Thursday, June 30, 2005

Bush's Iraq Speech: Long On Assertion, Short On Facts

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Bush says "progress is uneven" in Iraq, but accentuates positive evidence and mostly ignores the negative.

Summary

Standing before a crowd of uniformed soldiers, President Bush addressed the nation on June 27 to reaffirm America's commitment to the global war on terrorism. But throughout the speech Bush continually stated his opinions and conclusions as though they were facts, and he offered little specific evidence to support his assertions.

Here we provide some additional context, both facts that support Bush's case that "we have made significant progress" in Iraq, as well as some of the negative evidence he omitted.

Analysis

Bush's prime-time speech at Fort Bragg, NC coincided with the one-year anniversary of the handover of soverignty to Iraqi authorities. It was designed to lay out America's role in Iraq amid sinking public support for the war and calls by some lawmakers to withdraw troops.

The Bloodshed

Bush acknowledged the high level of violence in Iraq as he sought to reassure the public.

Bush: The work in Iraq is difficult and dangerous. Like most Americans, I see the images of violence and bloodshed. Every picture is horrifying and the suffering is real. Amid all this violence, I know Americans ask the question: Is the sacrifice worth it?

What Bush did not mention is that by most measures the violence is getting worse. Both April and May were record months in Iraq for car bombings, for example, with more than 135 of them being set off each month. And the bombings are getting more deadly. May was a record month for deaths from bombings, with 381 persons killed in "multiple casualty" bombings that took two or more lives, according to figures collected by the Brookings Institution in its "Iraq Index." The Brookings index is compiled from a variety of sources including official government statistics, where those are available, and other public sources such as news accounts and statements of Iraqi government officials.

The number of Iraqi police and military who have been killed is also rising, reaching 296 so far in June, nearly triple the 109 recorded in January and 103 in Febrary, according to a tally of public information by the website Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, a private group that documents each fatality from public statements and news reports. Estimates of the total number of Iraqi civilians killed each month as a result of "acts of war" have been rising as well, according to the Brookings index.

The trend is also evident in year-to-year figures. In the past twelve months, there have been 25% more U.S. troop fatalities and nearly double the average number of insurgent attacks per day as there were in the preceeding 12 months.

Reconstruction Progress

In talking about Iraqi reconstruction, Bush highlighted the positive and omitted the negative:

Bush: We continued our efforts to help them rebuild their country. . . . Our progress has been uneven but progress is being made. We are improving roads and schools and health clinics and working to improve basic services like sanitation, electricity and water. And together with our allies, we will help the new Iraqi government deliver a better life for its citizens.

Indeed, the State Department's most recent "Iraq Weekly Status Report" shows progress is uneven. Education is a positive; official figures show 3,056 schools have been rehabilitated and millions of "student kits" have been distributed to primary and secondary schools. School enrollments are increasing. And there are also 145 new primary healthcare centers currently under construction. The official figures show 78 water treatment projects underway, nearly half of them completed, and water utility operators are regularly trained in two-week courses.

On the negative side, however, State Department figures show overall electricity production is barely above pre-war levels. Iraqis still have power only 12 hours daily on average.

Iraqis are almost universally unhappy about that. Fully 96 percent of urban Iraqis said they were dissatisfied when asked about "the availability of electricity in your neighborhood." That poll was conducted in February for the U.S. military, and results are reported in Brookings' "Iraq Index." The same poll also showed that 20 percent of Iraqi city- dwellers still report being without water to their homes.

Conclusions or Facts?

The President repeatedly stated his upbeat conclusions as though they were facts. For example, he said of "the terrorists:"

Bush: They failed to break our coalition and force a mass withdrawal by our allies. They failed to incite an Iraqi civil war..

In fact, there have been withdrawals by allies. Spain pulled out its 1,300 soldiers in April, and Honduras brought home its 370 troops at the same time. The Philippines withdrew its 51 troops last summer to save the life of a Filipino hostage held captive for eight months in Iraq. Ukraine has already begun a phased pullout of its 1,650-person contingent, which the Defense Ministry intends to complete by the end of the year. Both the Netherlands and Italy have announced plans to withdraw their troops, and the Bulgarian parliament recently granted approval to bring home its 450 soldiers. Poland, supplying the third-largest contingent in the coalition after Italy's departure, has backed off a plan for full withdrawal of troops due to the success of Iraqi elections and talks with Condoleezza Rice, but the Polish Press Agency announced in June that the next troop rotation will have 200 fewer soldiers.

Bush is of course entitled to argue that these withdrawals don't constitute a "mass" withdrawal, but an argument isn't equivalent to a fact.

The same goes for Bush's statement there's no "civil war" going on. In fact, some believe that what's commonly called the "insurgency" already is a "civil war" or something very close to it. For example, in an April 30 piece, the Times of London quotes Colonel Salem Zajay, a police commander in Southern Baghdad, as saying, "The war is not between the Iraqis and the Americans. It is between the Shia and the Sunni." Again, Bush is entitled to state his opinion to the contrary, but stating a thing doesn't make it so.

Terrorism

Similarly, Bush equated Iraqi insurgents with terrorists who would attack the US if they could.

Bush: There is only one course of action against them: to defeat them abroad before they attack us at home. . . . Our mission in Iraq is clear. We are hunting down the terrorists.

Despite a few public claims to the contrary, however, no solid evidence has surfaced linking Iraq to attacks on the United States, and Bush offered none in his speech. The 9/11 Commission issued a staff report more than a year ago saying "so far we have no credible evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States." It said Osama bin Laden made a request in 1994 to establish training camps in Iraq, but "but Iraq apparently never responded." That was before bin Laden was ejected from Sudan and moved his operation to Afghanistan.

Bush laid stress on the "foreign" or non-Iraqi elements in the insurgency as evidence that fighting in Iraq might prevent future attacks on the US:

Bush: I know Americans ask the question: Is the sacrifice worth it? It is worth it, and it is vital to the future security of our country. And tonight I will explain the reasons why. Some of the violence you see in Iraq is being carried out by ruthless killers who are converging on Iraq to fight the advance of peace and freedom. Our military reports that we have killed or captured hundreds of foreign fighters in Iraq who have come from Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, Libya and other nations.

But Bush didn't mention that the large majority of insurgents are Iraqis, not foreigners. The overall strength of the insurgency has been estimated at about 16,000 persons. The number of foreign fighters in Iraq is only about 1,000, according to estimates reported by the Brookings Institution. The exact number is of course impossible to know. However, over the course of one week during the major battle for Fallujah in November of 2004, a Marine official said that only about 2% of those detained were foreigners. To be sure, Brookings notes that "U.S. military believe foreign fighters are responsible for the majority of suicide bombings in Iraq," with perhaps as many as 70 percent of bombers coming from Saudi Arabia alone. It is anyone's guess how many of those Saudi suicide bombers might have attempted attacks on US soil, but a look at the map shows that a Saudi jihadist can drive across the border to Baghdad much more easily than getting nearly halfway around the world to to the US.

Osama bin Laden

Bush quoted a recent tape-recorded message by bin Laden as evidence that the Iraq conflict is "a central front in the war on terror:"

Bush: Hear the words of Osama bin Laden: "This Third World War is raging" in Iraq..."The whole world is watching this war." He says it will end in "victory and glory or misery and humiliation."

However, Bush passed over the fact that the relationship between bin Laden and the Iraqi insurgents - to the extent one existed at all before - grew much closer after the US invaded Iraq. Insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi did not announce his formal allegiance with bin Laden until October, 2004. It was only then that Zarqawi changed the name of his group from "Unification and Holy War Group" to "al Qaeda in Iraq."

In summary, we found nothing false in what Bush said, only that his facts were few and selective.

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