Monday, April 30, 2007

The latest from Iraq, four years after the end of "major combat operations"

On the eve of the four-year anniversary of President Bush’s Top Gun performance (when he declared that “major combat operations are over”), and before we hit a few Sunday show highlights, let’s take stock of the latest war news - connecting the dots, as it were:

In a bid to find a more flexible definition of “success,” the Bush administration is now cooking its death statistics by omitting all Iraqi civilian deaths caused by car bombs. This is a convenient omission, since much of the unceasing sectarian Sunni-vs.-Shiite violence is caused by car bombs; if you take the car-bomb death toll out of the stats, the Bush team can make it appear that the “surge” is succeeding better than it actually is. The president did try to explain the policy last Tuesday: “If the standard of success is no car bombings or suicide bombings, we have just handed those who commit suicide bombings a huge victory.” But for those of you who think and speak in English, allow me to consult my Orwellian-to-English dictionary and translate Bush’s remark: “If we tell the truth to the American people about the true level of violence, we embolden the terrorists, so we’re going to adjust the ‘standard of success’ to our liking.” Or something like that…

…Meanwhile, in another bid to redefine “success,” or at least to delay such a judgment, the Bush team is now signaling publicly that it doesn’t expect the Iraqi government to accomplish anything substantive until at least next autumn. The Bush team now says it doesn’t believe that President Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has the requisite clout to do any of the voluntary benchmarks that Bush suggested this past January in his State of the Union speech (such as concrete steps to Sunni-Shiite reconciliation). By the way, the Bush team has introduced a new word: “outputs.” That is defined as a sign of favorable activity, such as a willingness of the Iraqi Parliament to do some real work thus summer as opposed to taking its intended two-month break. But, as a Bush source explained over the weekend, “outputs” of favorable activity is not to be confused with “outcomes,” which is defined as the Iraqis actually accomplishing something (and thus perhaps easing the domestic political pressure on Bush)…

…Meanwhile, in a story that has been somewhat overlooked, the Bush team has signaled that the training of Iraqi troops is no longer the top priority of the U.S. mission. (Remember “as the Iraqis stand up, we’ll stand down”?) Apparently, conditions on the ground are so severe that our soldiers are needed just as much on the front lines; the military brass can’t afford to prioritize Iraqi training, because they’re too busy trying to stabilize the country. According to a McClatchy report, “Military planners have abandoned the idea that standing up Iraqi troops will enable American soldiers to start coming home soon and now believe that U.S. troops will have to defeat the insurgents and secure control of troubled provinces. Training Iraqi troops, which had been the cornerstone of the Bush administration's Iraq policy since 2005, has dropped in priority, officials in Baghdad and Washington said.” (Somehow, that doesn't seem to square with what Bush said on Jan. 10 of this year: "We will accelerate the training of Iraqi forces." But at this point, most Americans don't believe him anyway.)...

…Meanwhile, Pentagon inspectors said Friday that eight major reconstruction projects in Iraq, financed by the American taxpayer and previously declared by the Bush team to be successes, have in fact turned out to be duds. Stuart Bowen, the top Pentagon watchdog in charge of assessing the U.S. reconstruction program, has long suspected that many of the purported success were actually failures, and now says that “these first inspections indicate that the concerns that we and others have had about the Iraqis sustaining our investments in these projects are valid.” The significance of this story is that it demonstrates, again, how difficult it is for the press to report “good news” from Iraq, when even the successes turn out to be otherwise. Indeed, Bowen said that his inspectors can’t take a broader sampling of other reconstruction projects – because it’s unsafe to travel to the sites. (As I mentioned here recently, the congressional Republicans sought to eliminate Bowen’s job last autumn, back when they were still running Capitol Hill and serving as Bush’s enablers.)…

…And meanwhile, now we have another ex-insider, the former CIA chief George “Slam Dunk” Tenet, dishing in public at Bush’s expense, in part because he doesn’t appreciate the fact that he was scapegoated for the failures of his superiors. In his newly-released memoir (which also seeks to absolve himself of all blame for Iraq), he writes that the administration went to war without firm evidence that Saddam Hussein was a legitimate threat to America: “There was never a serious debate that I know of within the administration about the imminence of the Iraqi threat,” nor “was there ever a significant discussion” about whether there were valid alternatives to a U.S. invasion. (At this point, those observations are hardly earth-shaking.) Perhaps more importantly, he thinks the troop “surge” is probably doomed to fail: “It may have worked more than three years ago. My fear is that sectarian violence in Iraq has taken on a life of its own and that U.S. forces are becoming more and more irrelevant to the management of that violence.”

So, given all these dire developments, not to mention the fact (as I noted yesterday in my latest newspaper column) that Bush’s prosecution of the war is applauded at this point by only 27 percent of the American people, who do you suppose the Bush team tapped to go on the Sunday talk shows to plead the Decider’s case?

That would be Condoleezza Rice - the same person who sought to rally the public, during the run up to war, by intimating that unless we invaded Iraq, Saddam Hussein might hit us with a “mushroom cloud.” (To be more precise, she warned in January 2003 that “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”)

Anyway, she did a trifecta yesterday (CBS, ABC, CNN), and said of course that the boss won’t compromise with the Democratic Congress and accept any specific or general withdrawal timeline. But she went further. She also said he won’t agree to any attempts by Congress to write a law that punishes the Iraqis for failing to get their act together. That’s potentially significant, because even Republicans on Capitol Hill have signaled that they’d be open to language that puts teeth in the benchmarks.

And if any of those Republicans were hoping for some candor, forget it. Rice stayed in her old groove, repeating old falsehoods. For instance, she’s still insisting – against all evidence – that everybody screwed up during the prewar phase, that everybody believed that Hussein has WMD: “It was an intelligence problem worldwide. We all thought — including UN inspectors — that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”

Wrong again.

Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector has long stated that, during the prewar phase, he repeatedly told the State Department that the WMD evidence was slim or nonexistent. Also, the UN’s nuclear watchdog group, the International Atomic Energy Agency, was on record questioning the WMD claims as early as 2002. And there was this report, a month before the war, quoting UN weapons inspectors as being openly contemptuous of the American claims – specifically, that the WMD tips supplied by the Americans were “garbage after garbage after garbage.”

And today, in the wake of Rice's contention that we really shouldn't be putting too much pressure on the Iraqis, we even have a report that the Iraqi government has been firing some of its military commanders - because these commanders, in seeking to quell the sectarian violence, have been too aggressive in their efforts to quell the violent Shiite militias. Turns out, these violent Shiites are closely allied to Iraqi's Shiite government...

All told, it’s no wonder that so many elected Republicans are increasingly nervous about 2008, and contemplating the prospect of spending 2009 at a law firm or a K Street lobbying firm or a think tank. As one prominent donor-activist told me privately a week ago, “We just want the Bush people to go away, they’re killing us. But almost all of us are still too afraid to go on the record about it.”

Apparently David Brooks, the conservative New York Times columnist, is hearing the same thing. As he wrote yesterday (from behind the subscription wall), “On Capitol Hill, there is a strange passivity in Republican ranks. Republicans are privately disgusted with how President Bush has led their party and the nation, but they don’t publicly offer any alternatives. They just follow sullenly along….They are like people marching quietly to their doom.”