Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

Rarely can a presidential speechwriter have faced a greater challenge
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The Independent Online

The art of presidential speechwriters is a testing one. But since Richard Nixon resigned over Watergate, has this unsung breed faced a greater challenge than composing the address George Bush is about to deliver on Iraq?

Gerald Ford's announcement of a pardon for Nixon comes close, I suppose, as do Bill Clinton's efforts to explain away his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky. But not since Vietnam has a President with an approval rating of barely 30 per cent been forced to contemplate expanding a war of which two-thirds of the country disapproves - including his Democratic opponents, who now control the Congress, which controls the purse-strings of that war.

That, however, is probably what Mr Bush will be doing on Wednesday night. Every sign is that he will announce a "surge" in US forces of between 10,000 and 20,000, even though many of his top commanders oppose the idea - and even though, when it ejected the Republicans in November, the country was signalling it wanted not more, but fewer troops in Iraq, preferably none.

I've no idea who came up with "surge", but the word is a small triumph of the speechwriter's art. This new military usage avoids the term "escalation" so evocative of the morass in Vietnam, to which Iraq bears a depressing similarity. Look up "surge" in the dictionary, and one definition is a "rapid increase over a short period".

Thus the President will convey the message that this is not an open-ended escalation, à la Vietnam, but a finite venture. Whether or not he uses the loaded word "victory", a surge implies precisely that. For surely surges, whether electrical or tidal, tend to swamp everything in their path - exactly what he will seek to convince his profoundly sceptical audience is going to happen in Baghdad and Anbar province, where the extra troops will be sent.

But it will be a desperately tough sell, and to see his drawn, tired face these days, you realise Mr Bush is under no illusions about his task. This is the toughest moment of his political career. If he takes the course everyone expects (though at the time of writing his aides were insisting he had not made a final decision), this leader, whose image depends on the projection of certainty, is taking the biggest gamble of his career.

The safer option would be to do what the public wants, and what any skilled gambler learns to do on occasion - to throw in his hand and cut his losses. But this President is doubling up, betting that by pushing another pile of chips on to the table he can prevail. True, a few want him to push out not one but several piles of chips - among them John McCain, early favourite for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, who warned on Friday that any "surge" (yes, that word again) "has to be significant and sustained. Otherwise do not do it".

But Mr McCain is a voice in the wilderness. Most people, including many of his fellow senior Republicans, believe that with Iraq descending into civil war, any increase now would be too little, too late, with no likelihood the Iraqis would be more able to secure their country when the additional American forces left than they are now. And when would US troops leave? Even centrist Democrats say they will only entertain the notion of a "surge" if Mr Bush combines it with the outline of a timetable for withdrawal, starting in four to six months at the latest. But that, he has vowed repeatedly, he will never do.

Even the self-styled "Decider", though, has shown signs of wavering as the sheer immensity of his gamble dawns on him. Consider the genesis of Wednesday's speech. Essentially, it was forced upon Mr Bush by December's report by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, under his father's old secretary of state, James Baker. The ISG banished any remaining illusion that Iraq was anything but a disaster. The President had to respond to this devastating, impartial verdict on his war. But he waited - and boxed himself in.

Had he spoken before Christmas, as initially planned, the pressure would have been less, with Congress still in Republican hands. Instead expectations have been allowed to rise, and the Democrats have had time to dig their trenches. The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, and the House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, the new masters of Capitol Hill, fired a warning shot on Friday, telling Mr Bush a "surge" would be a terrible mistake. The day after the President is scheduled to address the country, Condoleezza Rice will be grilled by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, kicking off three weeks of hearings at which the "New Way Forward" in Iraq will be front and centre, and no play on words will save the day.

Mr Bush's speechwriters have woven beautiful words for him in the past. But Wednesday is shaping up as a speech too far.

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