Those of us who grew up under communism remember well the ritual of the Leader’s Speech.  At a Party congress—invariably dubbed “historic” even before it began—or on the occasion of the opening of a new steel mill, the Dear Comrade would deliver a much-heralded oration.  It usually contained three main ingredients: “We” are making great overall progress, preordained by historical necessity; there are enemies who want to disrupt “us” because they are bad, envious, or corrupt; and “our” endeavor will be victorious, even if the fruits of that success will belong to a generation yet to come.

The Speech was useless as an indicator of what was really going on east of the Iron Curtain, and it bore little relation to the grim reality of Real Socialism.  Nevertheless, it was valuable to Western diplomats and homegrown apparatchiks versed in decoding hidden meanings and implied intentions.  It provided an insight into the mind-set of men who pretended, and often believed, that their words and ideas could alter reality.

On September 13, President George W. Bush delivered a speech on Iraq worthy of the Kremlin Congress Hall c. 1969.  It came after weeks of a carefully orchestrated White House campaign that sought to alter the terms of domestic debate about the war.  Mr. Bush opened with the assertion that, in Iraq, “an ally of the United States is fighting for its survival”:

Terrorists and extremists who are at war with us around the world are seeking to topple Iraq’s government, dominate the region, and attack us here at home.  If Iraq’s young democracy can turn back these enemies, it will mean a more hopeful Middle East and a more secure America.  This ally has placed its trust in the United States.  And tonight, our moral and strategic imperatives are one: We must help Iraq defeat those who threaten its future and also threaten ours.

The claim that Iraq is America’s “ally” that “has placed its trust in the United States” is on par with Moscow’s assertion, in August 1968, that Czechoslovakia was a Soviet ally and that the Warsaw Pact military intervention was but a form of “fraternal help” to a fellow member of the “socialist community.”  In both cases, the “allied” population heartily loathed the helper: According to the latest BBC-ABC poll, 60 percent of Iraqis believe that attacks on American forces are justified.  In both cases, the people had no say in the forging of the alleged alliance.  In both cases, the enemy in situ was equated with the global enemy: All opposition to the “placing of trust” that accompanied the victories of the Red Army in 1944-45, or those of the “Coalition” in 2003, were supposedly inspired by external forces, global in scope and evil in intent.  In addition, Mr. Bush’s eccentric assertion that America is but one of 36 countries jointly fighting the “War on Terror” in Iraq was pure Brezhneviana.

The President invoked the testimony before Congress of Gen. David Petraeus—a military professional whose presumed impartiality was supposed to compensate for the administration’s tattered credibility—to assert that “conditions in Iraq are improving, that we are seizing the initiative from the enemy and that the troop surge is working.”  It was noteworthy, however, that he had replaced the goal of “victory,” advanced in his previous speeches, with that of “success” in his latest address.  He singled out the Anbar Province as a success story that can be replicated elsewhere and paid tribute “to an Iraqi government that has decided to take on the extremists” and should now proceed to achieving reconciliation.

Only one day later, however, and with no pomp, the White House issued a new report stating that the government of Iraq had made almost no progress in achieving stability and reconciliation across the country’s ethno-sectarian divide.  The report suggested that, in the previous two months, Prime Minister Maliki and his team had made headway on only 2 of the 18 stated “benchmarks” for political progress.  The assessment further validated the findings of the National Intelligence Report announced last August and the Government Accountability Office report published on September 4.  In addition, the Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq, headed by retired Marine Gen. James Jones, determined on September 6 that the Iraqi army “cannot yet meaningfully contribute to denying terrorists safe haven.”  All four studies flatly contradicted Mr. Bush’s claim that political progress was being made to match military improvements.

The highlight of Mr. Bush’s speech was his announcement that 21,000 American soldiers would be withdrawn by next summer.  Like a comrade playing with Five Year Plan statistics, he failed to mention that those troops would have to be withdrawn anyway—unless he were to extend deployments of units scheduled for rotation, which would be politically disastrous.  If effected, the announced withdrawal would merely bring the number of American soldiers in Iraq back to the pre-surge level of last January.  Since the target of his speech was not so much his Democratic opposition as the Republicans weary of the war, however, the President’s domestic objective may have been attained.  The promise of even a partial pullout has bought him another six months with several wavering GOP senators, and he needs to hold the support of only 34 of them to sustain a presidential veto of any unwanted mandates.  Until next spring at least, the Democrats won’t be able to muster enough Republican votes to break a Senate filibuster and pass legislation that would impose a withdrawal timetable.

Buying more time is meaningless in the absence of a strategy to end the war—and Mr. Bush has none.  He is staying the course to nowhere.  His last attempt at devising a coherent strategy, presented last January, treated the military “surge” as a tactical device to buy time for the Iraqi government to achieve reconciliation and bridge sectarian divides.  That expectation had always been the weak link in his plan.  It postulated the favorable development of a “known unknown” that is, and has always been, outside American control.  According to Mr. Bush’s own standards, which were established when the surge was announced, the strategy has failed: Iraq’s collapsed society has been unable to develop institutions and mechanisms capable of bridging ethno-sectarian divides.

A rare moment of technical accuracy in Mr. Bush’s address came when he said that “the vision for a reduced American presence . . . has the support of Iraqi leaders from all communities” and that American engagement will extend beyond his presidency.  The former has been true ever since the occupation began.  The latter is inevitable since Mr. Bush is both unwilling and unable to contemplate a plan that would enable the United States to start disengaging before January 2009.  On current form, according to General Petraeus, we shall need five to ten years for Iraq to be stabilized enough that U.S. forces may withdraw.

Iraq is with us to stay, then, and, even after Bush, a hasty withdrawal would be neither prudent nor moral.  American interests are threefold: to disengage without appearing utterly defeated; to leave behind the least undesirable status quo by separating warring factions into three self-governing units; and to counter as much as possible the advantage gained by America’s rivals and enemies.  In particular, the creation of an anti-Shia, anti-Iranian, nationalist Sunni-Arab entity in central and western Iraq would be the best possible bulwark against Ahmadinejad’s intention to create a Tehran-dominated belt that would extend over Iraq and Syria to the Hezbollah-controlled redoubt in southern Lebanon.

Mr. Bush has warned that, if we were to be driven out of Iraq, “extremists of all strains would be emboldened,” and the country would face an humanitarian nightmare.  Of course, the quagmire is of his own making—Iraq gave a boost to Al Qaeda’s propaganda, recruitment, and fundraising and provided a targeting and training area for terrorists—but a hasty withdrawal would indeed turn the current disaster into catastrophe.  His successor will inherit the moral obligation to the people of Iraq to make amends for his predecessor’s criminal folly by managing disengagement in the least harmful manner possible.  In addition, an obvious humbling of America by the combined efforts of Al Qaeda, the Badr Brigades, Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, et al., would do wonders for the jihadist cause worldwide.

The President’s reiterated vision of “a free Iraq,” “critical to the security of the United States,” which will deny Al Qaeda a safe haven, “counter the destructive ambitions of Iran,” and be “an anchor of stability in the region” and “our partner in the fight against terror” is unattainable.  Devising a viable disengagement strategy demands discarding the illusion that Iraq can be a “democracy” as well as an American “ally.”  Yes, said Austrian Emperor Franz II, on being told that a certain gentleman was a patriot, “but is he a patriot for me?”  When praising democracy in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, Mr. Bush should ask himself if the project’s actual or potential beneficiaries are democrats for us.

Iraq can be ruled as she had been ruled before March 2003, and as the bulk of the Arab world is still ruled today: as an autocracy, with occasional sham elections perhaps, but with a firm hold of the security services on the political life always.  Such an Iraq could indeed be a partner of sorts, as the Hashemites in Amman and Hosni Mubarak are American partners.  A “free Iraq,” on the other hand—free from an American military presence, and with the ruling political elite representative of the will of the majority of her citizens—will either disintegrate into three monolithic ethno-religious entities or become a Shiite-dominated theocracy closely allied with Iran.

Some U.S. field commanders are talking openly of nondemocratic alternatives to the current Shiite-dominated regime.  Brig. Gen. John Bednarek, a senior member of the U.S. Task Force Lightning operating in the Diyala Province, thus told CNN that “[d]emocratic institutions are not necessarily the way ahead in the long-term future.”  His commander, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, advocates putting in place a “government that is really a partner with the United States.”  Senior American officers in General Petraeus’s entourage suggest privately that the entire Iraqi government must be ousted by “constitutional or non-constitutional” means and replaced with a stable “but not necessarily democratic” entity.  Administration officials still talk about democracy, but they admit that their ambitions are not as “lofty” as they once had been.

Generals on active duty are loath to make politically sensitive off-the-cuff remarks.  Mixon’s and Bednarek’s statements would have sounded heretical only a year ago.  Today, they reflect a growing realization behind the scenes that “stability” should come before “democracy” in Iraq.  There are two additional indicators: The United States is openly arming Sunni militias in Anbar, and, under new constitutional changes announced last August, former Ba’ath Party members will be able to apply for government posts and reenlist in the military.

Such disjointed signs of prudence are no substitute for strategy, however, and the White House has none.  As he enters his last year in office, Mr. Bush is staying the rudderless course in Iraq and leading his party into an electoral abyss at home.  Instead of thinking new thoughts, the leading Republican candidates are either not thinking at all (e.g., Sen. John McCain) or being advised by those same neoconservative ideologues who cooked up the Iraqi disaster—notably, Rudolph Giuliani, whose chief foreign-policy advisor is Norman Podhoretz.  A day after Mr. Bush’s September 13 speech, Mr. Podhoretz declared that the Bush Doctrine “sets forth a two-pronged strategy, one military and the other political, designed to confront the new kind of threat we are now facing”:

The military component is preemption (because, as the President has said, “if we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long”) and the political component is democratization (to “drain the swamps” in which Islamofascist terrorism breeds) . . . [T]here is no other viable way to victory over Islamofascism.

“Democratizing Islam” is impossible, but democratic procedural devices may be used in the Mohammedan heartland by those who stand to gain from the charade.  Thus applied, “democracy” means power for Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Erdogan and Gul in Turkey, today—and for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria, for the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria, and for Bin Laden in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, tomorrow.

The Bush Doctrine is a mix of stupidity and insanity.  Its nominal author is a flawed man and a failed politician.  The notion of his mendacious mentors’ return to the position of influence next November, in whatever guise, is as daunting as the more likely prospect of four more Clinton years.