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Published: Thursday, 4/15/2004

A presidential disconnect

AMERICA's faith in the competence of its leadership has been shaken by the rising level of hostilities in Iraq and by revelations in the national investigatory hearings about America's lack of preparedness for the Sept. 11 attacks.

In that context President Bush's strong statement at his Tuesday night press conference of his intentions with respect to the difficult situation in Iraq served to inform Americans, international leaders, and the Iraqis themselves of where the United States stands at this point.

The troubling part of Mr. Bush's presentation was the obvious disconnect between some of what he was saying and the reality on the ground in Iraq.

Mr. Bush insisted, for example, on his continuing intention to turn sovereignty over to Iraqis on June 30. But if he has any idea of to whom the United States will give this authority, he gave no indication of it, apart from referring to the United Nations.

The current U.N. position is one of necessary attention to U.S. concerns, but no desire whatsoever to catch the hot potato or even send any of its personnel to Iraq. Mr. Bush spoke of Iraqi forces needing only more training and equipment, which he is prepared to provide them, to make them a viable force to assure security in the country.

What that leaves out is the fact that in the face of Sunni and Shiite militia attacks, the Iraqi forces the United States has trained have simply faded away, turning their vehicles and equipment over to the militia, and even sometimes participating in ambushes of U.S. forces and convoys.

Mr. Bush paid much deserved tribute to America's brave forces laboring and dying in Iraq. A new one-month record for U.S. military deaths in Iraq was set in the first two weeks of April. He then went on to say if America's military commanders believe they need more forces in Iraq, he will provide them, even though U.S. forces across the world are already stretched thin by the lengthening deployment in Iraq.

The only way for Mr. Bush to provide more U.S. forces for service in Iraq is by breaking promises to troops already there that their time to come home is rapidly approaching.

The format of the press conference, with little follow-up and with Mr. Bush choosing the questioners, did not lend itself to particularly rigorous pursuit of issues. The Washington press corps didn't exactly cover itself with glory in the effort.

Some questions he just didn't answer, such as why he and Vice President Cheney have to appear together in their closed appearance before the 9/11 commission.

As for Iraq, does he know something the public doesn't know that makes him more confident about the situation there than current developments would suggest? Remember the disconnect between what he said and what the facts turned out to be on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Although hearing Mr. Bush's statement of his positions on these important issues was extremely useful, tough questions and real disquietude remained for a lot of Americans.



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