WASHINGTON -- The commander in chief's surprise Labor Day visit to Iraq has buoyed our troops, reassured an anxious ally and confounded America's adversaries in radical Islam. Whether the president's on-site evaluation will change the political dynamic in Washington or alter the behavior of Iraq's neighbors remains to be seen.
For several months now, this column has urged President Bush to put Iraq on his travel itinerary. This week's six-hour visit to the front -- his third since U.S. troops entered Mesopotamia in March 2003 -- is particularly important to the upcoming congressional debate on the future of our commitment to a stable and independent Iraq. His trip comes just one week before the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, are scheduled to testify before Congress with their assessments of the war effort thus far.
The venue Bush chose for his on-scene evaluation is also important. Al Asad Air Base in western Al Anbar is the headquarters for the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force, the 3rd Marine Air Wing and home to the Iraqi Border Patrol Academy. It's also the largest coalition facility in a province that just a year ago was written off as un-winnable by most of the so-called mainstream media, political opponents of U.S. policy, and even some in our military.
Just one year ago, a classified Pentagon intelligence assessment leaked to The Washington Post reportedly stated that "the prospects for securing the country's western Anbar province are dim and that there is almost nothing the U.S. military can do to improve the political and social situation there." The paper went on to quote anonymous analysts who maintained that Iraqi government institutions were totally dysfunctional and that al Qaeda had filled the void, becoming "the province's most significant political force." Now, Bush has seen for himself what we have been reporting on FOX News since last December -- that Al Anbar, the heart of Sunni Iraq, is a model for what the rest of the country can become.
Five of my eight trips to cover U.S. troops in Iraq have begun and ended at Al Asad. And most of my in-country time has been spent in Al Anbar -- much of it in Ramadi, the once-tumultuous provincial capital that had been an al Qaeda stronghold. Last December, I spent days with the same Sunni leaders Bush met last Monday. I came away from those meetings convinced -- as the president now seems to be -- that sectarian rivalries can be overcome and security restored in places previously thought to be hopeless.
After meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Al Anbar provincial government leaders, Sunni tribal sheiks and U.S. officials, President Bush summed up his impressions for the 7,000 U.S. Marines and sailors and 3,000 U.S. soldiers at the base: "You see Sunnis who once fought side by side with al Qaeda against coalition troops now fighting side by side with coalition troops against al Qaeda. Anbar is a huge province. It was once written off as lost. It is now one of the safest places in Iraq."
It was evident that Bush was most at ease with the troops he commands. He bantered with them, asked pointed questions, listened to their answers, posed for photos with them and signed dozens of autographs.
Marine Capt. Lee Hemming, a Cobra gunship pilot, told his ultimate boss that stateside rotations were too short and putting a strain on military families. The captain also proffered that because Iraqi security forces were doing the job in Al Anbar's urban areas, he and his fellow Americans were able to focus on hunting down bad guys in the desert. When Bush asked about morale, the young officer replied, to the undoubted relief of senior commanders: "Very high, sir."
In addressing the troops directly, Bush used the occasion to rebuke his critics in Washington, telling the assembled ranks: "Because of your hard work, because of your bravery and sacrifice, you are denying al Qaeda a safe haven from which to plot and plan and carry out attacks against the United States of America. What you're doing here is making this country safer, and I thank you for your hard work."
The troops in Iraq may have been heartened by the president's words, but Democrats in Washington weren't. Air Force One was barely off the Al Asad runway before Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's spokesman, Jim Manley, released a petulant rebuttal: "Every objective assessment has shown the president's flawed Iraq strategy is failing to deliver what it was supposed to: a political solution for Iraq . . . . it is time Republicans recognize the reality on the ground, stand up to President Bush and help Democrats bring a responsible end to the war."
The bravery and sacrifice of the young American volunteers who. Bush visited are irrefutable. Their success in Iraq's largest province is evident to any who care to see it. Whether these factors will elicit continued support from a majority in Congress is now the paramount issue. Unfortunately, winning over Democrats may prove to be more difficult than defeating al Qaeda in Al Anbar.