The President's Speech on Iraq: Truth vs. Spin

June 29, 2005 — -- President Bush was more frank about the problems we face in Iraq than he has been in the past.

The president talked in more depth than before about the need to make Iraqi forces effective, and why deadlines for U.S. withdrawal could present serious problems. He presented a case for not increasing U.S. troops and he at least seemed to commit the United States to not establishing bases in Iraq or maintaining any lasting presence:

"We will stay in Iraq as long as we are needed -- and not a day longer," he said. "Sending more Americans would suggest that we intend to stay forever, when we are in fact working for the day when Iraq can defend itself and we can leave."

Key parts of his speech, however, were driven by spin, rather than a frank effort to warn the American people of the sacrifices necessary to win and the risks involved. The end result was to mislead in ways that could come back to haunt the administration and reduce longer-term public support.


One key failure was his effort to explain the insurgency in Iraq almost solely in terms of foreign Islamic extremists. The president correctly referred to hundreds of foreign fighters, their horrifying extremism and the very real threat they pose. He totally failed to mention the thousands of native Iraqis that make up the core of the insurgency, the fact we have only some 600 foreign detainees out of a total of 14,000 total detainees, the fact most intelligence estimates put foreign fighters at around 5 percent of the total, and the fact that we face a major native popular Sunni Muslim uprising and deep Sunni distrust.

He implied the liberation, elections and democracy had somehow unified Iraq when they clearly have not, and glossed over the major political turmoil that will accompany the efforts to draft the constitution and elections to come. The president fundamentally misstated the true nature of the threat and risks in Iraq.

At the same time, he tied the reasons for the situation in Iraq to "9/11," and ignored all of his previous rationale for going to war in Iraq, and the U.S. failure in Iraq to plan for stability operations and carry out effective nation-building. He ignored the CIA analysis indicating that the invasion and initial mishandling of the insurgency had made Iraq a magnet for Islamist extremists.

He dodged over the fact that much of their extremism is designed to provoke an Iraq civil war between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, and implied that Iraq is the center of such activity and not a center. The fact is that Iraq is not draining Islamist activity in other regions. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Central Asia and other Gulf states are just a few of the areas where Islamist extremist activity remains a major threat that in no way is diminished by involvement in Iraq.

Diplomacy, Economics and Aid

The president talked about democracy as a regional panacea, and not as part of a difficult and long-term process of reform that must be coupled to the rule of law and human rights, economic reform, social reform and demographic change. As usual, he cast his call for such reform in ways likely to provoke considerable local hostility from both friendly regimes and reformers. He talked about Libya, but not challenges like Iran, and totally avoided the difficult subject of the linkage between progress in the Arab-Israeli peace process and success in Iraq. He made no mention of the problems in dealing with Iraq's neighbors or how he intends to address them.

The president did not approach honesty in addressing the military burden on the United States, and key allies like Britain and Australia. He talked about thousands of coalition troops, not the need to maintain a massive U.S. troop presence until Iraq forces are ready. He did not mention that several coalition allies now plan to leave or are considering doing so. He talked about 17 nations contributing to the NATO training mission without noting that these are at best a few thousand individuals, of which hundreds are actually deployed in Iraq. In doing so, he did not warn the American people that there are thousands of Americans killed and wounded still to come, or explain and justify this sacrifice.

He gave an equally meaningless and misleading picture of Iraq's economic situation. He talked about $34 billion pledged by 80 countries, but not about the fact many countries never keep such pledges and that some $23 billion of that total had come from the United States. He did not mention that it costs some $4 billion to $8 billion a month to stay in Iraq, that it will cost the United States at least $100 billion to $200 billion more to stay the course, and that Iraq faces major budget problems, the need for another major aid supplemental and has not even begun to seriously recondition its oil fields.

He did not touch upon the massive failures and limits in the U.S. aid effort to date, the need to reorganize that aid effort and put the management of the Iraqi economy into Iraqi hands, or the fact that Iraq's per-capita income and services remain well under prewar levels, and that the lack of jobs and security feeds the insurgency.

Iraqi Forces

The president cited three major "new" steps in improving the quality of Iraqi forces. In fact, none were really new. Step one, having coalition units partner with Iraqi units has been necessary virtually from the start; they have needed such support because they are just beginning to acquire the leadership, experience and support capabilities that any new forces must acquire. The coalition training and advisory teams have been developing such efforts for a year.

Embedding "coalition transition teams" in Iraqi forces began as a result of the mission to Iraq by retired Gen. Gary Luck in January 2005, and has already been fully implemented in most Iraqi army, national guard and special police units. It is under way in regular police units, but has been delayed by a lack of resources and support from civilian agencies and departments in Washington. The president did not talk about the need for enduring commitments and more help from outside the U.S. military.

The United States began working with the Iraqi ministry of defense and ministry of interior before the transfer of power in June 2004 -- more than a year ago. The progress in organization, training and other force-building activities is very real, but it is the result of a major restructuring of the U.S. advisory effort following a mission to assess Iraq's security forces by U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Karl Eikenberry in the winter of 2003-04, and work of the multinational command that began in the spring of 2004.

More important, the entire force-building effort is just beginning to acquire critical mass, and it will require at least another year of intense U.S. military support in combat. The president was right in saying that there are more than 160,000 trained and equipped Iraqi security forces, almost all of which are capable of performing at least low-level missions. This is a major rise in such manpower from a total of around 96,000 in August 2004, and Iraqi forces will be able to take over more and more of the mission with time.

However, the president did not mention that U.S. plans also call for expanding the Iraqi manpower pool through July 2006, and from 168,000 men in June 2005, to 200,000 in September, 230,000 in December, and 270,000 in July 2006, and just how much further the force-building effort must go.

The president did not talk about the time it will take to develop actual combat capability. Moreover, it will take a substantial amount of time to bring most Iraqi manpower from little or limited operational capability to fully operational capability.

The Iraqi army and national guard, security services, and police are now being rated by a new evaluation matrix developed by the MNSTC-I. This matrix was developed by a combination of Iraqi brigade and battalion commanders, and their U.S. advisers, and looked at factors like manning levels, equipment levels, training, command and control, leadership, and logistics. It rates Iraqi units as having one of four levels of mission capability.

The details of this readiness system are classified, but reports have been issued in various "blogs" and press reports. According to such press reports, the Iraqi army and national guard had a total of 81 battalions by late May 2005, but a new evaluation matrix developed by the MNSTC-I only rated three battalions at the top level of readiness and capability, and this did not mean they were capable of independent operations. Only one of 26 brigade headquarters had such a rating. If one included all of the special police battalions, the press reported that the total force rose from 81 battalions to 101, but the number rated in the top category only rose from three to five. The United States had also concluded that it needed to make further major increases in the number of U.S. advisory or "transition teams" embedded in Iraqi units and was seeking to rapidly deploy 2,500 more men by mid-June.

The new rating system found that Iraqi units were particularly weak in logistics; because they were being rushed into combat readiness, and lack support personnel like truck drivers, supply clerks, medics and engineers. Instead of the nearly 50-50 tooth-to-tail ratio in U.S. forces, only 4,000 of the 75,800 men in rated units were performing support function.

It must be stressed that all of these issues are now being addressed and that real progress is being made as quickly as it can without sacrificing force quality for force quantity. There was only one active Iraqi battalion in July 2004, and a few more national guard and special police battalions. The coalition advisory teams have, indeed, accomplished an amazing amount in the last year, and it may well be possible to begin steady reductions in U.S. and the remaining allied troop presence in early 2006. It seems almost certain, however, that a major U.S. presence will be needed through 2007 unless the Iraqi political process can change to include most of Iraq's Sunnis and defuse the native Iraq role in the insurgency -- issues the president deliberately avoided.

U.S. Troops

The president implied the U.S. had plans to totally leave Iraq once current plans are complete. It doesn't. Plans don't yet exist to give Iraq all the armor, artillery, airpower, and support it will need until the insurgency is truly defeated.

The president also gave a dangerously over-simplified rationale for not deploying more American troops, although he was honest in stating that foreign forces are resented by Iraqis, not seen as "liberators," and only Iraqi forces can lead to the kind of popular acceptance that can defeat the insurgency. The truth is we don't have large reserves of the kind of trained forces with the combat and area skills that are needed. The United States has the same problems with force quality versus force quantity as Iraqis, and our present force structure must be changed to avoid over-deploying the skilled actives and reserves that had largely already been in Iraq. Six years of near failure in effective force transformation have compounded the problem.

It is also all too clear that calls for limited amounts of additional troops might solve some problem at a local tactical level, but one outside call for 3,500 NATO troops to secure the Syrian border is a typical military absurdity. It would take tens of thousands more U.S. troops, since serious additional allied troops aren't coming and some allied troops are going. They then could only occupy space, not govern or establish the legitimacy of the Iraqi government. The president should have said that Iraqi forces sensitive to Iraqi needs, political inclusiveness, and the Iraqi government's ability to leave effective police and government structures in now-hostile areas are the answer; not more troops. To do so, however, he would have had to address the real nature of the insurgency.

In short, this was not the honest speech that Americans needed to hear; it was dominated by efforts at spin control. It did not explain the sacrifices needed, or the risks to be faced. It provided a partial and largely misleading explanation for the U.S. role in Iraq, without mention of our moral and ethical obligation to the Iraqi people and the vital strategic interests involved. Instead of "blood, sweat, and tears," we got spin, risk avoidance, and promises without cost. Normal perhaps by today's political standards, but scarcely the kind of realism and leadership that will inspire the continuing American support that U.S. forces, Iraq, and our allies will need during the difficult and uncertain years to come.

Anthony H. Cordesman is an ABC News military analyst, and an expert on the Iraq war as a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.