The President Speaks, But He Says Nothing

Challenged to justify the war in Iraq by his critics—and in particular by bereaved Gold Star mother Cindy Sheehan—President George W. Bush has answered with logic that is almost perfectly circular. Speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Salt Lake City on Aug. 22, he explained that our troops must keep fighting and dying in order to justify the sacrifice of those who fought and died before them.

For the first time since the war began, the commander in chief spoke publicly of the numbers of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan (1,864 and 223, respectively, although those figures are certain to have increased by the time this newspaper is published). According to White House publicists, this unusual specificity was intended to emphasize his concern for the dead and their grieving families—which brought to mind another contrived display of compassion, when an earlier President Bush told the nation’s unemployed, “Message: I care.”

However deeply George W. Bush indeed may care about the pain endured by our military families, his remarks at the V.F.W. convention didn’t comfort those who question the necessity of that suffering. Stripped of the boilerplate verbiage about “the blessings of liberty,” which remain remote in Iraq, he seemed to be saying that more Americans must die there because of the many already lost.

“We owe them something,” he said. “We will finish the task that they gave their lives for. We will honor their sacrifice by staying on the offensive against the terrorists, and building strong allies in Afghanistan and Iraq that will help us fight and win the war on terror.”

Honoring the sacrifice of dead comrades is among the classical arguments for war, and probably dates back to the beginning of organized violence. Such speeches possess an emotional velocity that can swiftly carry listeners beyond the reach of reason. In that inflamed state of mind, citizens are less inclined to ask difficult questions about the war’s supposed original aims or the purpose of continued conflict. Nobody wants to be accused of dishonoring the dead.

Seeking to stir emotions and divert debate, the President seems unwilling or unable to confront current realities in Iraq. As he hailed the writing of a new Iraqi constitution as proof of his policy’s success, the Iraqis themselves failed to produce that document. When the legal deadline for the Iraqi Parliament to act on the new constitution passed, it reportedly existed only in the form of disputed, heavily annotated “drafts.”

The process by which the Kurds and the Shiites have composed the draft constitution—under U.S. guidance—may well propel Iraq toward full civil war. Certainly that’s the fear of the Sunni leaders, whose courageous participation in that process has evidently been rewarded with exclusion from the backroom rewriting.

What is known about the draft constitution doesn’t quite fulfill the boldly optimistic scenario predicted three years ago by the war’s enthusiastic advocates. Translated from Arabic by Juan Cole, the Michigan professor and Middle East expert, the constitution’s most important articles appear to require adherence to the “laws of Islam”—which was always going to be the price exacted by the Shia parties for their cooperation.

Here’s an outstanding example of what conservatives like to call the law of unintended consequences, an axiom they often cite to mock liberal initiatives. In this case, the neoconservatives promised that military action would implant secular democracy, install a government friendly to the United States and Israel, and stabilize a region critical to Western economic security. All of this would be accomplished without spending an American dime—or so they claimed—because Iraqi oil would finance the entire project.

Hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives later, what we seem likelier to get in Baghdad sometime soon is an Islamist government, tied to the theocratic regime in Iran, divided by ethnicity, religion and province, and embroiled in a burgeoning civil war that could embroil Iraq’s neighbors and sink the region into turmoil.

To demand that the President face these facts and speak honestly about the situation in Iraq is to be accused of wanting to “cut and run,” to weaken America and to dishonor the dead. His V.F.W. speech reprised the same old rhetoric about the lessons of the Sept. 11 attacks (a theme White House publicists evidently plan to emphasize on the fourth anniversary of the attacks next month with a country-music concert on the National Mall). He insists that his “straightforward” strategy will eventually “stand up” an Iraqi armed force that will permit our troops to come home. Mr. Bush has nothing new to say, which is why he has resorted to the ancient tactic of waving the bloody shirt.

The most recent public-opinion polls indicate that the American people no longer put much confidence in him—and are waiting for a politician to speak sanely about extricating our forces with the least additional damage to us and the Iraqis. The President Speaks, But He Says Nothing