I have some advice for President Bush regarding tonight’s speech. But first, here is an article to get us in the right frame of mind for this all-important moment in American history.
If you read nothing else before tonight, read Barry Rubin’s article “Can You Handle the Truth?” It reminds us what is at stake. Rubin begins this way:
“In 1951, Herman Wouk wrote a novel called “The Caine Mutiny” which won the Pulitzer Prize. In 1989, Aaron Sorkin wrote a play entitled “A Few Good Men.” Both were made into highly successful films. If you want to understand how the West deals with the Middle East, consider the differences.”
The question — Can you handle the truth? — of course comes from the Sorkin screenplay. I am not going to summarize this piece — the argument is made so deftly that anything I might write would be ham-handed by comparison.
Bush has to remind us that the truth about the conflict in Iraq is a bitter one to swallow: We can’t afford to lose. Losing this would be far worse than our loss in Vietnam, which inflicted a major psychological burden. This time the cost will be dearer. It won’t be mostly psychological, either. Bush has to convey this.
The president has not been on his rhetorical game lately — Gerald Ford’s funeral, for example, was a freebie, a chance to shine and project an appealing image. Bush failed. He told some pointless anecdote about Ford’s support of an African-American football player. As far as I know, nobody was calling Gerald Ford a racist. Why retail a meaningless anecdote?
He does not need soaring rhetoric, but he needs to show that he is in touch with the reality on the ground in Iraq (he is — but sometimes you’d never guess this from his speeches), and he needs to be cogent and specific. There are indications that the plan put forward by retired General Jack Keane and historian Frederick Kagan has influenced the president’s thinking on Iraq. I hope this proves true.
Kagan and Keane introduced the plan at a panel at the American Enterprise Institute — they proposed that there must be a shift in policy. The U.S. has not concentrated on securing what they have controlled (and sometimes then ceased to control) and making daily life safe for Iraqi citizens. If the “insurgents” can kill and frighten people, they ipso facto fail. Kagan and Keane made their points in a factual way that lacked high-flown rhetoric. But, boy, were they ever convincing. Their presentation should be the model for tonight’s speech.
The speech will reportedly include benchmarks that must be met by the government of Iraq. Benchmarks is one of those words — branding is another — that folks love to bandy about. It sounded silly and removed from reality until I read Byron York’s piece. Bush can’t be as candid as he was when speaking to a small group of reporters that included York. But he’s got to make the benchmarks sound like something other than MBAspeak.
Bush will no doubt mention the successful operation in Somalia. It is “a very big win.” The president has to make this very clear, without sounding as if he’s putting a paltry morsel on the plate in the face of widespread disaster. The media is not going to help him on this. Richard Clarke on one of the networks last night looked as if he smelled something bad when he had to admit that this is huge “if” the reports were correct. Bush haters will cling to that “if.”
Don’t sweat the Democrats, Mr. President. It’s the wavering American public you must convince. The Democrats in Congress may rattle sabers, if that isn’t the wrong image for the mommy party, but they won’t stop you. (See “Pelosian Honesty.”) They know that there will be carnage the likes of which we have not yet seen if we leave prematurely. They don’t want that before 2008.
One more thing: Please, Mr. President, resist any urge for those Personal Anecdotes — you know where you call people by their first names and tell some heartening story about them. Don’t do it. It’s embarrassing. And this speech is too important.