Wednesday night, George Bush seemed to play his last card in the Iraq war. It was not impressive. Consider.
First, he warned of the awful consequences of a U.S. defeat: "Radical Islamic extremism would grow ... in strength and gain new recruits. They would be in a better position to topple moderate governments, create chaos in the region and use oil revenues to fund their ambitions. Iran would be emboldened in its pursuit of nuclear weapons."
Bush then warned of the awful consequences of the Baker commission proposal to "announce the phased withdrawal of our combat forces." "(T)o step back now would force a collapse of the Iraqi government, tear the country apart and result in mass killings on an unimaginable scale."
Twin those two warnings, and what is Bush saying?
His critics favor a course in Iraq that risks the fall of Baghdad, Iraq torn apart, slaughter of our friends, a surge in Islamic terror, the toppling of moderate Arab states, chaos in the Gulf, billions in oil revenue flowing to al-Qaida killers and a nuclear Iran.
And how do we avert so monstrous a calamity?
A "surge" of 21,500 troops, 15 percent of the U.S. forces already in Iraq, to pacify the capital. And even that troop commitment is "not open-ended."
This is just not credible. For, if the situation is as dire as Bush says and the potential disaster as horrific as he describes, the logical course would be to treble the number of troops in Iraq and commit to fight indefinitely.
How explain the disconnect? Is Bush absurdly exaggerating the consequences of a pullout?
No. U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East are indeed at risk because of the hubristic folly of our political elite in putting them there, when they launched this insane war.
But Bush cannot now commit to fight to victory, because the war is lost in the United States. Two-thirds of the American people are unwilling to make the sacrifices to save Iraq. Though they do not want a defeat and may not realize the consequences of a defeat, they are willing to risk a defeat, rather than continue to read of American kids being IED'ed to death and dismemberment in Baghdad and Anbar. The people want out and are saying to hell with the consequences.
That is the political realty that underlay the president's modest proposal of a "surge" to avert what he warns is a strategic disaster.
But Bush has to know the card he played is not going to save the pot into which he has plunged his legacy, the credibility of his country and America's standing as a superpower.
Which leads me to believe Bush has yet another card to play, an ace up his sleeve. What might that be?
Midway through his speech, almost as an aside, Bush made a pointed accusation at and issued a direct threat to -- Tehran.
To defend the "territorial integrity" of Iraq and stabilize "the region in the face of extremist challenge," Bush interjected, "begins with addressing Iran and Syria."
"These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq. Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq."
Now, any networks providing "advanced weaponry and training" to jihadists and insurgents are outside Iraq. Otherwise, they would have been neutralized by air strikes already.
So, where are they? Answer: inside Syria and Iran. And Bush says we are going to "seek out and destroy" these networks.
Which suggests to this writer that, while the "surge" is modest, Bush has in mind a different kind of escalation -- widening the war by attacking the source of instability in the region: Tehran.
"I recently ordered the deployment of an additional carrier strike group to the region," said Bush. "We will deploy ... Patriot air defense systems to reassure our friends and allies."
But there is no need for more carrier-based fighter-bombers in Iraq. And the insurgents have no missiles against which anyone would need Patriot missiles to defend. You only need Patriots if your target country has missiles with which to retaliate against you.
What Bush signaled in the clear Wednesday is that air strikes on Iranian "networks" are being planned. That would produce an Iranian response. That response would trigger U.S. strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities, for which Israel and the neocons are howling.
And should this scenario play out, what would Hillary, Biden, Kerry, McCain, Giuliani, and even Pelosi and Obama do? Hail Bush as a Churchill. At first.
And Bush would have another legacy than a lost war in Iraq. Like Menachem Begin, only big-time, he would have his own Osirak.