Two years ago tomorrow, the world changed when terrorists took their war to American soil and murdered 3,000 civilians within the span just a few hours. It was not just our view of this country and of the world around us that changed; so did the course of American foreign policy. Intervention in foreign countries, nation building, peacekeeping, these were concepts for which President Bush had had little use before that fateful day.
The war against terrorism changed all that, forcing the Bush administration in its first year to confront challenges and responsibilities that had certainly not been part of the original agenda. How far nation-building in some form has is now a part of the Bush foreign policy was made clear Sunday night when the president made a welcome attempt at giving the American people a status report on the American military effort in Iraq.
"This will take time, and require sacrifice," Mr. Bush said. "Yet we will do what is necessary, we will spend what is necessary, to achieve this essential victory in the war on terror."
The speech deserves a mixed review. Mr. Bush did what he does best, taking his case directly to the American people, around the noise of national media and pundits. It answered some questions, but left others still hanging uncomfortably in the air. And exactly why the White House chose a Sunday night with little advance notice to put an address this important on the air is a mystery.
Americans still very much trust their president in foreign affairs. While the most cited recent poll showed Mr. Bush's job approval rating at 52 percent, the lowest in two years, a new poll conducted for the German Marshall Fund showed that 60 percent of Americans approve of the way Mr. Bush is handling international policy. Mr. Bush should take courage from that fact.
As might be expected, Democratic presidential candidates went on the attack immediately. They are vying for media attention and have found a safer target in Mr. Bush than in each other. "It is nothing short of outrageous hat the president spent 15 minutes trying to make up for 15 months of mismanagement," former Vermont Governor Howard Dean said. Amazingly, Mr. Dean also suggested that the nation would be safer if the funding requested by Mr. Bush for the war were used on improving American class rooms.
The president was right to level with the nation about the money realistically needed for reconstructing Iraq and Afghanistan -- at least in 2004. Critics of the president immediately jumped to denounce the lack of specificity in his remarks as to how the money would be spent. Sunday night was not the time or place for a laundry list of specifics, but the demand for accountability is indeed a reasonable one. The president plans to ask Congress for $66 billion to cover military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and $21 billion will be dedicated to civilian reconstruction, hardly the Marshall Plan, but still a lot of money.
As for the president's three goals in Iraq, they move in the right direction, with one deviation.
1) Defeat the terrorists in Iraq.
2) Pull in other nations to help with a multinational force to be led by the United States, possibly under U.N. auspices.
3) Turn over political power to the Iraqis themselves and train their military, border security forces, police.
Many of us have strong reservations about the usefulness of the United Nations. If, however, Secretary of State Colin Powell thinks he can negotiate a Security Council resolution that will allow other countries to assist in the reconstruction under American leadership, that could bring us closer to goal number three. Unfortunately, one would have to say that the chances of this happening are not great, judging by Mr. Powell's rate of success at the United Nations so far.
While the president was taking stock, it would have been appropriate for him to acknowledge the shortcomings in the pre-war planing stages for the reconstruction. The president should also have presented some accounting on the subject of weapons of mass destruction, which he barely mentioned.
Most importantly in this week of September 11, though, the president reminded us that we are fighting terrorists in Iraq so that we won't have to fight them on the streets of America. But this fight is not just about us. It is also about doing right by the Iraqi people, who are also getting killed. As soon as considerations of security and stability allow, we should be turning the running of their country back to them.
Originally appeared in The Washington Times