Bush Shows Humility Over Iraq

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Thirty-three months and 2,155 American military deaths ago, a somber President Bush addressed the nation in prime time from the Oval Office and announced that the nation's military had begun “to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger” from "an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder." On Sunday night, Bush made his first Oval Office address to the nation since then, and was in the extraordinary position of admitting that the war is difficult, while arguing that we’re not losing. He went on to declare: "My fellow citizens: Not only can we win the war in Iraq—we are winning the war in Iraq.”

The President's speech acknowledged that the road to recovery starts with admitting a problem. “The work in Iraq has been especially difficult—more difficult than we expected,” he said. Bush said that he knows "this war is controversial" and that "some of my decisions have led to terrible loss." He even said that he would "listen to honest criticism" and make changes that would help complete the mission, as long as the ideas do not come from "defeatists."

A White House official tells TIME that the 17-minute speech, which delayed fare like “Desperate Housewives” and “National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation,” was partly aimed at convincing skeptics and critics to give Bush another chance to make his case. With those audiences in mind, the address was laced with notes of contrition and humility, both of them unusual for a White House that rarely admits errors or gives quarter to its opponents. This time, Bush spoke directly to “those of you who did not support my decision to send troops to Iraq.”

“I have heard your disagreement, and I know how deeply it is felt. Yet now there are only two options before our country—victory or defeat,” he said, raising the palm of one hand and then the other, to portray the choice. “And the need for victory is larger than any president or political party, because the security of our people is in the balance. I don't expect you to support everything I do, but tonight I have a request: Do not give in to despair, and do not give up on this fight for freedom.”

Democrats point out that the binary choice Bush offered does not allow for the possibility of a quagmire, where victory is not a choice—and the whole notion of victory must be redefined. The 35-page “National Strategy for Victory in Iraq” that Bush released last month prepared the public for the fact that this victory “will not come in the form of an enemy’s surrender, or be signaled by a single particular event—there will be no Battleship Missouri, no Appomattox.”

For those who lionize the President, there was vintage Bush: "I have never been more certain that America's actions in Iraq are essential to the security of our citizens, and will lay the foundation of peace for our children and grandchildren." And in a touch clearly not aimed at the Muslim world, the President closed with a quotation from the carol that begins “I heard the bells on Christmas day”. “The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with peace on Earth, goodwill to men.” He pointed out that it was written during the Civil War. It is by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose oldest son received a crippling injury in the war.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada praised Bush’s “increased candor,” but complained that “too much of the substance remains the same.” Indeed, Bush included broad hints that troop reductions are coming next year, but he did not talk about any specific dates or numbers. “Our forces in Iraq are on the road to victory—and that is the road that will take them home,” he said. So Bush, his credibility and likability eroded by a war with no clear end, is promising the nation there is light at the end of the tunnel—and now must keep convincing Americans it is getting brighter.