Overall, I give the speech a "B." There were definitely parts that I thought were good. I continue to be pleased whenever President Bush takes responsibility for the war and its after-effects. It is such a marked contrast to the early days, when the "responsibility" and "accountability" president refused to accept either for anything. Glenn Reynolds' Insta-reaction is that Bush is setting the stage to take credit for an eventual victory in 2006 or 2008. That may be true, I don't know. But it is a definite improvement over the recent past.
The other thing I liked was his characterization of what happens if we allow radical Islamists to achieve victory. He spoke of "a vision in which books are burned, and women are oppressed, and all dissent is crushed." These should be an anathema to liberals. They are to me anyway. There are reasonable arguments on why the US should withdraw from Iraq or direct our attention elsewhere. But we should not delude ourselves about the stakes of this conflict. Nothing is more depressing to me than watching apparent liberals embrace some form of mutant realism that just ignores the human rights implications of American isolationism. Of course, even a democratic Iraq will not be a paragon of women's rights or political liberalism. But compared to the alternative, there is no question about which is the preferable outcome. And ultimately, that is what makes me steel myself against the very compelling arguments for withdrawal--an act I fear would doom Iraqi's nascent hopes for democracy.
The problem with the speech is that it still felt political. Jon Chait, perhaps the most virulently anti-Bush pundit to also vocally support the Iraq war, thought that the speech was a step up from previous Bush orations:
I am not, to say the least, a fan of President Bush. But a portion of his speech tonight genuinely moved me and made me think more highly of him. It was the part where he addressed opponents of the Iraq war, said he understand their passion but asked that they think of the stakes of defeat now that the war had happened and asked that they not give in to despair. I cannot remember this president ever speaking to his political opponents except to mischaracterize their views and use them as a straw man...
...Bush's prior pro-war speeches mostly struck me as simplistic, ugly and demagogic, reminders that I supported the war despite the administration rather than because of it. But this moment in his speech tonight really struck me as some kind of symbolic or emotional break from the past for Bush--a genuine attempt to unify Americans rather than polarize them. Bush and his supporters (both inside and outside the administration) have made it so damn hard to support them on this war. It just got a little easier tonight.
Perhaps this speech was an improvement from speeches past (I don't tend to watch them, but this one pre-empted "Family Guy"). But it still, for the most part, engaged in very simplistic and narrow-minded characterization of his critics. Consider this excerpt:
Since the removal of Saddam, this war -- like other wars in our history -- has been difficult. The mission of American troops in urban raids and desert patrols -- fighting Saddam loyalists and foreign terrorists -- has brought danger and suffering and loss. This loss has caused sorrow for our whole Nation -- and it has led some to ask if we are creating more problems than we are solving.
That is an important question, and the answer depends on your view of the war on terror. If you think the terrorists would become peaceful if only America would stop provoking them, then it might make sense to leave them alone.
That isn't the "view of the war on terror" that generally is taken by thoughtful advocates of the preceding position. They consider whether or not Iraqi opposition to the occupation, or the massive hit our reputation took after the torture scandals, or Iraqi mistrust of our motives, or any number of factors based on policy, not presence, may have made our troops poisoned fruits. This is a serious claim, but one that I think can be addressed. It is not addressed by painting this group as the same as the loony left fringe who argues that terrorism is only a reaction to American "provocation."
I also had a visceral reaction toward Bush's barely veiled partisan swipe at "defeatists who refuse to see anything is right." He proclaims that such people only make such claims for "partisan uses." Obviously, there are people who fit into this category. However, it is fall smaller than him and his flacks have previously made it out to be. Partisanship cuts both ways here--Bush can't expect me to take his complaints about "defeatists" when nearly any criticism of his policies in any manner, form, or respect has landed the speaker into this category (his token nod to "honest critics" notwithstanding). But more importantly, it says absolutely nothing about those commentators who, one might argue, "refuse to see anything is wrong." Such speakers are nearly endemic amongst the Republican right. Presumably, their triumphantalism is as harmful to the war effort as the defeatists, as it obstructs necessary policy changes and paves the way for the continuation of failed strategies. What is needed is neither defeatism nor triumphantalism. What is needed is a clear-eyed perspective, one that does not proclaim doom at every setback, but is not blind to clear errors either. If President Bush was truly serious about placing this war beyond currents of partisanship, he should have repudiated that branch of his own party. But by exempting his boosters from criticism even while assailing Democrats for similar sins, he shows that he himself has not transcended his view of Iraq as little more than a partisan game.
Obviously, it is a lot to expect of a President to both aggressively defend his beliefs, and reach out to his opponents, and deal with serious objections in a serious way. But I expect a lot of our presidents--when it comes to the leader of the free world, I make no nods to mediocrity. There are very few politicians that could pull off the type of speech I believe would be proper given our current situation. President Bush is not one of them. Ultimately, then, this speech is quite good given the constraints of Bush's abilities. However, it also demonstrates why he will never be ranked amongst our nation's great presidents.