Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Setting the stage for the urge to surge

Operation Iraqi Freedom
Mission Accomplished
Stay the Course
Adapt to Win
Plan for Victory
New Way Forward

The first five slogans are inoperative. But tonight, in yet another allegedly pivotal speech on Iraq, President Bush will declare that the sixth slogan is now operative.

With scant seconds remaining on the game clock, and facing fourth down and 50 on his own five-yard line, Bush is determined to throw the ball deep and simply hope for the best. But at this point the odds are heavily stacked against an immaculate reception. (OK, that exhausts my ability to employ football metaphors. Everyone else seems to be using the poker analogy.)

It does take a fair amount of gumption to decree a new troop escalation, in the face of deep skepticism or outright opposition from, among others, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. John Abizaid, British ally Tony Blair, gung-ho conservatives like retired Lt. Col. Oliver North (“Sending more U.S. combat troops is simply sending more targets”), the majority of the people in red-state Utah, the majority of ’06 midterm election voters (who mistakenly assumed that their votes would sway the Decider), at least 10 Republican senators, and a landslide majority of the American people (who are currently telling pollsters that Bush is wrong).

Therefore, one cannot reasonably imagine how the president expects to achieve victory in the art of public persuasion. His spokesman Tony Snow said yesterday that Bush needs to “bring the public back to this war and restore public confidence in support for the mission,” but it’s hard to see how he can pull that off, given the fact that at this point most Americans either disbelieve his arguments, or have simply tuned him out.

And don’t just take my word for it. Read this verdict: “He has little credibility left on Iraq.” That’s the word from David Keene, veteran conservative Washington activist and the longtime chairman of the American Conservative Union.

Keene wonders whether the public will be receptive to Bush, given the fact that it “has heard too many different and conflicting reasons for our initial invasion.” (Such as the purported Saddam-al Qaeda connection, which was dismissed by the 9/11 Commission; and the purported weapons of mass destruction stockpile, which was disproved by factual reality.)

Keene is also asking himself “why dumping more young men and women into a disastrous mess will do anything but make it worse.” Indeed, lest we forget (or not even realize), Bush in the recent past has tried several troop “surges,” none of which have worked – primarily because his friend the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is closely allied to the top Shiite warlord in the ongoing sectarian civil war.

Those Americans who are still tuning in Bush might well be advised tonight to listen closely to his remarks about Maliki. It is clear that no last-ditch U.S. troop escalation can begin to turn the tide unless the so-called “unity government” in the “young democracy” demonstrates that it is truly willing to take serious political steps for peace. For this to happen, Maliki would have to take on his political benefactor, cleric Muqtada Sadr, who runs one of the most violent Shiite militias.

Is Maliki really willing to do this, after balking so often in the past? Has he communicated this to Bush? Can Bush persuade TV viewers tonight that, this time, things will really be different? And how can Bush assure us that the United States is now imposing strict “benchmarks” on Iraq, at the same time that he keeps insisting that Iraq is “a sovereign nation?”

There are other questions that Bush won’t address tonight. To wit: If this “surge” doesn’t work, what’s plan B? (Or, perhaps more accurately, Plan Z.) It would be valuable to know the answer, since it does not appear that Bush can be deterred from his chosen course of action, notwithstanding the thumbs-down verdict in the voting booth. The potential downside of being a Decider, acting in defiance of overwhelming public sentiment, is that he risks permanent imprisonment within the bubble of his own making.

And don’t just take my word for it. As conservative commentator Tod Lindberg said yesterday in the Washington Times, the Bush escalation plan is his “last stand," and “if it fails, there will be no one else to blame.”

I withhold the balance of my remarks until after Bush’s TV address tonight.