To a president whose poll numbers are tanking, and who recently seems at risk of losing the loyal support of his conservative base, the halcyon days after 9-11 — marked by his soaring poll numbers and talk of taking the war to the terrorists — must seem irresistible.
And so on Thursday, with conservatives openly threatening revolt against his choice of Harriet Miers for Supreme Court justice, and with 62 percent of Americans disapproving of President Bush’s handling of Iraq, and with House Majority Leader Tom DeLay indicted on money laundering charges, and with the White House’s top procurement official also on the rack, and with signs that top White House advisors could be indicted any minute now by a federal grand jury, Bush and his advisors reached for that old crutch, a speech reminding Americans of the glory of fighting the terrorist enemy in Iraq.
The problem was, with more than 1,940 U.S. troops killed in Iraq and no end of the raging insurgency in sight, few have the stomach for the White House’s fables about Iraq anymore.
Bush spoke at the invitation of the National Endowment for Democracy, at the Ronald Reagan building.
“The militants believe that controlling one country will rally the Muslim masses, enabling them to overthrow all moderate governments in the region and establish a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia,” Bush said.
“The terrorists regard Iraq as the central front in the war against humanity. And we must recognize Iraq as the central front in our war on terror.” Bush said. “Our commitment is clear: we will not relent until the organized international terror networks are exposed and broken and their leaders held to account for their acts of murder.”‘
Bush criticized talk of a U.S. drawdown in Iraq as emboldening the enemy, saying: “There’s always a temptation in the middle of a long struggle to seek the quiet life, to escape the duties and problems of the world and to hope the enemy grows weary of fanaticism and tired of murder.”
For those with fading memories, it’s worth pointing out that two years ago, in a November 2003 speech before the same pro-democracy NED group, Bush outlined a grand vision of the U.S. as the engine for bringing democracy to the Middle East and the world:
Our commitment to democracy is also tested in the Middle East, which is my focus today, and must be a focus of American policy for decades to come. In many nations of the Middle East — countries of great strategic importance — democracy has not yet taken root. And the questions arise: Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty? Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism? Are they alone never to know freedom, and never even to have a choice in the matter? I, for one, do not believe it. I believe every person has the ability and the right to be free. (Applause.) […]
Securing democracy in Iraq is the work of many hands… This is a massive and difficult undertaking — it is worth our effort, it is worth our sacrifice, because we know the stakes. The failure of Iraqi democracy would embolden terrorists around the world, increase dangers to the American people, and extinguish the hopes of millions in the region. Iraqi democracy will succeed — and that success will send forth the news, from Damascus to Teheran — that freedom can be the future of every nation. (Applause.) The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution. (Applause.)
In Thursday’s speech, at a time for far reduced U.S. expectations in Iraq, there were few echoes of that grand vision. “Against such an enemy, there’s only one effective response: We never back down, never give in, and never accept anything less than complete victory,” Bush said.
Somehow in the two years between Bush’s first and second speeches at the NED, it is the militants and insurgents who have seized the agenda, and it is the U.S. who can’t leave Iraq for fear of delivering the other side a victory that will embolden Islamic jihadist terrorism for decades to come.
Trying to cast himself as a successor to Reagan battling the evil empire, Bush invoked a “global struggle” against “Islamic radicalism” that “like the ideology of communism, contains inherent contradictions that doom it to failure.”
But whether his Churchillian mimicry can stanche the growing grumbling of his base remains to be seen. Indeed, with Bush’s Thursday speech relegated to C-Span 3, and with top headlines being generated by the Senate Republicans’ defiance of a White House veto threat in passing an anti-torture bill, it wasn’t even clear that many Americans bothered to tune in.