The Presidency inevitably takes it toll, and the trials of his time in office are carving themselves on the face of George W. Bush. As he gave last night's prime time address, it was hard not to notice the circles under his eyes and the deepening wrinkle running down his right cheek. These are, of course, some of his Presidency's darkest days; the new Democratic Congress promises to isolate him politically, and the discouraging situation in Iraq demands a change in course.
Last night was Bush's announcement of such a change. But more than that, it was his effort to reconnect with a national conversation over the war that he and his Administration have sometimes seemed dismayingly aloof from. His exhausted demeanor was appropriate to the task of leading the nation at this moment; the midterm election results were in some part a sign of national exhaustion.
Bush retreated from the optimistic tone he took after the 2005 elections in Iraq. "We thought," acknowledged the President, "that these elections would bring the Iraqis together -- and that as we trained Iraqi security forces, we could accomplish our mission with fewer American troops. But in 2006, the opposite happened." The violence continued, with the explosion at the Golden Mosque in Samarra both symbolizing and catalyzing the worsening sectarian strife. Noting this, Bush made an important admission: "Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me." Bush has been criticized for never acknowledging a mistake, and when asked to name one in a 2004 debate he was basically stumped. Though it took a electoral reversal, he's clearly gotten past that problem.
And what were those mistakes? In short, not securing Baghdad.
Our past efforts to secure Baghdad failed for two principal reasons: There were not enough Iraqi and American troops to secure neighborhoods that had been cleared of terrorists and insurgents. And there were too many restrictions on the troops we did have.
Bush's plan to address this problem, of course, centers on a much-discussed troop surge. The specifics give some reason for pessimism. Gen. Jack Keane and Fredrick W. Kagan, the most prominent advocates of increasing troop strength in Iraq, have written that "Bringing security to Baghdad... is possible only with a surge of at least 30,000 combat troops lasting 18 months or so. Any other option is likely to fail." Bush is sending 21,500 troops for an unspecified period of time, and 4,000 of those are going to Anbar Province rather than Baghdad. Bush's plan leans heavily on Iraq's work-in-progress of an Army, pairing a U.S. brigade with each Iraqi division. This a gamble, albeit one that will greatly improve the strength of the Iraqi state if it pays off.
To his credit, though, Bush was careful not to oversell the potency of his "new strategy." (Technically speaking, it's actually a tactical rather than strategic shift -- as Bush's talk of "provid[ing] a hopeful alternative to the hateful ideology of the enemy by advancing liberty across a troubled region" made clear, the overall strategy hasn't changed.) He noted that "that there is no magic formula for success in Iraq," and underscored the point later in the speech:
Let me be clear: The terrorists and insurgents in Iraq are without conscience, and they will make the year ahead bloody and violent. Even if our new strategy works exactly as planned, deadly acts of violence will continue -- and we must expect more Iraqi and American casualties. The question is whether our new strategy will bring us closer to success. I believe that it will.
People of good will can only hope that he's right.