Monday night, President Bush gave the first of half a dozen planned speeches on the Iraqi war. The prime-time address was given at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, PA at a point when his job approval rating is at an all-time low of 41 percent according to the latest CBS poll released earlier in the day. The National Annenberg Election Survey from the University of Pennsylvania was also released on Monday showing that 64 percent of Americans do not believe that Bush has an effective plan for victory in Iraq. Clearly, the President has been losing the battle for public opinion. This speech should turn that tide in his favor — at least in the short term.
At just five months before the elections, Bush had to stop the hemorrhaging of his approval ratings and he had to stop the panic — not just among Americans in general, but especially among his supporters. Over the weekend, Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) rather pointedly spoke about the need for specifics about the war in Iraq. This first in his series of updates on the war was designed to provide details and a timetable complete with specific strategy and plans, along with President Bush’s vision for a new and democratic Iraq. He said, “We did not seek this war in Iraq, but this is the world as we find it.” His speech made it clear: while terrorists defined the world after 9/11, the future will be shaped as Bush envisions it.
The President provided a focused, coherent policy, as he had to do. He went even further, though, and provided an eloquent contrast of the terrorists’ agenda as compared with the U.S. agenda and a stirring, uplifting conclusion that should satisfy those on Capitol Hill who have recently been discontented with his performance as Commander in Chief. The President described a march toward Iraqi control that is focused and unwavering. With the anti-Bush rhetoric becoming increasingly more hysterical and unreasonable, the President had to be as persuasive and compelling in his defense of the U.S. effort in Iraq as his opponents are in their criticism of the U.S. presence in Iraq.
The President spent 32 minutes in giving the nation a sense of direction about the war. He outlined five steps that will be taken: (1) the U.S. will hand over authority to the Iraqis, (2) the stability and security of Iraq will be assured, (3) the infrastructure will be rebuilt, (4) international support will be enlisted, and (5) free national elections will be held. His remarks can be summarized in one statement that he made, “Terrorists will not determine the future of Iraq.”
The drop in the President’s approval ratings in various polls no doubt reflects public dismay at the number of American service members who have died in Iraq over the past year (nearly 800) and the unrelenting negative coverage of the war — especially the disgraceful treatment by a few renegade guards of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison. While some commentators criticized the President for his subdued manner, the gravity of events in Iraq over the past year required that he tone down his usual exuberance. He did what he had to do in reassuring the American public that he has the vision and a plan for seeing that vision implemented in Iraq. His appeal for patience and perseverance struck just the right tone as he sought to unify his party and bring dissidents back into the fold, as he sought to replace doubt with detail and to revitalize his vision of good versus evil regarding America and the terrorists.
The President talked about “history moving” and that it will move either “toward hope” or “tend toward tragedy.” In his speech about the Iraqi war as the U.S. moves toward an historic election, the President’s vision and resolve, once again, moved his party toward hope and, his supporters believe that, for now, he has averted the tragedy of a reelection defeat. But, as the President noted, history is ever-moving, and ultimately, it will come down to what happens in Iraq between now and November. He will probably need every one of the upcoming 5 speeches for his vision to prevail and to avoid his father’s fate of being a one-term president.
Janice Shaw Crouse is Senior Fellow of the Beverly LaHaye Institute, the think tank for Concerned Women for America.