State of the Union: Reading Between the Soundbites

"I ask you to support our troops in the field—and those on their way," President George Bush said in his State of the Union, making clear that he needed no one’s permission, Congress included, for the latest troop surge in Iraq.

Now, no one’s against supporting the troops. Supporting the troops is the Holy Grail of politics. That's why freshman Jim Webb, Vietnam veteran and father of a Marine in Iraq, was such a perfect choice for the Democratic response. Is there any question about his support for the troops, his own son included?

But just what does it mean to “support our troops?” Do you “support” them by demanding that more and more of them do jobs they were never trained for, trying to keep people intent on killing each other over their disagreements over who should have succeeded Mohammed as a prophet from actually doing so?

"We went into this largely united -- in our assumptions and in our convictions. And whatever you voted for, you did not vote for failure. Our country is pursuing a new strategy in Iraq, and I ask you to give it a chance to work," Bush said.

We went into this largely united – by misinformation. Lies, some call them. I’m willing to accept that the president believed in good faith in faulty intelligence, instead of manipulating it. I’m not questioning his intentions, although there is certainly ample basis for that. I don’t hate George Bush, I just disagree with him.

But it doesn’t matter. The intelligence was wrong. It was mistaken. That means the president was mistaken. There were no weapons of mass destruction. Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11. Iraq was not a hotbed of Al Qaeda activity. Now it is. Are we forever bound to do right by his mistake?

“This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we are in,” the president said.

Sorry, but whose fault is that? Who declared Mission Accomplished when it wasn’t? Who failed to see, much less prepare, for what the future held? Who preaches personal responsibility but refuses to accept it?

In his speech, the president asked Congress, and the nation, to give his latest troop escalation a chance to succeed.

“Our country is pursuing a new strategy in Iraq, and I ask you to give it a chance to work.”

What new strategy? Sending more Americans to try to police a civil war? Since when does that count as a strategy, much less a new one? And how long will it take to succeed?

Earlier in the day, the soon-to-be top military man, Army Lt. Gen. David H . Petraeus, cautioned senators that the tasks facing the troops in trying to secure Iraq's war-torn neighborhoods and train the Iraqis themselves will be "neither quick nor easy." You wouldn’t know that listening to the president.

There is an old tradition in politics. People will accept almost anything from someone who apologizes for it. We used to jokingly call it going to the Betty Ford Center, figuratively if not literally. If you take responsibility, admit your mistakes, publicly repent, and are willing to change, there’s almost nothing that can’t be overcome. But this president seems constitutionally unable to admit he’s been wrong, even after thousands have died, the country has turned on his party, the Congress has changed hands, and some of the most respected Republicans in the country have deserted his cause.

President Bush was gracious in greeting “Madame Speaker” and acknowledging the change in the leadership of Congress, but to listen to him, you’d think it had nothing to do with him or his war.

Mistakes? He didn’t admit to any last night. You'd never know that the vote in November was in fact a vote against him and his war.

Listening? No sign of it. The new strategy sounded painfully like the old one, with a few thousand more Americans vulnerable to its failure.

“I can’t tell you what the path to success is, but it’s not what the president has put on the table.”

That wasn’t Walter Mondale who said that, but the man who beat him in his race for the Senate, Norm Coleman of Minnesota. Norm Coleman is a Republican, and he has plenty of company.

President Bush’s biggest problem right now isn’t Democrats, from whom he has no basis for expecting support, but Republicans, who are deserting his failed policies in increasing numbers, even as the Libby trial unfolding a few blocks away makes clear the extent to which the administration has tried to prop up support and tamp down criticism.

We are in for a long war, at home and abroad, and the State of the Union unfortunately did nothing to shorten it.

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Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California and a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. She writes the "Portia" column for American Lawyer Media and is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times. She was appointed by the president to serve on the National Holocaust Council and by the mayor of the City of Los Angeles to serve on that city's Ethics Commission.

Estrich's books include the just published "Soulless," "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System," "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders," "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women" and "Sex & Power," currently a Los Angeles Times bestseller.

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel.

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