Just a few weeks ago, the Bush administration and its diehard defenders were essentially singing See You in September – contending, in essence, that the American majority should squelch its antiwar fervor until the leaves begin to turn, because, by September, we will supposedly know how well the Surge is working, and how effectively the Iraqis are pursuing national reconciliation. September will be the critical month, they said, because that’s when General David Petraeus, their Iraq commander, is slated to provide Congress with an extensive “progress” report.
The congressional Republicans, anxious as always to fall into line despite their growing restiveness, dutifully took up the chant. House Minority Leader John Boehner said on May 6, “By the time we get to September, October, members are going to want to know how well this is working…” Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon said he and his colleagues hoped to get “a straight story” on the Surge “by September.” Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota (who, like Smith, is up for re-election next year) said ‘there is a sense that by September, you’ve got to see real action on the part of the Iraqis.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell invoked September last week, declaring “the handwriting is on the wall.” Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, appearing on CBS two days ago, went even further, arguing that “by September, when Gen. Petraeus is to make a report, I think most of the people in Congress believe, unless something extraordinary occurs, that we should be on the move to draw those Surge numbers down.”
Well, guess what: The military brass, along with various think tank warriors and media enablers, are already trying to weasel out of the September deadline.
It’s clear they already know that this disastrous war will hardly look different in September; hence the need to start low-balling expectations as early as possible. The aim, of course, will be to pre-spin September’s undoubtedly mixed results as an argument for giving the Bush team even more time to chase its ever-elusive dreams. Which means that September could be a tough month for those Republicans who have already promised to hang tough with Bush until then, but not necessarily beyond. Right now, they seem to think that Petraeus is going to provide them with political cover in September, but that’s likely to be merely another Iraq war delusion.
The low-ballers are working hard at the moment. Over at Fox News (of course), Brit Hume harrumphed the other day, “It’s out there in the public parlance about how September is the big month. Not helpful to the president’s cause, or to Gen. Petraeus’ efforts. You know, you’re not going to have all the troops on the ground until (June). And basically, they get the balance of the summer to fix the situation. Not realistic.” He was seconded by a Fox News military analyst, Lt. Col. Bob Maginiss: “I talked to a general yesterday over in Iraq, in Baghdad. He said, look, after September, there’s a lot to be done. And if all the momentum is going to stop right after Dave Petraeus reports to the Congress and to the president about our progress, then we’re in trouble. It’s going to take awhile.”
Petraeus himself has already signaled that “I don’t think we’ll have anything definitive in September,” and some of the scholar-hawks concur. Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote on May 22 that the fractious Iraqis probably won’t make much headway this summer on key internal reforms: “(W)e shouldn’t kid ourselves that even in the unlikely event that all these bills are approved in September, they will mark a turning point in the war. At best, they will give (Petraeus) and President Bush some signs of progress they can point to in arguing for more patience from the American public to giver the ‘surge’ a chance to work.”
Another prominent think-tanker, Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, is quoted today saying much the same thing. Having just returned from Iraq, where he conferred with U.S. military officials, Kagan says the September report by Petraeus will probably be a mixed bag, with scant evidence of any major political breakthroughs between Sunnis and Shiites in Baghdad: "I think the political progress will be mostly of (the) local variety."
And while the war’s enablers play lowball, the Bush team has made life even more difficult for its restive Republican allies, by refusing to spell out its criteria for progress. Ideally, if the White House would agree to provide some “metrics” (to borrow a Donald Rumsfeld word), the congressional GOP would then be able to determine in September whether Petraeus was succeeding or failing. But the White House won’t do that; as defense policy expert Stephen Biddle, an independent advisor to Petraeus, reportedly complained a few weeks ago, “By being unbelievably vague about everything, (Bush’s people) are making it very hard for congressmen and senators to go to their constituents and say, ‘Look, here’s why things are going better than you might imagine.’”
But it’s no mystery why the Bush team won’t establish any metrics: They don’t want to be held accountable in the event that the September report fails to meet those metrics. They figure that if they stick with vague criteria, they can most easily spin an ambiguous September report as proof that the Decider should be indulged even further.
Certainly, that would put the tentative Democrats squarely on the spot, but they don’t have the votes to force Bush to change course. They can only do that with the help of mass Republican defections. For those Republicans who are nervous about their ’08 re-election prospects, September will truly be decision time. The low-ballers have already made that abundantly clear.