"I'm not sure the role of the United States is to go around the world and say this is the way it's got to be…. I would be very careful about using our troops as nation builders." George W. Bush, Presidential Debate, Boston, Oct. 3, 2000
Ironic, isn't it? George Bush, reluctant nation builder, is now CEO of the mother of all nation-building projects.
At this stage, the president's most pressing challenge is selling the deal to wary stockholders. He's hampered by a self-created credibility gap and a tenacious refusal to abandon campaign-style jingoism in favor of candor and clarity.
This week, the administration launched a "stay the course" offensive highlighted by the president's speech to the American Legion convention in St. Louis.
I'm sure the White House had no great desire to put the president in political harm's way on this dangerous issue, but several circumstances conspired to force their hands: rising U.S. casualties in Iraq, growing criticism of the reconstruction program from friends and foes, and troubling poll numbers.
So the reluctant nation builder emerged from his Texas retreat to give a "major speech" proclaiming that, in the war on terror, "There will be no retreat." He did this on the very day when the list of Americans killed in Iraq since the combat ended grew longer than the casualty list from the actual shooting war. Not a coincidence, I suspect.
What the president did was give a fine campaign speech.
What the president didn't do was address the substantive concerns about the administration's reconstruction policy directly. Nor did he level with the American people about the costs in blood and bucks.
I'm left wondering which is more important to President Bush, reconstruction or re-election?
The criticism that has stung the administration most deeply is essentially that the commitment to resurrecting Iraq is (pardon my French) half-assed. Republican Senators John McCain and Chuck Hagel, along with neo-conservative theorists William Kristol and Robert Kagan, have bluntly accused Team Bush of not supplying the resources the mission demands – money, troops, and civilian brains.
"In short," wrote Kristol and Kagan in The Weekly Standard magazine, "while it is indeed possible that, with a little luck, the United States can muddle through to success in Iraq over the coming months, the danger is that the resources the administration is devoting to Iraq right now are insufficient, and the speed with which they are being deployed is insufficiently urgent. These failings, if not corrected soon, could over time lead to disaster."
The president's speech completely ignored this concern, a standard campaigner's tactic.
The other prominent and widespread criticism of Mr. Bush's policy is that it is fatally unilateral. The thinking is that adding troops from other countries and more United Nations involvement would lessen U.S. costs and broaden support for the mission in Iraqi and the rest of the world, especially in the Arab world.
Mr. Bush dismissed this with a one-line, half-truth, "I will continue to challenge other countries to join in this important mission." This is lip service at best; the administration has basically told the world to buzz off, just as it did during the shooting war. And after the bombing of the U.N. station in Baghdad, most of the world is delighted to fly away. This administration remains incapable of garnering substantial, enduring international support for its Iraq agenda.
As for the complaint that the president has manipulatively avoided preparing Americans for the toll of reconstruction, he again sluffed it off with a throw-away line, "Building a free and peaceful Iraq will require a substantial commitment of time and resources, and it will yield a substantially safer and more secure America and the world." How substantial? How much? How long? Details, details.
Mr. Bush summed his real argument up in one honest sentence, and it had nothing to do with nation building: "The work of our coalition in Iraq goes on because that country is now a point of testing in the war on terror." That is his position. Questioning the administration's strategy and efficacy in the war on terror, ever since Sept. 11, has been labeled unpatriotic.
Unfortunately, Mr. Bush has squandered much of the credibility he would need to effectively ride a high horse. The arguments his administration used to peddle the war in the first-place are now profoundly doubted.
Iraqi WMDs have not been found, four months after the combat ended. The administration put faces and fingerprints on terrorism – Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. They remain at large. Mr. Bush's credentials as a warrior on terror are far from impeccable.
What's infuriating here is that, at this point, every sane non-jihadist wants Iraqi reconstruction to succeed. This is true of even the must rabid Bush haters; they might want the job turned over to the U.N., but no matter how much they opposed the war, no matter how much they think Al Gore won the 2000 election, they want Iraq to get fixed now.
The costs of failure in Iraq are obvious and immense: more instability in the volatile Arab world, a more fertile spawning ground for terrorists, a setback for Arab democracy and openness, and a huge gash on American influence. The case is not hard to make. But doing right it requires some honestly and willingness to argue with critics.
A leader addresses these challenges - a campaigner finesses them.
Dick Meyer, the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, is based in Washington. For many years, he was a political and investigative producer for The CBS News Evening News With Dan Rather.
E-mail questions, comments, complaints and ideas to
Against the Grain
By Dick Meyer