The Washington Post

In politics, as one of my favorite adages holds, you begin where you are. It is folly to act out of a wish that the past can be undone. Likewise, is it folly to imagine you can skip ahead to the future without the bother of getting there from the here-and-now. Those who fail to appreciate either aspect of beginning where you are usually find themselves vexed by those who get it.

The president gets it. The speech Sunday night was quite precisely “in the moment.”

The speech seems to have had three main purposes. The first, essentially the new material, was to link the future course of Iraq with the war on terror. The second was to resolve the question of whether the course of events in Iraq since the end of “major combat operations” had caused any second thoughts about the mission there; the answer, obviously, was no. The third was to state once again the maximalist objectives for postwar Iraq [and, appearing in a perhaps-unexpected supporting role, Afghanistan]: democratic government in liberal, bourgeois societies [those being the qualities captured by Mr. Bush’s use of the term “decent,” Mr. Bush himself having no business using the terms “liberal” and “bourgeois”]. This is now a benchmark for anyone else who wants to talk about the future of Iraq.

* Iraq and the war on terror. The question is no longer whether the Saddam Hussein regime had links to al Qaeda. That’s a question for historians. Fixation on it, as on the question of missing weapons of mass destruction, is a sign of political unwisdom. This is true for two reasons: First, the reasons underlying the decision to invade and topple a government pale in significance once the deed is done, next to the overwhelming fact of some hundreds of thousands of military and other personnel occupying a country and trying to put the pieces back together. It’s not a matter of how they got there, it’s what they are going to do next.

Second, and more novel, the question of terrorists in Iraq was settled once and for all with the blasts at the U.N. headquarters and the mosque at Najaf. These were not attacks on U.S. forces. They were terror attacks on non-combatants. And everybody knows that that is the problem, and obviously not just in Iraq. The extensive reports about foreign jihadists coming to Iraq to do battle only buttress a point that has become so obvious that it took only Mr. Bush saying it to have its undeniability generally acknowledged.

* No second thoughts. August was a time of doubt: the bomb blasts, the continuing attacks against U.S. forces, the sabotage. I will leave aside the question of whether media reports were sufficiently attentive to progress taking place. Let’s just say that the aircraft carrier speech did not exactly prepare people for remaining difficulties, hardship and sacrifice [a word Mr. Bush returned to Sunday].

But if there was so much as a shadow of a doubt in the mind of Mr. Bush in this period, a hint of a qualm or a second thought, he had expunged it by speechtime. The message was not only that we did the right thing but also that we will keep doing the right thing. This is sound on substance, in my view. It also has the political virtue of skipping over the heads of the second-guessers to the present, leaving them seemingly mired in the past, stuck on questions whose answers offer no guidance about what to do now.

* Building a decent, democratic Iraq. Mr. Bush didn’t really break any new substantive ground in his statement of his goals for the future Iraq, beyond mentioning the price tag. The points he made last night were ones he spelled out more fully in his speech to the American Enterprise Institute in February. Recall that some skeptics then voiced doubts about Mr. Bush’s commitment to seeing through on the principles he was articulating.

But now we are in the middle of things, there are serious challenges ahead, it is not going to be easy, and Mr. Bush has shown himself to be every bit as committed to the success of Iraq as he said he was before the war. I heard the reintroduction of Afghanistan into the discussion as a tacit admission that the United States has been insufficiently committed to postwar progress there.

More important, the next question is what happens at the United Nations. Here, Mr. Bush has set down a very interesting marker. It seems to me that before Mr. Bush turns over any substantial authority to the United Nations in the interest of the “legitimacy” of the occupation regime and reconstruction effort, he has every moral right to insist on a declaration of commitment to Iraq’s future every bit as firm as his own. If, for example, the French president and the German chancellor are unwilling to make such declarations, they should have the grace to defer to those who truly are committed to a free Iraq.