The president gets a B- on last night’s speech. National Review’s Rich Lowry noted on Fox News that what really matters is what happens on the ground in Iraq. Still, a more powerful speech might have persuaded wavering citizens. The president did not show that a shift in policy, not just more soldiers, could change the course in Iraq. 

Gerald Baker, the English columnist, gave the president higher marks on last night’s speech:

“It was a clarion reaffirmation, even in the midst of unparalleled adversity, of the entire foreign policy strategy that drove the Bush administration in the weeks and months after September 11, 2001. It was a defiant and ringing rededication of a beleaguered president in the final two years of his term to the revolution in global affairs he unleashed five years ago.

“[I]in just 20 minutes last night Mr Bush made clear that he defiantly rejects not only the Baker recommendations of a date for a US withdrawal from Iraq and diplomatic engagement with Iraq’s troublesome neighbours, but the whole critique that the White House policies for the last few years have failed.

“The deployment of five or six more brigades of US forces to Iraq and the commitment of additional financial resources to bolster the fledgling democracy were the main indications of Mr Bush’s defiant determination to stick to his radical foreign policy strategy.”

My disappointment stems from the president’s not having made it clear that the new policy is a shift in strategy as much as an increase in troops. Retired General Jack Keane and historian Frederick Kagan, whose plan seems (I am glad to say) to have influenced the president’s thinking made their recommended shift in strategy much clearer. Listening to them, one thought: Oh, so this is what’s been going wrong. And, and this is what we must do.

Their prescriptions included thwarting the “insurgency” by focusing on the security of Iraqi citizens, soldiers living among the people, and changing the rules of engagement (our soldiers will face fewer restrictions). All these were in the president’s speech. Instead of making them crystal clear, he wasted valuable moments making nice with the Iraq Study Group, which everybody knows is diametrically opposed to what the president is going to do. I had thought that David Frum went too far yesterday in urging the president to appear with maps and charts (presidential power point?), but a little more of that might have made the point that strategy is being changed in a significant way. (Frum, by the way, was less disappointed than I am, finding last night’s speech “detailed, forceful, candid, clear: It did everything it needed to do with a minimum of flowery language and a maximum of effect.”)

Still, what matters is that we must avert disaster by succeeding in Iraq (have I become so influenced by my Washington environment that I no longer use the word victory?). Victor Davis Hanson made this point, as usual, better than others:

“This was not Churchill, not FDR, and not JFK Wednesday night, and there was not quite enough about winning and victory — but the content was still good enough.

“All the requisite points were made by the president, almost as if were quoting verbatim Gen. David Petraeus’ insightful summaries of counterinsurgency warfare — an Iraqi face on operations, economic stimuli, clear mission of clearing terrorists out of Baghdad, political reform, a “green-light” to go after killers — while addressing the necessary regional concerns with Syria and Iran.

“The American people will support success and an effort to win, whatever the risks, but not stasis. We saw that with the silent approval of Ethiopia’s brutal rout of the Islamists in Somalia, and our own attack on al Qaeda there.

“The subtext of the president’s speech was that our sacrifices to offer freedom and constitutional government are the only solution for the Middle East — but that our commitments are not open-ended if the Iraqis themselves don?t want success as much as we do.

“But why believe that this latest gamble will work? One, things are by agreement coming to a head: this new strategy will work, or, given the current politics, nothing will. Two, the Iraqis in government know this time Sadr City and Baghdad are to be secured, or it is to be ‘see ya, wouldn’t want to be ya,’ and they will be on planes to Dearborn.”