OxBlog

Monday, May 24, 2004

# Posted 11:56 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

THE PRESIDENT'S SPEECH: It was an impressive performance. Or perhaps I should say an impressive text, since I only read it. But let's get to the criticism first. The praise can wait.

The purpose of this speech was to chart a course for the future of America in Iraq. As expected, Bush placed considerable emphasis on the June 30th handover date. Too much emphasis:
On June 30th, the Coalition Provisional Authority will cease to exist and will not be replaced. The occupation will end and Iraqis will govern their own affairs.

America's ambassador to Iraq, John Negroponte, will present his credentials to the new president of Iraq. Our embassy in Baghdad will have the same purpose as any other American embassy: to assure good relations with a sovereign nation.
The suggestion that a nation will govern itself with 150,000 foreign soldiers on its soil and without an elected government is simply not credible. While most critics emphasize the first of those two points, I think the latter is just as important. The fact is, interim governments don't truly govern. Their purpose is to dissolve themselves and pave the way for an elected, constitutional authority.

By raising expectation of what the June 30th handover will accomplish, Bush is only hurting himself. From what I can tell, few Iraqis expect much to change on that date. What I expect is an updating of the artificial consensus that produced the current Governing Council. Once again, the US -- this time along with the UN -- is trying to provide Iraq with a government that won't offend anyone.

But governments that don't offend anyone are governments that don't govern. Without the mandate provided by an election, no Iraqi government can make the controversial decisions that will have to be made during the process of reconstruction. And if Iraqis can't make those decisions, then Americans and UN officials will. That is why it is thoroughly disingenuous for Bush to describe Negroponte's post as just another embassy.

Now on to the good parts of the speech. First and foremost, I was overwhelmed by the President's unabashed Wilsonianism. Even Reagan's most idealistic speeches never went this far, either in terms of emphasis or specificity. On far too many occasions, Reagan embedded his democratic aspirations in vague formulas that had few practical implications.

In contrast, Bush has now lain out a very clear schedule for the transition to electoral democracy in Iraq. His remarks announced specific deadlines for elections to the constitutional assembly, for a referendum on the draft constitution and for general elections. He has invested his America's prestige -- and perhaps the survival of his administration -- in this process.

He is also investing American soldiers. With Bush's approval ratings in the midst of an extended plunge, critics have suggested that the President was getting ready to cut and run. But now he has explicity promised to hold the size of the occupation force steady at 138,000 or even increase it if necessary. While Bush held "the commanders" responsible for estimating that only 115,000 troops would be necessary at this point, he did admit that the American effort to create self-sufficient Iraqi security force has resuled in failures.

Finally, Abu Ghraib. It will be razed. To be sure, Bush refused to admit that the abuses there went beyond the actions of a "few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values". Yet, in this instance, actions may ultimately speak louder than words.
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