FOUR presidential speeches on why George W. Bush led the nation into war against Iraq and why American troops must stay there were meant to prop up falling public confidence in the man and his pre-emptive mission. Not only did they fail to boost the credibility of the Bush Administration on the war, they reinforced old fears that the White House is still winging it with American lives and national interests.
Even while acknowledging that the primary basis for invading Iraq was all wrong - a rare admission from a leader loath to admit mistakes - Mr. Bush remained adamant that the invasion was the right decision. In his speeches, the President leaned on a familiar refrain that the world is better off without Saddam Hussein because he was a security threat with or without weapons of mass destruction.
In fact, Mr. Bush told Fox News after his last speech that he "absolutely" would have invaded Iraq even if he had known then that Saddam did not have banned weapons. Quite an alarming admission. It's highly unlikely Congress or the country would have supported such a move to simply affect regime change.
But in his staged speeches to vetted audiences, Mr. Bush returned repeatedly to other rationale used to justify the invasion, after the primary one was long discredited. Previously cited justifications include Iraqi violations of a no-fly zone in its airspace, Saddam's invasion of Kuwait a decade ago, and Iraq's defiance of U.N. resolutions.
The problem is none of those contentions posed a threat anywhere serious enough or urgent enough to launch an unprovoked attack on Iraq at huge American and Iraqi costs. Nearly three years later, with more than 2,100 U.S. casualties and an estimated 30,000 dead Iraqi civilians, an estimated 160,000 American troops remain mired in a deadly experiment of nation building.
Heralding expectations that some day a democratic Iraq may become a "beacon of light" in the Middle East might win applause in a presidential speech but not unlimited support from the public when American lives, resources, and prestige are on the line. Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha, a prominent White House ally on the war turned searing critic, said the trade-off wasn't worth the sacrifice.
"We go to war because of our national security interests. We don't go to war to start democracy in another country," said the Democrat and retired Marine Corps colonel. Yet the President's favorite fallback to nudge the nation to be patient for democracy to take root in Iraq is to dredge up the specter of 9/11.
Even as American and Iraqi casualties mount and the prospect of a stable, unified country remains a long shot at best, Mr. Bush continues to usurp "the lessons of September the 11th" to explain away his unrelated Iraqi invasion. In a post-Sept. 11 world, the President said to applause, "If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long."
Conversely, critics might respond, a rush to judgment is just as bad when it lands the U.S. in a war zone without end. Hopeful milestones toward a permanent Iraqi government don't speak to a strategy to extricate American troops from Iraq.
The next presidential speech, say skeptics on Capitol Hill, should identify "the remaining political, economic and military benchmarks that must be met and a reasonable schedule to achieve them." What Mr. Bush refers to as "victory" in his addresses to shore up support for the war is a concept that desperately needs clarification.