President Bush successfully contextualized Iraq as an essential component of the war against terror. His reminder that the U.S. cannot afford to fail is important, especially in an election year where Democrats and Republicans alike seek to make Bush's management of the Iraq war a campaign issue. Bush was wise to let Iraqis know that the Coalition Provisional Authority would not simply transfer itself into an embassy on June 30; it will be a mistake if any American continues to occupy CPA headquarters in Saddam's Republican Palace on July 1.
There were significant omissions in the Bush speech, however. Before the war both the State and the Defense Departments underestimated the trauma of President George H.W. Bush's abandonment of Iraqis in 1991. Iraqis remain unconvinced that the U.S. will stick to its rhetoric and will not once again cut and run. While Bush rightly says that "whenever people are given a choice . . . they prefer lives of freedom to lives of fear," he ignores the fact that Iraqis will not again put their necks on the line if they doubt U.S. commitment to their future. Comments by both Secretary of State Colin Powell and CPA Administrator L. Paul Bremer in the past week suggesting that the U.S. might withdraw its troops shook Iraqi confidence in the United States. Iraqis--who fear the worst--will notice that Bush did not roll back Powell's statements.
Iraqis will also be disappointed by the trust Bush places in the United Nations. The U.N. may be respected in the United States and Europe, but Iraqis have a very different experience. Many Iraqis believe that the raid on Ahmad Chalabi's compound was meant to squash the Governing Council's investigation into the U.N. oil-for-food program. U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's credibility took a hit in the past month when Iraqis learned that his daughter was engaged to Prince Ali of Jordan, the half-brother of King Abdullah. We may respect Brahimi's role in Afghanistan, but Iraqis are prickly nationalists and distrust any mediators' ties to neighboring countries.
By focusing on the role of Saddam's elite guards in the insurgency, Bush downplayed the role of regional states like Iran and Syria in the current conflict. Ignoring their complicity may be politically expedient, but it can cost American lives. Over the eight months I worked for the CPA, I would sometimes visit the black market for documents. The price of Iraqi passports and identity cards increased as the cost of Iranian passports decreased. That's basic supply and demand. When I drove along the Syrian border in January, it was still unguarded. Tire tracks breached the single coil of barbed wire that delineated the frontier in the vicinity of Jebel Sinjar.
Bush also glossed over what elections for Iraq will mean. He laid out a multistep process, but the results of elections will be far different if they are party-slate (enabling tyranny of the majority) or single-constituency (making individuals accountable to specific districts). The devil is in the details, but with stakes so high, details cannot be ignored. All in all, a good start. But both Americans and Iraqis wait to hear more.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI.