This would have been a powerful, dramatic speech had it been delivered in 2002. That was the time for substantive proposals on alternative energy, on expanding the size of the military and on creating a civilian volunteer corps to assist with nation-building, and that was when the president had both high approval ratings and his party in firm control of both houses of Congress. Today, the president lacks the political capital to move his agenda forward on the Hill and has too little time left in office to institutionalize his proposals.
There was also a disconnect between the apocalyptic vision of what failure in Iraq (and the larger Middle East) would engender and what the United States is prepared to do about it. Decreasing American consumption of gasoline by 20 percent by 2017 is an admirable goal, but if the United States plans to confront Iran over its nuclear program in the next two years we need a plan for coping with energy disruptions today (not to mention extending guarantees to partners like China and allies like Japan who depend directly on oil from Iran). And what happens if the Iraqi government fails to meet the benchmarks set down as the justification for "the surge?" After listening to the president tonight (and two weeks ago), I called up the president's November 2005 speech at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. In it, he quoted General Marty Dempsey of the Multinational Security Transition Command, who said that the Iraqis are "increasingly in control of their future and their own security-the Iraqi security forces are regaining control of the country." It seems that those assessments were premature, since the president said last night that, "the Iraqis are not yet ready to do this [secure Baghdad] on their own." So the Iraqis failed to meet benchmarks set 14 months ago and U.S. strategy did not change then.
If 20,000 extra troops in Iraq and 4,000 extra Marines in Afghanistan don't change the negative trends, what next? The president neither called on the American people to be prepared to sacrifice more nor outlined whether the U.S. would move to a containment strategy. The president did not make clear how to escape what Hilton Root has labels the "commitment trap" (in an essay that will appear in the forthcoming issue of The National Interest) where the United States is not prepared to hold the Iraqi government accountable for fear that too much pressure will cause its collapse and thus ignite the "who lost Iraq" debate, and so the U.S. will continue to do the heavy lifting in Iraq.
The bottom line is that the president still operates from the assumption that America can set the agenda in Iraq and throughout the greater Middle East without significant new investments of U.S. blood and treasure.
I have other complaints about the speech; the continuing use of an oversimplified, dualistic approach to complicated political developments in the Middle East, for one. Hezbollah, Hamas, Shi‘a and Sunni extremists in Iraq alike have proven they can win votes at the ballot box and are not just mindless automatons in the hands of manipulators in Damascus and Tehran. Leaving out the responsibility the current government in Baghdad has for the rise in sectarian violence is not a minor omission. As is failing to level with the American people that many of the negative consequences he laid out have already happened. Iran certainly is not waiting for an American defeat to continue to advance its nuclear ambitions.
But, at the same time, the president displayed a sense of realism in setting forth a series of foreign policy priorities; combating terrorism, engaging in de-proliferation, stabilizing the Middle East and mentioning that America's partners in these efforts are not only the established democracies of the West and East Asia but also less than democratic partners, such as China and Saudi Arabia. While he made it clear that the United States would continue "to speak out for the cause of freedom", it does seem that he is taking, perhaps belatedly, advice given two and a half years ago by Dimitri Simes in the pages of The National Interest:
"Accordingly, we should-being true to our American heritage-encourage freedom worldwide, but we should stop the export of democracy which puts the United States on a collision course with most of the world, interferes with the sovereignty of other nations and complicates our War on Terror and the proliferation of WMD. [This] would pit the United States and its associates against not just nations with which we currently have problems (such as North Korea or Iran), but even states such as China, Russia, Pakistan, the Central Asian nations and much of the Arab world, including the Gulf states. And these are countries which are indispensable in ensuring U.S. security against terrorism, stemming the proliferation of WMD, combating the spread of narcotics, and some are even critical to America's strategy of energy diversification."
And in the end, what is most important is not simply to have ‘plan-Bs' ready for Iraq, Iran, North Korea and so on but to move to create a workable, lasting consensus on foreign policy that enjoys the support of the American people, meets Walter Lippman's famous test of matching ends to means, and will outlast this particular presidency to continue past 2008. We do not have the luxury of taking a two-year vacation from policy while politicians from both parties cast longing eyes on the White House. We need blueprints for action, not a war of sound bytes.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest.