The president's speech

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I was in the hall at the Ronald Reagan Building (irony: Washington's largest federal building is named after the president who said government was the problem not the solution) when George W. Bush delivered his speech to the National Endowment for Democracy. It was originally scheduled for September 11 and postponed because of Hurricane Katrina.

It was an excellent speech, well received by the audience. I won't attempt a complete analysis, but I think it did three things Bush has not done before.

First, he identified the source of the terrorism we are fighting against. "Some call this evil Islamic radicalism; others, militant jihadism; still others, Islamofascism." (Score one for Christopher Hitchens, who I believe invented the term Islamofascism.) Of course Bush went on to say, quite rightly, "Whatever it's called, this ideology is very different from the religion of Islam." To the best of my memory, Bush previously has not been willing to describe what we are fighting against as "Islamic" radicalism, presumably out of fear of angering Muslims or of providing fodder for claiming that we are fighting a war against Islam.

Maybe rightly so. But I think it's better, when you're a war leader, to specify with particularity what you are fighting against. We're not fighting against unfocused terrorism or people who set off bombs just because they like setting off bombs. We're fighting against people with specific totalitarian goals. Immediately after the sentences I've quoted, Bush made it specific: "This form of radicalism exploits Islam to serve a violent, political vision: the establishment, by terrorism and subversion and insurgency, of a totalitarian empire that denies all political and religious freedom. These extremists distort the idea of jihad into a call for terrorist murder against Christians and Jews and Hindus—and also against Muslims from other traditions, who they regard as heretics." Good stuff.

Second, Bush provided a narrative framework for what is going on in Iraq. It is not, as the mainstream media tend to portray it, a story of endless and continuous violence against which we have no defense and are prosecuting no offense. On the contrary,

Our coalition, along with our Iraqi allies, is moving forward with a comprehensive, specific military plan. Area by area, city by city, we're conducting offensive operations to clear out enemy forces, and leaving behind Iraqi units to prevent the enemy from returning. Within these areas, we're working for tangible improvements in the lives of Iraqi citizens. And we're aiding the rise of an elected government that unites the Iraqi people against extremism and violence. This work involves great risk for Iraqis and for Americans and coalition forces. Wars are not won without sacrifice–and this war will require more sacrifice, more time, and more resolve. . .

Some observers look at the job ahead and adopt a self-defeating pessimism. It is not justified. With every random bombing and with every funeral of a child, it becomes more clear that the extremists are not patriots, or resistance fighters–they are murderers at war with the Iraqi people themselves.

In contrast, the elected leaders of Iraq are proving to be strong and steadfast. By any standard or precedent of history, Iraq has made incredible political progress–from tyranny, to liberation, to national elections, to the writing of a constitution, in the space of 2½ years. With our help, the Iraqi military is gaining new capabilities and new confidence with every passing month. At the time of our Fallujah operations 11 months ago, there were only a few Iraqi Army battalions in combat. Today there are more than 80 Iraqi Army battalions fighting the insurgency alongside our forces. Progress isn't easy, but it is steady. And no fair-minded person should ignore, deny, or dismiss the achievements of the Iraqi people.

Here Bush was echoing the briefing that Gen. David Petraeus delivered at the Pentagon yesterday and that I saw him repeat at the American Enterprise Institute later yesterday afternoon. General Petraeus has recently returned from Iraq, where he was in charge of training Iraqi forces. He noted, as previously reported in the press, that Iraqi forces have only one battalion that we rate as Level 1—able to fight on its own. But he added that there are "more than 36" battalions rated at Level 2—able to fight "in the lead" with guidance from embedded American troops, and that there are "more than 80" battalions rated at Level 3—able to "fight alongside" American troops. This is a huge increase from the situation as of July 1, 2004, when there were evidently no Level 1 or Level 2 Iraqi troops and not nearly so many Level 3.

Petraeus did not say everything was what we would like it to be. "Level 2 and above is the data point we look at," he said—Iraqi troops able to take the lead. By his numbers there are 30,000-some troops now, enough to take the lead in the Tal Afar offensive, for one. But the numbers are presumably not static. The clear implication of Petraeus's summary is that we have made much progress in training Iraqi troops and that we are positioned to make much more progress in the months ahead. The situation is not static, with our troops and Iraqis just sitting there taking casualties. The situation is dynamic, and the movement is in our favor.

I am fond of comparing the course of this military struggle with the course of World War II. In World War II, President Roosevelt did an excellent job, even while the United States was in retreat and American forces were performing poorly on the battlefield, of showing the American people what progress was being made and what was being done to make more progress. President Bush in the past year has not done such a good job at this. In his speech today he did. He provided a narrative framework, and General Petraeus and other military leaders have provided supporting evidence and detail for that framework. I think if you go back over the history of World War II you will find that President Roosevelt also from time to time faltered in providing such a narrative framework. But overall he did it well, and so did President Bush today.

The third interesting new thing in this speech was Bush's description of what could happen if we fail in Iraq:

Some observers also claim that America would be better off by cutting our losses and leaving Iraq now. This is a dangerous illusion, refuted with a simple question: Would the United States and other free nations be more safe, or less safe, with Zarqawi and bin Laden in control of Iraq, its people, and its resources?

I am struck by the sublime indifference of most critics of Bush's Iraq policy to the fate of the Iraqi people. They are totally unexultant about the overthrow of a vicious dictatorship and seem to have no interest at all in what would happen to Iraqis if we leave suddenly. Hitchens has argued persuasively that no one deserves the label of liberal who is so indifferent to whether others live in freedom or under tyranny. In this passage Bush reminded Americans more hardheadedly about our own self-interest. But of course many of his critics are more interested in hurting Bush than they are in preventing the emergence of an anti-American tyranny in Iraq.