Listening to yet another Bush speech about Iraq requires almost as much perseverance as he asks of Americans. But stick with it and his words reveal a president different from his prewar self.
Mr. Bush's speech on Monday, the first of five on Iraq to be given over five weeks, was studded with descriptions of a postwar Iraq the president did not expect: "brutal ... hard ... changing ... chaotic ... dangerous." Such admissions of adversity show a new realism by the president, or, as he asked of Americans, "an ability to adapt."
He also admitted the US didn't expect Saddam Hussein's elite guard to flee during the war and reemerge as terrorists. He found his commanders erred in estimating the number of troops needed to handle the unanticipated violence. They erred in trying to take the Sunni city of Fallujah by force and had to rely on ex-Hussein officers. They erred in assuming a new Iraqi army would follow US orders into battle. And they assumed all US prison personnel would treat Iraqis humanely. That mistake resulted in Bush offering to tear down the notorious Abu Ghraib prison.
Most of all, Bush's speech shows he now sees his greatest challenge as American impatience. He's fighting a home-front war against sliding confidence over his ability to handle the handover to Iraqis.
That erosion of public support is the main danger to his goal of making Iraq a democratic bulwark against Middle East terrorism. While John Kerry, too, says the US cannot exit without establishing democracy in Iraq, either man, as president, could face pressure to pull out.
Bush's speech, on the face of it, is an admission of his failure to retain public support in the midst of much killing and zigzag maneuvers to create stable government. His solution as revealed in his speech is twofold:
1. Remind Americans that it's better to be fighting terrorists in Iraq than having them attack the US homeland, while also warning them that giving up on Iraq or Middle East reform would be a victory for terrorists that would further energize them.
2. Convince Americans that his five-step plan will help push Iraqis to take more responsibility as they see the US giving up more authority, to build up their country, and to let the UN and other nations participate.
Even if Americans buy into that plan, their prime worry is getting 138,000 US troops out. Bush said he's needed to accelerate the pace of building an Iraqi army and expects only half of the planned 35,000 member army to be ready by July 1.
By owning up to his problems in Iraq, Bush hopes Americans will take more ownership of Iraq's future. With four more speeches to go, he still has his work cut out for him.