Sunni ally in Anbar province, the head of a local alliance that decided to quit attacking U.S. forces and work with them, points to dubious gains in regional security.

Other tensions roil the notion of progress.

In the north, the Kurds are going it alone on oil contracts for their lucrative reserves. That undermines the goal of a centralized system that spreads Iraq's oil wealth around the country, especially to Sunni-held areas without oil.

A strong central government becomes irrelevant if the regions fend for themselves and organize for their own self-defense. No one — including the United States — trusts the national police, and the Iraqi army is not ready to go it alone.

All topics for future speeches. For now, the president will juggle troop numbers as the clock runs down on his term.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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