In a nationally televised White House press conference Tuesday evening, President Bush sought to remind and reassure Americans during the bloodiest month in Iraq since major combat was declared over last May.
First, the president expressed sympathy for fallen troops and their families. Next, he suggested that the American occupation of Iraq was not indefinite. Come June 30, the president insisted, Iraqis would be running Iraq, and he said that "sovereignty involves more than a date and a ceremony."
Bush offered a timetable for Iraqi elections next January and a permanent government by the end of 2005, envisioning a sparkling Iraqi move from dictatorship to freedom. In his view, Iraq's fate is directly tied to future freedom in this nation. The United States, he said, would work with the United Nations and others to determine "the exact form of government" that would assume power.
Nowhere in the president's rosy vision did he acknowledge the inconvenient fact that truly free elections in Iraq, with its entrenched and warring factions, might mean results that the Bush administration couldn't embrace. How well the eventual transition works will depend heavily on diplomatic skills that the administration has yet to demonstrate and on reliable intelligence that U.S. agencies have yet to provide.
As the bipartisan 9/11 commission revealed, Bush's declaration will remain hollow unless he reforms the FBI and CIA. Myriad problems between the two agencies remain. That's certainly one reason why the administration fought the very formation of the commission that is revealing the extent of intelligence failings.
Bush signaled Monday that he was open to reorganizing U.S. intelligence but did not offer a specific plan. Instead he said that "now may be a time to revamp and reform our intelligence services."
Remember the Department of Homeland Security? No one has mentioned it much lately, but wasn't this entity supposed to focus on threats to the United States and be the superagency for safety? It hasn't turned out this way, in part because of the haste in which it was created and the administration's refusal to recognize the reality that intelligence agencies are turf-conscious organizations that don't cede power easily.
For example, Bush must ensure that the FBI and CIA share information fully. Appearing before the commission last week, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice trumpeted the creation of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center. But CIA director George J. Tenet has housed the center in his agency to ensure that he retains control over it and has staffed it with junior analysts. The result is that Homeland Security, which on paper is supposed to make sure that information is shared, has been frozen out.
The 9/11 commission hearings have shown that one significant problem has been bungling by the very intelligence agencies that are supposed to protect the United States. Presidential press-conference assurances in campaign years aside, the long-term security of the United States is far more dependent on U.S. leadership and intelligence that guides the nation wisely than it is on what happens in Iraq in June.