President Bush generally got the headlines that he wanted from his speech to the nation last evening:
- "Success Allows Gradual Troops Cuts, Bush Says" (The New York Times)
- "Bush Tells Nation He Will Begin to Roll Back 'Surge'" (Washington Post)
- "Bush to Cut 20,000 Troops" (Boston Globe)
Alas, the country didn't get the policy it wanted — and needed — as many of the stories behind the headlines showed. (Kudos especially to the Post's Glenn Kessler for his "Fact Check.")
A majority of Americans favor a timeline for withdrawing troops from Iraq, and 55 percent, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll, would support legislation mandating that all combat forces be removed from Iraq by next spring. Given that Congress lacks the votes to force the president's hand, it is highly unlikely that the public will get its way.
The support for a withdrawal timeline — any withdrawal timeline — is understandable. Americans want to know "how this ends." In a FoxNews/Opinion Dynamics poll taken after Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker had completed some of their congressional testimony, only 24 percent of respondents believed that the U.S. should "pull out [only] after Iraqi troops are capable of taking over." In other words, more than 3 in 4 rejected the conditions-based withdrawal strategy that the president has advanced since the start of the war. (Remember "We'll stay as long as necessary, and not a day longer" and "As they stand up, we'll stand down"?) The president's speech last night reaffirmed that we would only leave when the Iraqis were capable, a process that most experts believe will take many years.
Six in 10 Americans believe that the costs we have already paid far exceed the benefits that we will receive from invading and occupying Iraq. And they now know, as a result of the Petraeus/Crocker testimony from earlier this week, and from the president's speech last night, that the costs of this war will continue to mount, at least through the end of the Bush presidency.