Op-Ed

The Dangers of Overconfidence

Ivo H. Daalder

A confident President Bush strode before the Congress and the nation last night and painted a picture of the world that was strangely rosy, given the many challenges America faces in Iraq, the Middle East, and around the globe. While State of the Union speeches are designed to boost national confidence and pride, Bush failed to prepare the nation and the world for the difficult steps that remain to fulfill the great goals he set out. The president may, in fact, be overconfident—with the result that the American people will not support him when the need is most apparent.

In sharp contrast to his previous post-9/11 appearances before Congress, Bush talked about the war on terror as if victory was close at hand. He spoke of the defensive efforts undertaken at home, and the success of his policies in countering terrorism abroad. A new department had been created, and many al Qaeda leaders had been killed and rounded up. In Iraq, which Bush once again depicted as the central front in the war, America and its allies were fighting terrorists and winning, “so we do not have to face them here at home.”

But while there have been successes in the war on terror, much remains to be done. Spending on homeland security remains dangerously inadequate—leaving our ports, chemical facilities, transportation systems, and critical infrastructure needlessly vulnerable to attack. Reform of the intelligence community remains a fact only on paper—more than two months have gone by without the president appointing the new intelligence czar everyone knows will be critical to that task. The Department of Homeland Security is such a dysfunctional agency that the entire top layer of management has resigned, giving a sense of all the smart people abandoning a sinking ship. As for confronting terrorists in Iraq, that effort is failing: despite killing or capturing 15,000 insurgents in 2004, the number of fighters increased from 5,000 to 20,000 over the same period.

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A similar disjunction characterized Bush’s remarks on Iraq. The president talked about Iraq as if there, too, victory was around the corner. The large turnout of Kurdish and Shiite Iraqis in last Sunday’s election was proof that the Iraqi people wanted their country to be democratic. The only thing left was to train Iraqi security forces—and once that task was accomplished we would leave a prosperous, democratic, and peaceful country behind.

Would that it were so easy. While the vote was a remarkable demonstration of Iraqi spirit, one election does not a democracy make. Most of the critical work still remains. The central question of who rules who, when, how, and for what length of time is yet to be settled. The vote also did nothing to end the violence, but the president said not a word about the long, hard slog that still lies ahead. The costs to date—10,000 American casualties and more than $200 billion in taxpayers’ money, to say nothing of the Iraqis killed and maimed—are only a beginning if we stay the present course. Yet, in painting such a rosy picture, Bush risks the danger of people concluding that with things going so well in Iraq, the time for the troops to come home is now.

The president’s confidence even extended to the ultimate goal of “ending tyranny in our world.” There was a notable twist to that more general commitment, though. Bush made clear that America would work to advance freedom in the Middle East, but he was silent about the need for democracy in other parts of the world. Even within the Middle East, he was far more emphatic about the need for democracy in Syria and Iran than for its advance in Saudi Arabia or Egypt—both of which he exhorted to do more in language no different than that he first used 16 months ago.

Missing from all this was any sense of what America should do to advance the cause of freedom. What price would Cairo or Riyadh have to pay if they did not follow the course Bush counseled? What help will America extend those who seek to overcome their oppressors? Bush did not say. Nor is it clear he thought through what we might do if the oppressed decided to rise up—as he called upon the Iranian people to do. Could it be that the Iranians in 2005 will discover what the Hungarians discovered in 1956, the Czechs in 1968, and the Iraqi Kurds and Shiites in 1991—that America exhorts people to throw off the yoke of oppression only to let down those who respond to its pleas? And if this time is different, what exactly is Bush proposing America be prepared to do?

Much difficult and hard work remains to be done to defeat the terrorists, win in Iraq, and advance democracy in the world—but you wouldn’t know it by listening to the president speak. Once again, Bush failed to prepare the American people for the sacrifices they will have to make to achieve any of these objectives. And that is where the real danger lies—for when the costs of the effort come due it isn’t clear that the American people will be prepared to pay.

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