President Bush's visit to Baghdad came as a surprise to practically everybody. But not to me.
Of course, the precise timing of his trip was a closely held secret and evidently virtually no one, not even members of his immediate family, were told it was in the offing.
Still, the President had very compelling reasons for going to Iraq. In fact, I enumerated them in a an Oct. 3 National Review Online column, written as I returned from my own visit there at the end of September.
While parts of the country have become less secure than was the true two months ago, the case for Mr. Bush to go to Iraq has, if anything, become even more clear-cut than it was then. Reduced to their essence, the driving considerations are as follows:
The primary mission was to convey a surpassingly important message to both our troops and the people they are helping to experience and secure freedom: We are unalterably committed to realizing that goal.
The president powerfully accomplished this with his words to the men and women in uniform with whom he shared Thanksgiving dinner: "Together, you and I have taken an oath to defend our country. You're honoring that oath," the president told the troops. "The United States military is doing a fantastic job. You are defeating the terrorists here in Iraq, so that we don't have to face them in our own country. You're defeating Saddam's henchmen, so that the people of Iraq can live in peace and freedom."
Mr. Bush closed with a further, inspirational touch: "Each one of you has answered a great call, participating in an historic moment in world history. You live by a code of honor, of service to your nation, with the safety and the security of your fellow citizens. Our military is full of the finest people on the face of the earth. I'm proud to be your Commander in Chief."
The president also made a point of addressing himself to the Iraqis: "Every day [we] see firsthand the commitment to sacrifice that the Iraqi people are making to secure their own freedom. I have a message for the Iraqi people: You have an opportunity to seize the moment and rebuild your great country, based on human dignity and freedom. The regime of Saddam Hussein is gone forever."
A further reason for going to Iraq was to afford the president a chance to see for himself, albeit briefly, the facts on the ground. He is now in a position to speak with first-hand authority about the conditions that exist there, and the improvements that are being brought about--painfully, slowly, but day-by-day-- thanks to ever-more-effective collaboration between the U.S., coalition personnel and the Iraqis.
The strategic benefits of this heightening of Mr. Bush's authority would be maximized if the president were to address, at the earliest possible moment, a joint session of Congress or, at the very least, make a prime-time speech to the nation. By taking his experiences and insights to the American people and their elected representatives, he can help ensure the continuing validity of his strong words about the support Operation Iraqi Freedom enjoys at home: "I bring a message on behalf of America: We thank you for your service, we're proud of you, and America stands solidly behind you."
As Mr. Bush now takes this message to his domestic audience, he would be well-advised to continue reinforcing the central theme of his remarks in Baghdad: "Those who attack our coalition forces and kill innocent Iraqis are testing our will. They hope we will run. We did not charge hundreds of miles into the heart of Iraq, pay a bitter cost in casualties, defeat a brutal dictator and liberate 25 million people only to retreat before a band of thugs and assassins.
"We will prevail. We will win because our cause is just. We will win because we will stay on the offensive. And we will win because you're part of the finest military ever assembled. And we will prevail because the Iraqis want their freedom."
The fact that the president went to Baghdad to convey these messages certainly underscores the importance of the messages, as well as the president's personal commitment to our victory on fronts of the War on Terror. In so doing, he has shown himself once again to be not only a visionary and determined president, but a courageous one.
George W. Bush's willingness to take real personal risks to raise the morale of the men and women in uniform should have come as no surprise to anyone. After all, he has done so in the past, notably with his arrival by Navy jet aboard the U.S.S. Lincoln earlier this year.
Still, such symbolic initiatives are proof positive of this president's genuine and gutsy leadership ability. The powerful impression of this attribute is no more likely to be lost on voters next year than it has been on the soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen whom he has honored on behalf of all Americans with these momentous visits.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr. held senior positions in the Reagan Defense Department. He is currently president of the Center for Security Policy.