The most pained look of the night on which George Bush delivered the most difficult State of the Union address of his presidency swept across the face of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice midway through the speech.
The President had just delivered the key lines from the foreign-policy section of a speech that — despite much emphasis on domestic issues such as health care, education and immigration and — would be judged primarily on the effectiveness of his remarks regarding the Iraq War.
This was the point at which Bush needed to convince a skeptical Congress. And he gave it his all — or, at the very least, all that his speechwriters could muster.
"If American forces step back before Baghdad is secure, the Iraqi government would be overrun by extremists on all sides. We could expect an epic battle between Shia extremists backed by Iran, and Sunni extremists aided by al Qaeda and supporters of the old regime. A contagion of violence could spill out across the country — and in time the entire region could be drawn into the conflict," said Bush, who was making the case for his surge of 21,500 additional troops to Iraq. "For America, this is a nightmare scenario. For the enemy, this is the objective. Chaos is their greatest ally in this struggle. And out of chaos in Iraq, would emerge an emboldened enemy with new safe havens…new recruits…new resources…and an even greater determination to harm America."
Then, again seeking to forge the clumsy link between the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and his war of whim in Iraq, Bush declared: "To allow this to happen would be to ignore the lessons of September 11 and invite tragedy. And ladies and gentlemen, nothing is more important at this moment in our history than for America to succeed in the Middle East… to succeed in Iraq…and to spare the American people from this danger."
The carefully crafted applause line brought Rice to her feet, and she scanned the House chamber to see if it had connected with a Congress that has in recent weeks heard bipartisan expressions of opposition to the president's scheming to expand the war. There was little question that she was hoping for a signal that members of the House and Senate were prepared to give Bush the time he was pleading for in a speech that featured the line: "Our country is pursuing a new strategy in Iraq — and I ask you to give it a chance to work."
The response to the "nothing is more important" line on Iraq was anything but enthusiastic, as many — perhaps most — members remained seated. The Congress was not convinced by a repetition of tired rhetoric from a president who has repeatedly misjudged and misguided the war on terror.
Senator Barack Obama, D-Illinois, explained after the speech was done that, "The pall over the room was Iraq."
Rice did not need Obama's analysis. She knew exactly how heavily that pall hung over the chamber as she settled back into her seat Tuesday night.
The Secretary of State was seen grimacing almost as agonizingly as when she was tried to make the case earlier this month for Bush's surge in an excruciating appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — during which she was grilled not just by Democrats but by Republicans.
Rice recognized that the job of selling the surge had not been made any easier by this State of the Union address.
Indeed, if there was an expression of the sentiments of the Congressional majority — made up of Democrats and a growing number of dissenting Republicans — it came in the response to the president's speech by Senator Jim Webb, D-Virginia.
"The President took us into this war recklessly. He disregarded warnings from the national security adviser during the first Gulf War, the Chief of Staff of the Army, two former commanding generals of the Central Command, whose jurisdiction includes Iraq, the director of operations on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and many, many others with great integrity and long experience in national security affairs. We are now, as a nation, held hostage to the predictable — and predicted — disarray that has followed," the Reagan Republican turned Democratic Senator explained.
"The war's costs to our nation have been staggering. Financially. The damage to our reputation around the world. The lost opportunities to defeat the forces of international terrorism. And especially the precious blood of our citizens who have stepped forward to serve.
"The majority of the nation no longer supports the way this war is being fought; nor does the majority of our military. We need a new direction. Not one step back from the war against international terrorism. Not a precipitous withdrawal that ignores the possibility of further chaos. But an immediate shift toward strong regionally based diplomacy, a policy that takes our soldiers off the streets of Iraq's cities, and a formula that will in short order allow our combat forces to leave Iraq."
Those are the words that, had they been spoken before the Congress Tuesday night, would have brought the chamber to its feet and earned the response Rice had hoped Bush would receive. They are, more significantly, the words that polls suggest the great mass of Americans long to hear not merely from one senator from Virginia but from a Congress that is prepared, finally, to restore the system of checks and balances and force this president to change course.
By John Nichols
Reprinted with permission from the The Nation