The Washington Times

Democrats and allied pundits more or less universally panned President Bush’s speech on Iraq from a week ago Sunday. The more responsible voices of opposition welcomed Mr. Bush’s commitment to doing whatever is necessary to ensure that postwar Iraq is a success, taking the $87 billion price tag as occasion to change the subject to Mr. Bush’s tax cut and the ballooning federal budget deficit. This is honest partisan criticism – and a point to which we will return.

But most of the bad reviews had nothing constructive to say. One theme is that the administration misled Americans about what the real costs of the war and aftermath would be. Certainly those who wish to may, for example, call Ken Adelman to account for predicting a military “cakewalk.” But he is a private citizen, and closer scrutiny of statements made by administration officials dispels many of these charges.

Nevertheless, as it happens, administration officials did indeed make some statements that turned out to be wrong. The problem here is that critics are acting on the premise that the course of the war and the aftermath as we have seen them to date are circumstances that somehow could have been deduced transcendentally before the fact. On this premise, the administration “should” have been able to predict the future with precision, and any failure to do so gets to be branded not just error, but deceit.

This is somewhat cheeky coming from some of the same people who said the sandstorm in the war’s first days was the beginning of the U.S. military getting bogged down en route to eventual humiliation – and from people who have now pronounced postwar Iraq either a failure, a miserable failure, a complete failure or a total disaster, when it is a mixed bag of success and ongoing trouble. But regardless, Paul Wolfowitz wasn’t “misleading” anyone when he said that Iraqi oil revenue would pay for reconstruction. It will. He was simply wrong about how long it would take.

If this charge is all you’ve got to offer, then you haven’t got a policy, you’ve got a rant. The only serious question is: what next? There are an awful lot of people sounding off who simply haven’t bothered to offer an answer. Just get out and come home? I would welcome that debate. Turn it over to the United Nations and come home? Likewise. Let France write the Security Council resolution that saves us from ourselves? Same again.

The takeaway for the Bush administration should be this: Be prepared to undertake the task of building a decent Iraq with minimal help. Many Democrats will no doubt vote for the funding. Some will do so knowing in their hearts they would rather not. Some will have an encouraging word for the project. But few to none will have anything good to say about those with the actual responsibility for getting it done.

What is true domestically is truer internationally. There are too many people, probably starting with the French president and the German chancellor, who are too proud of their opposition to be actively useful. At best, they will get out of the way.

If the administration is smart enough to be thoroughly pessimistic about the prospect of genuine assistance but to seek it anyway, there is always the possibility of being pleasantly surprised. But, finally, for better or worse [I think “for better”], it was the Bush administration that decided to topple the Saddam Hussein regime and which is responsible, with or without assistance, for getting the aftermath right.

The president has just hit his first public-opinion road block. As a matter of longstanding temperament, Americans don’t like sending their money abroad. The effect of Mr. Bush’s speech would surely have been an uptick in his job approval ratings after the August doldrums but for the small matter of $87 billion. As it is, he seems to be holding his own, which is remarkable given the hostility to foreign aid so prevalent in the country – especially, one may add, among Republican constituencies of the sort that found Jesse Helms’ hard line on foreign aid appealing or who started out the Bush administration opposed to “nation-building.”

The argument that the aid is necessary, though it will prevail, is costing Mr. Bush political capital. He has his work cut out for him in persuading Americans that this assistance is not just necessary but also a good thing. At a minimum, it will entail a fair bit of “sacrifice” of the sort that Democrats accuse him of being unwilling to run.

Delay or repeal the tax cuts to offset the reconstruction tab? This preferred opposition fiscal policy doesn’t pass the test of political seriousness. It essentially amounts to a request that Mr. Bush commit political suicide by alienating his base. Democrats can dream, but not only does Mr. Bush have better political instincts than his father, 43 has had the benefit of learning from the mistakes that cost 41 re-election. The road Mr. Bush has chosen is hard enough as things stand.