This was the week in which Americans hoped they would get straight talk and clear thinking on Iraq. What they got was two exhausting days of congressional testimony by the American military commander, hours of news conferences and interviews, clouds of cut-to-order statistics and a speech from the Oval Office – and none of it either straight or clear.
The White House insisted that President George W. Bush had consulted intensively with his generals and adapted to changing circumstances.
But no amount of smoke could obscure the truth: Bush has no strategy to end his disastrous war and no strategy for containing the chaos that he unleashed.
The speech he gave on Thursday night could have been given any day in the last four years – and was delivered a half-dozen times already. Despite Bush’s claim that he was offering a way for all Americans to “come together” on Iraq, he offered the same divisive policies – repackaged this time with the Orwellian slogan “return on success.”
Bush’s claim that things were going so well in Iraq that he could “accept” his generals’ recommendation for a “drawdown” of forces was a carnival barker’s come-on. The U.S. Army cannot sustain the 30,000 extra troops Bush sent to Iraq beyond mid-2008 without serious damage to its fighting ability. From the start, the president said that the increase would be temporary. That’s why he called it a “surge”.
Before he spoke, Iraq’s brutal reality had debunked the claims of political and military success made by General David Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the ambassador in Baghdad.
First, The New York Times reported that the only sliver of political progress – a tortuous compromise on sharing oil revenues – was evaporating. Then came news of the assassination of the Anbar tribal leader whose decision to fight alongside the Americans was cited by Bush as proof that the war’s tide was turning – even though it had nothing to do with the increase in forces.
Bush’s claims on Thursday night about how well the war is going are believable only if you use Pentagon numbers so obviously cooked that they call to mind the way Americans were duped into first supporting this war.
There will be a lot said in coming days about Bush’s “new strategy,” just as there was after each of his previous major addresses on the war. If there was a new strategy, it would be easy to recognize. Bush would drop the meaningless talk of victory and stop trying to sell Americans the fiction that the war keeps them safe from terrorism. (To his credit, Petraeus declined to adopt that bit of propaganda.) Instead, Bush would do what the vast majority of Americans want – plan an orderly withdrawal while doing what he can to mitigate the consequences of the war.
Bush was right when he said that the aftermath of withdrawal would be bloody and frightening, but that is a product of his invasion and his gross mismanagement of the aftermath. Bush’s endless insistence on staying the course will only make Iraq more bloody and frightening.
If Bush had a new strategy, he would have talked to the American people about what he would do to draw Iraq’s neighbors into a solution. Last January, when he announced the troop increase, Bush promised to “use America’s full diplomatic resources to rally support for Iraq from nations throughout the Middle East.” The world is still waiting.
A strategy for ending the war would include real efforts to hold Iraq’s government to verifiable measures of political conciliation – and make clear to Iraq’s leaders that they cannot count on America’s indefinite and unquestioning protection.
A real shift in strategy would have included an effort to deal with the massive problem of refugees. Nine months after the surge began, ever more Iraqis are being driven from their homes – and Bush never even mentioned them on Thursday night.
If Bush were serious about ending the war, rather than threatening Iran and Syria, he would make a serious effort to persuade them that they too have a lot to lose from a disintegrating Iraq. And he would enlist the help of the leaders of Britain, France and Germany for serious negotiations. Then, perhaps, Bush’s promise from January to stanch the flow of men and weapons into Iraq from Iran and Syria would not have sounded so hollow.
Once again, it is clear that Bush refuses to recognize the truth of his failure in Iraq and envisions a military commitment that has no end. Congress must use its powers to expose the truth and demand a real change in strategy. Democratic leaders, forever parsing polls, are backing away from proposals to impose a deadline for withdrawal and tinkering with small ideas that mostly sound like ways to enable the president’s strategy of delay.
The presidential candidates, as well, have a duty to take Iraq head-on. Some Democrats have started to talk in some detail about how they would end the war, but the burden is not just on the war critics.
Republicans like Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, who love to proclaim their support for the president and hide behind the troops, need to explain their vision as well. What do they think would constitute victory in Iraq, and how, precisely, do they intend to achieve it?
After all, it seems the burden of ending the war will fall to the next president. Bush was clear on Thursday night – as he was when he addressed the nation in January, in September of last year, the December before that and in April 2004 – that his only real plan is to confuse enough Americans and cow enough members of Congress to let him muddle along and saddle his successor with this war that should never have been started.