I couldn't help but notice a strange dichotomy listening to President Bush walk the country through his "new way forward in Iraq."
In some ways the speech was very important: it was a thorough and fairly detailed description of the fine points of the president's new strategy. But in other ways the speech was not important at all: the public is tired of talk from this president on the subject of Iraq and cares less about the details than it does that the administration just start producing results.
Will the president's new plan achieve those results? Only time will tell, but it's hard to be sanguine knowing that Bush's plan in large part still relies, as it always has, on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's willingness and ability to rein in sectarian militias and cobble together some sort of national reconciliation. Watching Maliki's behavior over the last year this is, as David Gergen noted last night, something akin to hoping a leopard will change his spots.
Furthermore, we simply don't know whether 21,000 more U.S. troops will be enough to be effective — even operating under a new strategy and with new, more robust rules of engagement — in turning the tide of violence in Baghdad and creating the type of "space" Bush says is necessary to move ahead with the crucial political and economic pieces of the mission.
Yes, Gen. Petraeus is good. But he's not a miracle worker, which is just about what he'll need to be to turn things around in the amount of time he has before the bottom falls out of Bush's support among Republicans. Even though some Republicans have already stepped away from the president, I would expect most (or at least enough) will hang in and give him at least a six month window to see the new strategy through. If things go badly that window could close quicker.
One thing that's always bothered me about the Iraq debate is that if Bush has been guilty of not facing the reality of what has been happening in Iraq and not leveling with the American public, Democrats have been every bit as guilty of not coming to grips with and being honest with the public about the consequences of withdrawing from Iraq.
We saw it again last night as presidential hopefuls John Edwards and Sen. Barack Obama argued that more U.S. troops in Iraq would make things worse and, conversely, that fewer troops would make things better by forcing the Iraqi government to stand up. This makes precious little sense.
If the Iraqi Army and police are already unable to contain violence at the current force levels, how will they possibly be able to do a better job containing violence with less American troops there to support them? The truth is that the most likely consequence of less U.S. troops in Iraq is that sectarian violence and bloodletting would increase and the fragile coalition government would be overwhelmed and collapse.
But just as the president has at times stubbornly refused to acknowledge the difficulties we've faced in Iraq, the Democrats constantly skip over the fact that one very possible outcome of their suggested course of action in Iraq is utter chaos and anarchy. That might save a few lives in the short term, but could leave us in a far worse place than where we are now, or where we might be after pursuing the president's new plan for a few months.
In general, if I sound pessimistic about the president's "new way forward" in Iraq, it's because I am. That being said, Bush's plan does have a chance of succeeding, and we should all cross our fingers and hope that it does.