Bush Speech Leaves Germans, Iraqis Unimpressed

President Bush kicked off on Monday night his five-speech offensive to demonstrate to American voters (primarily) and also to the rest of the world that he has a plan for effectively handing off “sovereignty” to some native Iraqi administration at the end of June. That same day Britain and the US had tabled a proposed UN Security Council resolution which, if adopted in the proposed form, would leave occupation troops able to remain in Iraq indefinitely even as that native administration would supposedly be granted the “responsibility and authority to lead a sovereign Iraq.”

Coverage of the President’s speech in the German press generally found it less than fully convincing.

DECISIVE TWO MONTHS

Strangely, the on-line Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung by this point (Wednesday morning) still has not posted any direct coverage of the speech, although there is a good lead-up article to it from Washington correspondent Mattias Rüb. The President would certainly prefer to be making such a prime-time speech on the subject of the economy, Rüb noted, since it looks like American economic prospects have started to chug along nicely in 2004. Unfortunately, it looks like the President’s re-election is going to stand or fall on Iraq, and the important transition period over the next two months is likely to be decisive. That’s why the White House has chosen to go on the attack with this five-speech initiative, rather than continuing to react passively to events unfolding in the country, like Muqtada-al-Sadr’s Shiite revolt or the continuing prisoner-abuse revelations.

(Anyway, it turns out that it was not such a “prime-time” speech after all, as the four major American television networks choose not to air it. This we get not from any German newspaper, but from the Washington Post, specifically from that paper’s renowned television columnist Tom Shales, who goes on to mention that American viewers who didn’t fancy watching the President still had the choice open of watching “women in bikinis eat worms” on NBC’s “Fear Factor” program. Yes, I know I’m supposed to be bringing you the latest from the European non-English-language press, but sometimes there’s a telling detail available from elsewhere to add to the discussion that I can’t let pass by.)

Die Welt saw little new in the President’s speech other than his announcement that the notorious prison at Abu Ghraib – made notorious originally by Saddam Hussein and now also by American forces – would be torn down as soon as a more-humane replacement was built for it. (But from the Washington Post again: the President made this pledge without first consulting his paymasters in the Congress, and the necessary money ultimately might not be there. Indeed, Congress specifically rejected building an expensive new prison and tearing down the old in the recent past.) Little that is new, then, just mostly a reiteration of where we’re supposed to go from here. And that is: hand-over to the Iraqi administration on June 30, elections to an Iraqi parliament in January, 2005, approval of a new constitution later on in the Fall of that year, and finally a fully-constituted government by that year’s end – with no less than 138,000 US troops accompanying that process all the way, and indeed more than that if American generals think it necessary.

A MATTER OF PACKAGING

It’s Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung that is quickest off the ball to offer some real commentary on the President’s speech, despite its meagre new content. In one column, that newspaper’s Wolfgang Koydl calls the US President a Packaging-Artist. Drawing a lesson from the business world: “If a particular product isn’t selling, then the manufacturer has a choice, either to take it off the market or to take the same goods and at least offer them to customers in another, more-appealing package.” George W. Bush’s faulty product is of course his Iraq policy; another, presumably better one seems nowhere to be found, at least at short notice, so with his Monday-night speech he embarked upon the latter course.

“What most of his fellow countrymen would have really liked to hear from the President,” Koydl declares, “was a fixed date for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.” But he then goes on to note that, among all the flagging poll results for the American effort in Iraq, at least 60% of respondents still think that the US should not just withdraw on the run but should stay until the job is successfully done. So I guess Koydl means that the American people were really waiting to hear the date at which that job would be done; little wonder the President couldn’t provide that.

An accompanying editorial from one Dr. Andreas Oldag (America Seeks Counsel) takes satisfaction in the fact that the Bush administration is now heavily dependent upon UN action to help save the situation in Iraq – and so, for example, has submitted the latest draft resolution – where not so long ago the UN was dismissed as an unnecessary distraction. Still, that resolution has just been proposed, not adopted; and, remarkably enough, Dr. Oldag notes, the Security Council is once again dividing in reaction to it along lines familiar from the run-up to the War in Iraq itself. The US and UK stand together in proposing the resolution and trying to see it through to approval, awhile France, Russia, and China are already offering resistance. And what about Germany? Dr. Oldag merely states that the German government will not do anything about that proposed resolution until UN special representative to Iraq Lakhdar Brahimi delivers his report on the situation there.

WORD FROM THE IRAQI STREET

Berlin’s Der Tagesspiegel culls reaction to the President’s speech from on-the-ground in Iraq itself (Bush’s Plans Present Iraqis with Further Riddles). Says one Kurdish member of the Governing Council, Mahmut Othman: “If it [Bush’s plan] can be realized, it would be to the advantage of Iraqis after the power hand-over on 30 June.” But Othman seems here to be under the impression that Bush’s plan actually provides for Iraqi input – including the option of saying “no more!” – on the question of how long American troops can stay on after that point. Meanwhile, down on the true Iraqi street, we have opinions such as that of a merchant quoted in the Tagesspiegel article: “Everything that is happening serves the purpose of keeping us dependent on the Americans. They have two goals: Oil, and the protection of Israel.” Only slightly less troubling is the assertion from Abdul Aziz al Jaseri, general coordinator of the Iraqi Democratic Movement (a coalition of various political parties), that what is needed is a “strongman,” with a military background, presumably to take the country by the scruff of the neck and knock some sense and order into it. But no American-appointed strongman, mind you: “If the new government is named by the Americans, the security situation will just deteriorate further,” al Jaseri complains, presumably because that government will lack all legitimacy in the eyes of ordinary Iraqis.

Der Tagesspiegel also consults an authentic Iraqi newspaper editor, namely Ajad al Baldaui of “Al Mutamar” (the paper affiliated with Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, by the way). At the least, if al Baldaui’s words are any indication the Iraqi media will pay a bit more respect to President Bush’s speech than did the American television networks. “It will be the main story,” al Baldaui promises – “if no bomb explodes again somewhere.”

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