The War Presidency

por William Kristol, 5 de septiembre de 2005

(Published in Weekly Standard, From the September 5 / September 12, 2005 issue: The success of the Bush presidency depends on his success as commander in chief)
'During the last few decades, the terrorists grew to believe that if they hit America hard, as in Lebanon and Somalia, America would retreat and back down. . . . So now they're trying to break our will with acts of violence. . . . Their goal is to force us to retreat. . . . We will stay on the offense. We'll complete our work in Afghanistan and Iraq. An immediate withdrawal . . . would only embolden the terrorists and create a staging ground to launch more attacks against America and free nations. So long as I'm the president, we will stay, we will fight, and we will win the war on terror.'

--George W. Bush, speaking to National Guard soldiers and their families, Nampa, Idaho, August 24, 2005
These words needed to be said. In the face of mixed news from Iraq, and mixed signals from the administration, some of the president's supporters and subordinates have been going wobbly. They've been denying that the war on terror is a war, or that Iraq is central to that war. They've been defining down success in Iraq, and for that matter victory in the broader war on terror. Fortunately, the president made clear on Wednesday that he isn't buying the defeatism. He isn't heading for the exits.
Others want to. Republican strategist Grover Norquist, for example, recently told the New York Times: 'If Iraq is in the rearview mirror in the '06 election, the Republicans will do fine. But if it's still in the windshield, there are problems.' Norquist was reflecting real GOP congressional unease about the war and its implications for 2006.
But would it really be possible to put Iraq in the 'rearview mirror' by the fall of 2006, even if we started leaving now? In any case, what Bush did in Idaho was to sever the link between war policy and the 2006 elections. He made clear that his time horizon is 2008. Congress can worry and complain, but Bush is not going to let his policy--U.S. foreign policy--be driven by such worries and complaints. So Republican senators and congressmen can stop the hand-wringing that the war isn't proceeding according to their electoral calendars. Instead, they can help the administration make the case for the necessity of victory, and could even follow the lead of John McCain in providing serious and constructive criticism of the war effort.
Meanwhile, the estimable George Will proclaimed last week that U.S. hopes for democracy in Iraq were 'delusional,' and that we had to be wary of further 'overreaching.' In particular, he took aim at a suggestion made in these pages some seven months ago that we consider bombing Syrian military facilities and/or occupying Syrian border towns in order to prevent terrorists from using Syria as a sanctuary from which to enter Iraq in order to kill Americans and Iraqis. No. Will said, 'U.S. forces already have quite enough bombing and occupying chores.'
Really? Occupying--maybe. But bombing? Is our Air Force overextended right now? Are we so weak that we can't deter or punish Syria? Some Bush supporters, especially those already inclined toward world-weary skepticism, have become convinced that we can't or won't fight the war so as to win it. That's a problem for the president. The solution is to explain that we have a strategy to win--not a strategy to withdraw--and to encourage the military to be aggressive and imaginative in carrying out that strategy, and to give it all the resources it needs to follow through.
Then, on Thursday, the day after the president's speech, the Financial Times ran a front-page story based on an interview with Major General Douglas Lute, director of operations at U.S. Central Command. Lute, still speaking off of old Rumsfeld talking points, and ignoring what the president had said a week before, said we were seeking to draw down troops over the next year in Iraq. Indeed, he seemed eager to proclaim this--and made the case for withdrawal based on Rumsfeldian dependency theory: 'We believe at some point, in order to break this dependence on the . . . coalition, you simply have to back off and let the Iraqis step forward.'
This is war-fighting as welfare reform. Is the problem with our allies and potential allies in Iraq really that they are too convinced we're staying? Isn't it more likely that they're now too worried that we're going to leave, creating a dangerous dynamic in which Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds each feel they have to fend for themselves?
And more important, if Iraq is the central front in the war on terror, who cares about dependency theory? Don't we need to defeat Zarqawi? Don't we need to dishearten terrorists in Iraq and around the world who, as the president said, 'want us to retreat'? We need to win in Iraq. We're not doing someone else a favor. And in fact, private conversations suggest that the operational U.S. generals in the field (if not the planners at CENTCOM) are confident we can win--if we don't draw down troops too soon, and if we build up Iraqi troops to fight side by side with ours instead of pretending they can immediately replace ours.
There have been real failures in the execution of the war in Iraq, and a poor job has been done in recent months of explaining the war at home. On the latter front, Wednesday's speech is a good start. Now the president needs to ensure his own administration is executing a policy consistent with his words, and also that these words are followed up with many more. Wartime presidents need to explain and re-explain what's at stake. They need to keep the country informed about the war. They need to keep morale high. And they need to take command so that the military and political strategy aims at victory. The success of the Bush presidency depends on his success as commander in chief. So does the success of American foreign policy.