A question of rhetoric

Douglas Feith, author of the invaluable book War and Decision, has a piece in today’s Wall Street Journal criticizing the way President Bush “sold” the war in Iraq. Feith writes:

In the fall of 2003, a few months after Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, U.S. officials began to despair of finding stockpiles of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. The resulting embarrassment caused a radical shift in administration rhetoric about the war in Iraq.

President Bush no longer stressed Saddam’s record or the threats from the Baathist regime as reasons for going to war. Rather, from that point forward, he focused almost exclusively on the larger aim of promoting democracy.

Feith actually quantifies this shift, using a chart he developed for his book (page 476):

In the year beginning with his first major speech about Iraq – the Sept. 12, 2002 address to the U.N. General Assembly – Mr. Bush delivered nine major talks about Iraq. There were, on average, approximately 14 paragraphs per speech on Saddam’s record as an enemy, aggressor, tyrant and danger, with only three paragraphs on promoting democracy. In the next year – from September 2003 to September 2004 – Mr. Bush delivered 15 major talks about Iraq. The average number of paragraphs devoted to the record of threats from Saddam was one, and the number devoted to democracy promotion was approximately 11.

One can understood why, after it started to seem unlikely that we’d find significant stockpiles of WMD in Iraq, the administration was relunctant to talk about WMD. However, the administration still could have talked about the more general threat Saddam Hussein posed and explained how our presence was enhancing our security. Instead, he chose to focus on what our presence was doing for the Iraqis.

Feith points to three ways in which the administration’s dramatic shift in rhetoric hurt its position. First, by shifting ground, the administration lost credibility. As Feith puts it, “The stunning change in rhetoric appeared to confirm his critics’ argument that the security rationale for the war was at best an error, and at worst a lie.”

Second, the administration’s shift signaled to its critics that the administration would no longer talk about past. It gave them confidence, for example, that President Bush would not cite the prior hawkish statements of his critics back at them. Thus, his critics and opponents were emboldened to rewrite history.

Finally, the administration redefined the goal away from something we indisputably had accomplished (the overthrow of a deadly anti-American, terrorist-supporting dictator) to something we were having a difficult time accomplishing (establishing a functioning democracy in Iraq). It is the administration’s change in the definition of success that Feith believes produced the most deleterious consequences.

Feith concludes with this lesson:

To fight a long war, the president has to ensure he can preserve public and congressional support for the effort. It is not an overstatement to say that the president’s shift in rhetoric nearly cost the U.S. the war. Victory or defeat can hinge on the president’s words as much as on the military plans of his generals or the actions of their troops on the ground.

I don’t know whether there was any rhetoric capable of maintaining support for the war as the military situation deteriorated. It’s clear, however, that the administration did itself, and the country, no favor when it changed the way it defended the war.

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