President George W. Bush will address the nation Wednesday night on his “new” strategy for his same-old goal of ““victory” in Iraq. Most of the plan has been leaked — —in this case probably the expression “”handed to”” would be more accurate — to the press with the approval and encouragement of the White House. The most carefully guarded secret, as of this writing, seems to be the venue: The Oval Office; the White House Map Room; or Vice-President Cheney’s last “undisclosed location.
In form, Bush’s non-State-of-the-Union speeches are faint echoes of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats that started March 12, 1933. Roosevelt used them 31 times to talk to the U.S. public about the country’s problems and its strengths, how his plans and programs would find solutions to problems, and mobilize the energies of every person by convincing them that everyone had a stake in pulling the country out of the Great Depression, overcoming the ravages of the Dust Bowl, and fighting World War II.
With the brief exception of World War I, this period of time marked the first instance since the end of the Civil War that domestic policies and concerns were closely wrapped up with decisions in foreign policy. In message and form, Roosevelt made the public feel that they could be and had to be part of the solution. Roosevelt reinforced this feeling by the words he used. Scholars estimate that 80% of the words Roosevelt used in his 31 Fireside Chats—which lasted anywhere from 15 and 45 minutes—were among the 1,000 most common words in the English language. The public responded with millions of letters to the White House.
As I wrote last week, Bush is expected to call for a “sharp” increase in the current 142,000-strong U.S. military presence in Iraq. Half to three-fourths of the increase will go to Baghdad to “stabilize” security in the Iraqi capital. The source of the troops for this so-called “surge” or escalation remains unclear.
But, in reality, Bush’s shift in Iraq will be a “climb-down” (in Brit-speak) disguised as a “step forward.” According to widely-circulated reports, the “way ahead” will emphasize U.S. support of Iraqi-led sweeps against insurgents and foreign fighters hiding in Baghdad and al-Anbar province. The trade-off will be less training for Iraqi soldiers and police, at least until the hoped for increase in physical security materializes. And when the increased security doesn’t continue after U.S. forces leave, then what?
The White House is saying that Bush’s plan will also call for a billion-dollar “jobs” program designed to put young Iraqi men back to work fixing up structures damaged by years of neglect or by the effects of war. The reasoning here—to paraphrase a trite Puritan saying—is that “idle hands are the terrorist’s workshop.” The question here is how to get most of that money—if authorized by Congress—into the hands of the most people in a way that encourages and rewards meaningful work contributing to needed rehabilitation and reconstruction of Iraq’s infrastructure and civil society.
For a White House that steadfastly refused to push for any increase in the U.S. minimum wage, the prospects that insurgents (not to mention ordinary criminals) among the Iraqis will be offered a generous enough financial incentive to induce them stop fighting are uncertain at best.
No Ethical Pragmatism
Plans to shift “Iraqi” army divisions from Iraq’s north down to Baghdad and al-Anbar province suggest that the Maliki government is unsure of how loyal the army and other security forces may be. Almost all of the “army” units in the north are former Kurdish pesh merga who have been “integrated” into the army. A few Kurdish contingents already are in al-Anbar and Baghdad, but whether Arab Shi’ites and Sunnis would welcome a large influx of former pesh merga fighters—and whether they would be seen as complicit with U.S. occupiers—is an open point.
Shortly before the speech begins, what comes through is a policy that is more “stay the course”—heavy on the military (security), heavy on free markets (economic), light on diplomacy (no dialogue with Syria or Iran), light on governing (rule of law). Missing is what, in other contexts, might be termed ethical pragmatism, that sense of shared rights and responsibilities that permits and even encourages the formation of the institutions of civil society. Being quick studies, Iraqi Shi’ites have simply applied internally the same arrogance the U.S. displays with its adversaries.
This in turn suggests that what Iraq needs is less a radical change in its political and economic structures and more a change—perhaps a better term is a return—to the pre-war structures which permitted and encouraged Iraqis of different tribes and different beliefs to live together. In short, Iraqis need to rediscover who they are and what they can do—and then go out and reclaim their lives and their country.
Substantively, the “story” Bush will tell will be bad news, a questionable strategy, a resort to partisanship, and fear-mongering. There may even be an admission that there will be many more deaths, but these will be “justified” as necessary so that those 3,014 who have already died will not have “died in vain.”
There will likely also be great emphasis on “freedom,” one of Bush’s favorite words.
In Orwell’s 1984, one character observes that freedom is the right to believe that two plus two equals four. In the lexicon of the Bush administration, freedom is independence from government control for personal economic gain devoid of responsibility for others. It is this last part—the loss of the communal sense of rights and responsibilities that underlies the social contract and the American Dream—that has sapped our nation’s unity and its sense of direction. Unfortunately, tonight’s speech is unlikely to restore unity or provide the clear direction needed to rejuvenate the sense of community that is so fundamental to vibrant, peaceful societies.