Thursday, January 11, 2007

The new way forward is to kick the can

President Bush made it abundantly clear in his White House address last night that he intends to dump his Iraq disaster into the lap of his ’09 successor. The new way forward is actually Operation Kick the Can Down the Road.

By announcing to his dwindling Republican base that he is sending 20,000 more troops to help shore up what he persists in calling the “young democracy” – indeed, the Republican base was his intended TV audience, since relatively few others support him on Iraq anymore – Bush signaled that the expenditure of American blood and money will continue until the day that he packs up and moves out.

His basic prescription is for more of the same, on an open-ended basis. By sending more troops and insisting on better behavior from the young democracy, he hopes that the situation in Iraq will improve “over time.” He said that the young democracy needs more “breathing space” in order to succeed. He wants Americans to understand that “the year ahead will demand more patience, sacrifice and resolve.” (Given the fact that his overall handling of Iraq is supported at this point by roughly 25 percent of all Americans, it would appear that the majority’s patience is irreversibly exhausted.)

The most noteworthy aspects of his TV address were the things he omitted. He said nothing about how long those additional troops would stay in Iraq. He offered no evidence that the Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, would really take the crucial step of cracking down on the Shiite militias that are pivotal players in the sectarian civil war. All that Bush could offer us was Maliki’s “pledge” to do so (“Maliki has pledged that political or sectarian interference will not be tolerated”). Bush said at one point that we “will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced,” but he didn’t say how he would respond if Maliki spends the year dragging his feet.

Much of the speech was devoted to cut-and-paste passages from the past. He said that our “victory” in Iraq (what victory?) would not look like the kind of victory that “our fathers and grandfathers achieved. There will be no surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship.” But he’s used those lines many times before, notably in a speech back in December of 2004. Elsewhere, he extolled the building of democracy in Iraq – “the most realistic way to protect the American people is to provide a hopeful alternative to the hateful ideology of the enemy, by advancing liberty across a troubled region” – in words that seemingly had been lifted straight from the tattered neoconservative handbook. It’s debatable at this point whether the neo credo is broadly popular even within Bush’s Republican base.

Another passage was intended as a sign of Bush’s newfound humility: “Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me.” Some in the press reported last night that Bush had admitted making blunders. Actually, he didn’t. He was merely employing the politician’s time-honored shell game of using the passive voice (“mistakes have been made,” somewhere at some point by somebody unspecified), then manfully accepting “responsibility,” only because that’s where the buck stops. He went passive again a few minutes later: “Our past efforts to secure Baghdad failed…There were not enough Iraqi and American troops to secure neighborhoods that had been cleared of terrorists and insurgents.”

There were not enough American troops? Well, whose fault was that? Bush didn’t say. But we already know it was Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld – extolled recently by Bush’s vice president as the greatest defense secretary in history – who at the outset squelched the military brass who were urging more troops. Most notably Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army Chief of Staff, who did his urging up on Capitol Hill - and was subsequently nudged into early retirement.

Rhetorical passivity aside, one passage in the Bush speech was actually quite provocative. Consider this one, buried in paragraph 19: “Succeeding in Iraq also requires defending its territorial integrity and stabilizing the region in the face of extremist challenges. This begins with addressing Iran and Syria. These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq. Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We'll interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.”

That sounds like Bush is prepared to widen the U.S. commitment in Iraq and take on the neighbors (as opposed to talking to those selfsame neighbors, as recommended by James Baker’s Iraq Study Group). That passage might also be read as a provocation to the Democratic Congress; perhaps he is daring the Democrats to contest his constititional authority to widen the war. Considering the fact that roughly 70 percent of Americans now oppose Bush on Iraq (according to the latest Associated Press-Ipsos poll, conducted after his speech), it's at least clear that Bush, in his fealty to the "young democracy" abroad, appears to care little what most people think in the old democracy here at home.

Yet one does wonder whether he has the requisite fighting resources to do everything he apparently intends – or whether he is merely going to stretch the military even further, with no good results. It’s noteworthy that his 20,000-troop hike is actually only half of what the hawks at the American Enterprise Institute think tank originally recommended. Many military experts doubt that Bush’s number is remotely enough to help quell the Baghdad region violence (especially since, at any given moment, as many as 75 percent of those 20,000 soldiers are either sleeping, eating, or generally off duty). So, all told, a case can be made that Bush’s escalation is both too much and not enough.

No alternative proposals are emanating from the prospective GOP ’08 frontrunners. For the moment, Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani are echoing rival John McCain’s escalation endorsement. This makes sense, politically. Most of the voters who still back Bush on the war happen to be the same folks who can be expected to vote heavily in the ’08 presidential primaries, particularly in often-pivotal South Carolina. These three candidates know sticking with Bush now is a no-lose proposition: If the “surge” somehow works, they get kudos from the base for being so supportive in the president’s time of need; if the “surge” flops, they get kudos for giving a failed lame duck the benefit of the doubt.

(Although, interestingly, candidate Sam Brownback, the Kansas senator who is a religious-right favorite, declared yesterday that he opposes the “surge.” Politically, he might be betting that even the base is getting increasingly fed up.)

Some of Bush’s Republican allies on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, are discomfited at the moment. Those people have to run for office again in 2008. Norman Coleman, the Minnesota senator who is up for re-election in a blue state, assailed the Bush plan yesterday on the Senate floor. He is a barometer of moderate GOP sentiment, along with perhaps a dozen others, including Maine’s Olympia Snowe, Oregon’s Gordon Smith, and Ohio's George Voinovich (who today told Condoleezza Rice, "You're going to have to do a much better job" and said that Bush could no longer count on his support). These senators are ripe pickings for the majority Democrats, who are readying a non-binding resolution condemning Bush’s move, and who fully expect to split the GOP ranks and draw enough Republicans to further isolate Bush politically.

But that strategy is mere symbolism; Bush can theoretically kick the can down the road even if Gallup finds that his popularity has dwindled to Laura and his dog. Bush knows this, which helps explain why, in his speech last night, he threw down the gauntlet to the congressional Democrats. He argued that if U.S. troops are sent home, as “many” want him to do, the result would be “mass killings on an unimaginable scale.”

There are reports today that the Democrats, using the power of the purse, might seek to withhold “surge” money, or to attach conditions to such money. At the very least, beginning today, the Democrats will conduct investigatory committee hearings on the war - focusing on what comes next, and trying to get straight answers from this administration.

But, at the end of the day, and without letting Bush off the hook for the disaster that he has created, the Democrats, in the longer term, will still need to address the challenge that Bush posed last night: If the “surge” is a bad idea, and if staying in Iraq is a bad idea, are they prepared to simply wash their hands of the bloodbath that may well ensue?