Sunday, January 14, 2007

Bush On Iraq: Nowhere Fast

I deliberately waited a while to write anything about Bush's latest "big speech" on Iraq, because it's generally more interesting to weigh reactions after the spin has died down and public opinion has begun to congeal. But I don't think there's any possible conclusion to reach other than that the whole Bush "new direction" has been a dismal and completely unnecessary flop.

The speech itself was most notable in that it did not even remotely live up to the White House's own advance billing. We were told Bush was finally and fully going to embrace the counter-insurgency strategy that so many military experts had been urging on him for at least a year. Instead, we got nothing on that front other than a ritual recitation of the barest bones of the strategy, the clear-hold-build formula (supplemented by a lame-o dollop of money to throw at unemployed Iraqis). We were told he'd admit the failure of his old policies. Instead, he allowed as how 2006 wasn't exactly a great year in Iraq.

I personally expected Bush to provide one "surprise," by announcing some token of a political breakthrough in Iraq--a "benchmark" actually met--such as an impending deal on distribution of oil revenues, but we didn't get that, either. And that's a reflection of Bush's weird and continuing inversion of the growing feeling in this country that we should withdraw sooner rather than later if Iraqis don't begin to live up to their own responsibilities for self-government. Bush is essentially saying we'll withdraw later rather than sooner--and maybe never withdraw--if they continue to polarize along sectarian lines. He's not stopping or preventing civil war; he's enabling it.

For that reason, the most bizarre feature of the speech was Bush's insistence that the whole "surge" was simply an effort to support an Iraqi government initiative to control violence in Baghdad and Anbar Province; indeed, he expressed great confidence that Maliki was finally biting the bullet and was willing to remove "restrictions" on troop operations that might involve conflict with Shi'a militias. But right up to the moment of the speech, Maliki's staff was out there constantly saying they didn't want or need more American troops. And if they said or did anything new to suggest a sudden willingness to mess with the Mahdi Army, it didn't make the news.

Add in the factor that the new troop deployments are not that large, and will take a while to execute, and you've got a formula for almost certain military and political failure. So why did Bush do this? And why all the hype?

You'd have to guess he seized upon the one vaguely new-sounding thing he could do that didn't cross the self-imposed line that has divided him from Democrats, from many Republicans, from the Iraq Study Group recommendations, from Iraqi public opinion, and from U.S. public opinion; he couldn't bring himself to begin withdrawing troops. He couldn't realistically get the troops he needed for the kind of big-time escalation that many on the Right favored, and that commanders in the field considered essential for an actual victory over insurgents and militias. So he went with a pallid proposal linked to overblown rhetoric.

I know a large and growing number of fellow progressive bloggers have seized on Bush's saber-rattling towards Iran and Syria, followed by several mysterious military maneuvers and one weird confrontation with Iranian embassy employees in Kurdistan, to suggest with alarm that the administration is about to deliberately widen the Iraq war by provoking Tehran and Damascus into armed conflict. I have a hard time believing that; where the hell is the Pentagon going to get the resources for a regional war?

But in any event, the pallid support levels, even among Republicans, for Bush's Iraq plan, could derail it even without even affirmative action by Congress to get in the way by, say, restricting funds. The pending "no confidence" resolution now in the works could effectively reinforce the clear judgment of voters in November.

UPDATE: On the crucial question of whether the Iraqi government is actually on board with Bush's escalation plan, here's disturbing blind quote from a generally pessimistic New York Times assessment of the plan published on Monday: “'We are implementing a strategy to embolden a government that is actually part of the problem,' said an American military official in Baghdad involved in talks over the plan. 'We are being played like a pawn.'”
-- Posted at 10:11 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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