WE NOW KNOW WHAT is far and away the top priority for George W. Bush in the final year of his presidency. It's not curbing earmarks or strengthening his No Child Left Behind education program. It's Iraq.
The president last night devoted nearly one quarter of his seventh and last State of the Union address to Iraq. This should have been no surprise since the decision to intervene in Iraq stands as his most important as president and is the one on which history will judge his years in the White House.
But in the 24 hours before the speech, the president's aides played up his initiative to cut congressional earmarks by half and eliminate those that haven't been specifically approved in spending bills. This effort is new, though Bush warned Congress against continuing the epidemic of earmarks in last year's address. And that's what usually interests the media--the new stuff.
But earmarks are of symbolic importance more than anything else. Yes, their tab runs to $15 billion or $16 billion a year, a fraction of overall spending. But they symbolize Congress's self-indulgence in packing the federal budget with dubious special projects for a House member's district or a senator's state.
Iraq is a much bigger deal, particularly in Bush's mind. In private meetings and public speeches, he often talks about the benefits of winning the war in Iraq and the consequences of defeat. And he spent time on both of those subjects last night in his nationally televised address to Congress. It lasted nearly one hour.
The president does not use the words "win" or "victory." To do so would inflame the opponents of the war in Iraq, mostly Democrats, and promise more than may actually be achieved by American forces and their Iraqi allies. This, at least, is what Bush has been told.
But winning is the president's one and only goal. When I interviewed him recently on his decision a year ago to send more troops to Iraq, he said he had never considered any strategy except one that would lead to victory. And he emphasized last night what this decision has produced.
"While the enemy is still dangerous and more work remains, the American and Iraqi surges have achieved results few of us could have imagined just one year ago," he said. The surges he spoke of include not only additional troops, but also a new strategy of protecting Iraqi citizens 24/7.
Bush compared conditions in Iraq "when we met last year" with conditions today: terrorist attacks down, civilian deaths down, sectarian killings down. Militias have been throttled and al Qaeda terrorists captured or killed by the thousands.
"Ladies and gentlemen, some may deny the surge is working, but among the terrorists there is no doubt," Bush said. "Al Qaeda is on the run in Iraq, and this enemy will be defeated." Now, progress means "the surge forces we sent to Iraq are beginning to come home."
Finally, the president urged Congress not to tamper with the success that's been accomplished in Iraq. "Members of Congress," he said, "having come so far and achieved so much, we must not allow" al Qaeda to recover and violence to increase again.
The president's stress on Iraq brought a mixed reaction from his congressional audience. Republicans cheered and Democrats often sat on their hands. This, too, was no surprise. Democrats have tried, unsuccessfully so far, to force Bush to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq or at least a timetable for doing so.
The speech was not one of Bush's greatest. It lacked memorable lines, and it was far less powerful than his speech to Congress nine days after the 9/11 attacks or his second inaugural address in 2005 that unveiled his "freedom agenda" of spreading democracy around the world.
But the speech had a bright moment or two. To those who've said they'd be willing to pay higher taxes--former President Bill Clinton is one--he said he had a special message: "I welcome their enthusiasm, and I am pleased to report that the IRS accepts both checks and money orders." Bush didn't offer any names of those he thinks should jump at this offer.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.