Sizing Up Bush's Press Conference

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President Bush at a news conference on Tuesday

It’s no surprise that George W. Bush rejected the Vietnam analogy when he spoke to the nation Tuesday night. Did that reporter really think Bush would liken the situation in Iraq to America's great quagmire? But it was a surprise that Bush sounded so much like that other wartime Texan, Lyndon Johnson. His jab that the mere mention of the Vietnam analogy was demoralizing to troops and comforting to enemies seemed, ironically, to be a reminder of the 60s when protestors, not without cause, were chided the same way. With his literally limitless commitment to government power in Iraq Bush sounded like the LBJ of the Great Society or Vietnam, as expansive as the Texas sky. “We are going to change the world,” Bush said, eschewing any of the humility about federal power that anchors conservatism. Was Woodrow Wilson ever so bluntly idealistic?

When it came to spending, it was open checkbook time. Like LBJ, he committed himself to as many troops as needed, to arm Iraqi forces and give them all the necessary training. His few concessions to the cruel April in which 83 Americans have lost their lives in Iraq was to say repeatedly that the last few weeks have been “tough.” One of Bush's first lines was a classic example of his sometimes-mangled syntax: “This has been tough weeks in that country.”

This has been tough weeks on Bush, too. He’s had his own two-front war — against the insinuation from Richard Clarke that he was caught unawares about September 11 and against charges that he’d driven the country into an Iraqi sandtrap. Bush’s goal was to correct that impression, to look tough and unwavering. (His critics might say that’s the problem.) He ended his speech-cum-press conference with a none too subtle jab at John Kerry, noting “when I say something, I mean it.”

But the reporters in the room seemed less interested in whether Bush would keep his word than in whether he would admit fallibility. The event felt more like an intervention, with a psychoanalytic press corps trying to goad the president into admitting that he had made a mistake, if not in the run up to 9/11, then in his administration’s cheerful prediction that coalition forces would be met with cheers or that there’d be weapons of mass destruction turned into ploughshares when the U.S. pulled into Baghdad. They tried to make the press conference a presidential 12-step program. But Bush wasn’t going to go down that road. Sure, he said he’s thought about what he might have done differently. But when my colleague John Dickerson asked the president if he could think of any mistake he’d made since September 11, a tongue-tied Bush couldn’t think of one. “Maybe I’m not as quick as I should be,” he said.

If anything Bush was defiant. He clung to the claim that weapons of mass destruction might be found in Iraq. “They could still be there like the 50 tons of mustard gas hidden on a turkey farm,” he said, referring to recent findings that Libya stored the lethal chemical before it renounced such weapons. He wished he’d created a Department of Homeland Security, but failed to mention that he had opposed it. Echoing what his advisers had said, he noted that he would have “moved heaven and earth” had he known 9/11 was coming. Once again, the president portrayed the war with Iraq as an extension of the war on terror. It was all of a kind, Madrid trains, Iraqi insurgents, Jerusalem buses. It’s all one sinister ideology. The Kerry-Democratic argument that Iraq was a distraction from the war on terror got no quarter.

Anyone who was looking for a change of course in Iraq could take no comfort. Bush said that he was searching for ways to make NATO more involved, perhaps giving it border control duties in Iraq or transferring Polish authority over one sector of the country to NATO, as if that would do the trick. But the idea of giving more international political authority to the UN or other countries was nowhere on the table. Instead, Bush reaffirmed the June 30th deadline as if to remind Iraqis that sovereignty is around the corner. “I wouldn't like being occupied,” Bush said, and it was one of the President’s better lines, because he seemed to acknowledge, for the first time, that lots of Iraqis — not just terrorists — may be less than delighted by the U.S. presence. But in the same breath Bush noted that the United States would stay well beyond June 30th, for as long as necessary.

Bush vowed repeatedly to make Iraq free but avoided the use of the word democracy, perhaps subtly hinting that the final outcome would look less Jeffersonian and more Loya Jirga, less Western and more Middle Eastern. The final result, he seemed to be saying, would be a free society but not a perfectly democratic one. That seemed a sensible distinction, even if the president never came out and said it. For a man who’d promised to change the world, it was a rare moment of limited expectations, even if it was left unstated.