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?