Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Will Bush listen to inconvenient truths?

Everybody seems to be blasting feathers off the lame duck.

For starters, the American electorate, infuriated by the debacle in Iraq, took aim at President Bush four weeks ago today and delivered a decisive no-confidence verdict. Then Robert Gates, the next Defense secretary, auditioned for his new job yesterday on Capitol Hill by (a) flatly contradicting Bush’s Pollyanna spin on the war, and (b) frankly acknowledging the long string of Bush war team blunders.

And now, today, we have the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group (full text found here), which is really an attempt by some grown-ups in the Washington establishment to pierce the Decider’s protective bubble and offer some reality-based advice - even at the risk of telling him some inconvenient truths that, even now, he may not not want to hear. Indeed, the big story in the days and weeks ahead is whether Bush will welcome new thinking, or simply take refuge in his old certitudes.

He was talking a new game at the White House this morning; one line was particularly amusing: “The country, in my judgment, is tired of pure political bickering that happens in Washington, and they understand that on this important issue of war and peace, it is best for our country to work together.” It’s good that he feels that way, since so much of the “pure political bickering” on the issue of war and peace was fostered by the Bush administration, which, this past summer, was still suggesting that those who opposed the White House approach to Iraq were defeatists and appeasers.

Anyway, this morning he lauded the Iraq Study Group for floating “some really very interesting proposals,” which, in translation, means that he of course reserves the right to reject whatever he doesn’t like. And there is plenty of stuff that he won’t like, starting with the recommendation that he bulk up on the diplomatic front by initiating “new and enhanced” efforts to negotiate with the evil-doers in Iran and Syria; and that he establish a goal of phasing out most U.S. combat troops by early 2008, barely a year from now.

Regarding the latter recommendation, it sounds a lot like cut-and-walk; in the words of the Study Group’s executive summary, we need “a change in the primary mission…that will enable the United States to begin to move its combat forces out of Iraq responsibly.” This sounds suspiciously like a prescription for a graceful exit; the problem, however, is that the man who constitutionally remains commander-in-chief until January 2009 signaled last week that he rejects the idea of any graceful exit.

Politicians in Washington have long hoped that the Study Group, headed by ex-Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton and ex-Secretary of State James Baker (a senior George Bush insider who is trying to clean up the son’s mess), would somehow conjure some magical solutions for Iraq. Clearly that hasn’t happened, largely because the White House’s neoconservative dream has devolved into such a nightmare. At this point in the spreading civil war, it is fanciful to believe that any magic can be conjured by anyone in Washington, because Washington is not in control of events on the ground in Iraq.

Hence the humble tone in the Study Group’s executive summary; referring to its own recommendations, it says: “All have flaws…There is no magic formula to solve the problems of Iraq.” Hence the carefully hedged remarks in the report, which says, for example, that combat troops should be phased out, but not in accordance with any timeline. In the words of Andrew Bacevich, a national security expert and retired Army lieutenant colonel, almost any recommendations at this point would be “laughably inadequate….One might as well spit on a bonfire.”

The Study Group recommendations, most of which have been leaked in recent weeks, have already drawn fire from both the left and right. Antiwar liberals are attacking the report for recommending a long-term (albeit reduced) U.S. military presence in Iraq, while the unrepentant hawks on the right are ridiculing Baker and Hamilton for suggesting that, in the interests of stabilizing Iraq, Bush should negotiate with Iran and Syria, both of which are members of the “axis of evil.”

Nevertheless, most Americans are hungry for new thinking; in the latest Harris poll, only 26 percent (a record low) support Bush’s handling of the war. This suggests that Baker and Hamilton have the upper hand, politically speaking, in their efforts to talk sense to the president. Basically, these Washington establishment figures see wisdom in phasing out the U.S. combat role and stressing diplomatic initiatives - and those stances are endorsed by most Americans and by most congressional Democrats. The risk for Bush is that, if he rejects these ideas and retreats to his bubble, many of his fellow Republicans, fearful of an ’08 defeat, might bail out as well, leaving him increasingly isolated – and with his international credibility further diminished.

Baker and Hamilton, despite their hedged prose, have thrown down the gauntlet to Bush. There is a clear warning in the executive summary that he should not simply cherry pick the recommendations that he likes while spurning the stuff he doesn’t want to hear. Baker and Hamilton flatly contend that we can’t salvage the Iraq disaster unless Bush accepts their advice on all fronts: “(These) recommendations….are comprehensive and need to be implemented in a coordinated fashion. They should not be separated or carried out in isolation.”

One wonders how Robert Gates, the next Pentagon chief, will react if Bush defies the Baker-Hamilton suggestions and sinks further into the desert sands. As evidenced by Gates’ statements yesterday to the Senate Armed Services Committee, he now officially on record as an open critic of Bush’s war stewardship and his rhetorical spin.

Asked whether we are winning in Iraq, Gates said, “No, sir,” which is a far cry from Bush’s October declaration that “absolutely, we are winning.” (Gates and the Study Group are in sync; Baker and Hamilton say the situation in Iraq is "grave and deteriorating.") Asked whether invading Iraq was a good idea in hindsight, Gates said, “That’s a judgment the historians are going to have to make,” which is a far cry from the Bush-Cheney contention that they made the right call in 2003 and still think so today.

He also said that we sent insufficient troops to stabilize the country after the invasion (a direct slap at his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld), and he said it was the wrong call to disband the Iraqi Army, a move that fueled the ranks of the Sunni insurgents. And he rebuked the neoconservative hawks who today think it might be a good idea to invade Iran, by deftly dumping on the prewar optimists of 2003: “I think that we have seen in Iraq that once war is unleashed, it becomes unpredictable.”

Back in the distant days when Bush was riding high, when cowed critics were deemed to be lacking in patriotism, this kind of candor by an aspiring Bush official would have been inconceivable. But we are in a different era now. The political test for Bush, as autumn turns to winter, is whether he recognizes that fundamental fact.